Mastering the Stairmaster

For those who have mountains on the mind, the stairmaster is a great way to train muscles and spirit.  But how to structure the training?  I see a lot of different styles at my local health club: people with earbuds dancing on the machines, others plodding along as they read the newspaper, some bent over almost horizontally as they hang from the handrails.


It occurred to me that the same principles of training might apply to climbing as well as running, so I turned for guidance to Daniels’ Running Formula, 3rd edition.

In this runner’s bible, Coach Jack Daniels broadly divides training into

  • easy runs
  • threshold runs
  • intervals, and
  • repetitions.

These workouts have different purposes, from boosting aerobic power to improving endurance and strength.

You should always be able to answer this very simple question: “What is the purpose of this workout?”

— Jack Daniels

Having refreshed myself on the Daniels formula, I headed off to the gym with two goals in mind.  First, I would climb at a “threshold” pace for twenty minutes.  The purpose of a threshold workout is to build endurance by teaching the body to deal with a demanding pace for a prolonged period of time.  Jack Daniels describes the threshold pace as an effort that you can sustain for at least twenty to thirty minutes but where you’re looking forward to the end.  For a trained runner, a threshold workout should be conducted at 88-90% of maximum heart rate, which corresponds to the point where the body is still clearing blood lactate (for me this would be 148-151 beats per minute based on my age-based predicted maximum heart rate of 168).  Threshold training would pay dividends when I was back out in the mountains, helping me sustain a faster pace up a long slope.

After the threshold workout, I would attempt some intervals, which coach Daniels defines as 3 to 5 minutes of fast-paced effort at close to maximum heart rate.  Here the goal is to strengthen aerobic power.  Last time I tried intervals on a stairmaster, my heart rate got up to about 150 beats per minute (88% of max) before I had to stop from discomfort, whereas running intervals on the track I’ve gotten up to 168 beats per minute.  It would appear there is room to improve here, and stronger aerobic power would no doubt help in the mountains, too.

And so, off to the gym I went.  The results of the stairmaster session are visible in the chart below, which shows heart rate in beats per minute.  Observations:

  • I took nearly fifteen minutes to get warmed up, starting out with the stairmaster on its lowest speed, then gradually ramping up
  • After a break, I completed the 20-minute threshold run keeping my heart rate pretty close to the targeted range.  Every 30 seconds during this run I’d check my heartbeat and adjust the stairmaster speed accordingly, and this routine also helped pass the time.
  • I ended with three intervals of 2 minutes each with the stairmaster on a faster speed which had me nearly running in place.  Heart rate ended up peaking at 171, which is above my age-based predicted maximum of 168, and close to my peak of 174 when racing the mile.


The improvement in peak heart rate shows I’ve made some progress mastering the stairmaster, but I haven’t fully mastered it.  If I use my actual max heart rate instead of the age-based formula, I should be running the threshold workout closer to 153-7 beats per minute.  As for the intervals, my legs were burning so badly I gave up after 2 minutes, but I should be running them for at least three to five minutes.  That burning session will go away with more practice, just like it did when I first started running intervals at the track.

If I apply myself to this training regimen, I’m confident I’ll move faster and easier through my next mountain adventure.

Smile some during every run you go on.

— Jack Daniels

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon! (Click on the image to check it out)


Mastering the Stairmaster

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