Running vs Stairmaster: Which is Best?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 28, 2022

With the constant development of new exercise machines, traditional outdoor running isn’t one of the only methods of aerobic training at our disposal anymore. Other ways of getting your cardio in like the treadmill, cross-training or the classic stairmaster are all perfectly effective within their respective fields.

However, this also raises several questions - most of which concern which type of aerobic exercise you should participate in.

In short, running is considerably higher impact and less predictable than the stairmaster, but also has a greater capacity for weight loss and sports-applicability. 

In turn, the stairmaster offers a constant rate of caloric expenditure while also providing some small amount of muscular stimulus.

Running - an Overview

running

When referring to running as an exercise, one must be careful to understand the distinction between outdoor running and treadmill running. While seemingly similar, outdoor running provides a number of environmental factors that are otherwise not present during treadmill running.

To put it simply, treadmill running will generally be easier and more predictable, while outdoor running will slow down the exerciser and otherwise have quite a number of variations that the exerciser will not be able to control for, such as weather or uneven surfaces.

For the purposes of simplicity, this article refers to outdoor running, as treadmill running can be considered an entirely different form of aerobic exercise.

Notable Features of Running

Running is arguably the most natural form of cardiovascular exercise available, and as such the vast majority of exercisers will find that it complements their own biomechanics quite well. 

Furthermore, few forms of aerobic exercise are as compatible with interval training methods as running itself. This places it in a unique position to be used in various forms of cross training or other training programs, all of which is a natural benefit of running’s high variability.

Benefits of Running

Running is a highly variable form of aerobic exercise, allowing it to be performed in whatever manner is most suitable for the exerciser themselves. This is especially true in comparison to the stairmaster, which will generally have an upper limit as to how high the intensity and tempo of its usage can be.

Reinforcing this particular advantage, running can also be done practically anywhere that there is a suitably long stretch of ground - making it far more accessible to those on vacation or without access to exercise machinery.

Disadvantages of Running

The most significant disadvantage of running is in the impact and pressure it places on the joints of the lower body, leading to a higher risk of chronic injuries and requiring that novice exercisers ease into running. This risk is not as present in other forms of aerobic exercise.

Apart from the impact of running, it is also far harder to customize in terms of resistance, requiring that exercisers turn to different forms of aerobic exercise if they wish to recreate the resistance of running at an incline or up a flight of stairs.

The Stairmaster - an Overview

stairmaster
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The term stairmaster refers to both the cardio machine that recreates the effects of stair climbing, and the exercise with which said machine is meant to facilitate. 

The stairmaster is somewhat of a mix between an aerobic and an anaerobic exercise, as each step of the stairmaster will require the exerciser to leverage their own bodyweight upwards, thereby trading in speed for resistance. 

Though this means that the stairmaster is somewhat less useful as a specific athletic training tool, it by far excels in terms of body recompositioning, resulting in muscular hypertrophy and significant caloric expenditure in a relatively short length of time.

Notable Features of the Stairmaster

The stairmaster’s most notable feature is in the convenience and efficiency with which it achieves the exerciser’s goals, providing both muscular training stimulus of the lower body and significant fat burning potential within a shorter length of time than running.

Furthermore, the majority of stairmaster machines can change the elevation of their steps and the speed with which these steps rotate, allowing exercisers to somewhat alter the machine’s intensity and tempo so as to fit their needs.

Benefits of the Stairmaster

Unlike in the case of running, the stairmaster is in fact quite low impact and does not subject the various joints of the body to any significant stress - allowing exercisers with a history of injury, or those yet unconditioned to the rigors of exercise to use the stairmaster without worry of significant discomfort.

In addition to this, the fact that the stairmaster involves what is practically a step-up exercise within its movement pattern can lead to the muscles of the calves, quadriceps, and glutes all being developed to a moderate extent.

For exercisers without previous resistance training of their lower body, this can lead to improvements in strength and size of said musculature.

Disadvantages of the Stairmaster

Due to the higher level of resistance and the very nature of the stairclimber itself, the upper limit of speed and cardiovascular training is somewhat lower than what one would encounter during other forms of aerobic exercise.

This higher level of resistance will, in turn, lead to more rapid muscular fatigue being accrued - making the stairmaster a poor training tool for marathon runners or other types of endurance athletes, whose cardiovascular system may not receive sufficient stimulus before the muscles of the legs give out.

Fat Burning Potential of Running and the Stairmaster

Though both running and the stairmaster are perfectly capable of burning fat through their usage, they are not exactly equal in this respect. However, it is not as simple as one form of exercise being superior over the other.

At a lower intensity or tempo, running will burn fewer calories than the stairmaster, as the latter form of exercise requires more energy per minute to perform than running. This equates to LISS practitioners or exercisers of older age benefiting better from the stairmaster instead.

However, due to the limiting nature of the stairmaster, it is running that surpasses the former exercise when performed at higher intensities. 

Due to the muscular recruitment of the stairmaster, as well as the fact that one cannot safely climb stairs as rapidly as they could if running, exercisers will find that far more calories are expended when performing running at near maximal effort.

To summarize this section of the article, it is the stairmaster that is better for fat loss at lower speeds, while running is superior for fat loss when at higher levels of intensity.

Cardiovascular Benefits of Running and the Stairmaster

When speaking purely in terms of cardiovascular development, running far surpasses the stairmaster - both for the purposes of athletic cardio and general aerobic exercise-related health benefits.

This is because of the fact that the stairmaster does not produce the same upper intensity and time under stress as running, making the latter the more effective choice for improving the function of the cardiovascular system.

For endurance athletes, individuals seeking a better resting heart rate or those wishing to control their blood pressure; running is far more suitable than the stairmaster.

Those with a history of heart or vascular issues should first consult a physician however, prior to attempting running as a method of aiding their condition.

Impact Differences of Running and the Stairmaster

Considering the length of time in which exercisers engage in aerobic exercise, managing the amount of stress placed on the tissues of the body is of vital importance.

Though the impact of running can be mitigated somewhat by avoiding particularly hard surfaces and wearing cushioned shoes, it is the stairmaster that is nonetheless superior in terms of protecting the joints and muscles of the exerciser.

As such, for individuals with a history of lower body injuries, or those who are particularly susceptible to developing chronic overuse conditions, avoiding running and instead choosing the stairmaster is the safer option.

Athletic Carryover of Running and the Stairmaster

A large number of exercisers will perform aerobic exercise so as to improve their athletic performance, with it already being an established fact that regular cardiovascular training can improve the muscular endurance, recovery time and reflexes of an individual.

Though the stairmaster does indeed provide some level of athletic carryover to certain sports, it is running (particularly outdoor running) that athletes will find to be the most useful during the course of their training.

This is because of the very nature of running, wherein the exerciser is free to up or lower the intensity as they wish, as well as adjust their running form to their own unique physiology. This is not so much the case with the stairmaster, which still requires the exerciser to climb stairs in the same motion.

In addition to these factors, running will allow for a greater length of time during each training session, as it places significantly less stress on the various muscle groups of the body.

Interval Training Applicability of Running and the Stairmaster

One of the most common applications of cardiovascular exercise is that of interval training, with the most frequently seen form of such training being that of HIIT. 

The majority of interval training programs will involve a period of sustained high intensity movement prior to a longer period of lower intensity, with the idea being that the exerciser will be capable of pushing themselves at a high level of intensity for a longer length of time due to the resting intervals between each phase.

While this is indeed an effective strategy for achieving a variety of different fitness goals, it is not compatible with every type of exercise out there.

Between running and the stairmaster, it is running that is far more applicable to interval training. The stairmaster, despite its effectiveness at other objectives, is otherwise difficult to reduce in intensity, and by its very nature cannot switch from one interval to another in short order.

In fact, running is so compatible with interval training that it has become nearly synonymous with HIIT or other high intensity interval training methods, further cementing the fact that running beats out the stairmaster in such matters.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is the Stairmaster Good for Fat Loss?

Yes - the majority of aerobic exercises are excellent for fat loss, and the stairmaster is no exception. 

For those pressed for time but nonetheless wish to burn several hundred calories in a short workout, there are few exercises as suitable as the stairmaster.

Why is Climbing Stairs Harder than Running?

In actuality, climbing stairs is not harder than running - it just uses a different form of physical endurance.

While running does not place as much mechanical demand on the muscles of the lower body, it nonetheless requires the entire cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen and other metabolic requirements in a fast and efficient manner.

This is not as needed with the stairmaster, where the muscles must rely on their built-in energy stores (glycogen) first, prior to utilizing other forms of metabolic energy, thereby exhausting said muscles at a more rapid pace.

Is Running Uphill Like the Stair Climber?

By several measures - yes, running at a steep incline is quite similar to stair climbers, and by extension, the stairmaster.

The most significant difference between the two is the extent to which particular muscle groups of the lower body are recruited to, and how much of the exerciser’s own body weight must be lifted per step. 

The stairmaster and other stair-climbing machines will generally recruit the glutes to a higher degree, while running uphill will recruit more of the anterior side of the calf muscles instead.

In Conclusion

And there you have it, the differences and similarities between running and using the stairmaster.

In short, the stairmaster is better for muscular “toning”, people who wish to avoid the impact of running, and those who wish to keep their workout intensity at a low to moderate level. 

Whereas running is the superior choice for high intensity workouts, athletic training or those seeking significant weight loss potential.

When combining either of these training methods with a proper diet and sufficient rest, you will doubtless find that your goals can be achieved - so long as the training method is in line with these goals as well.

References

1. Loy SF, Holland GJ, Mutton DL, Snow J, Vincent WJ, Hoffmann JJ, Shaw S. Effects of stair-climbing vs run training on treadmill and track running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1993 Nov;25(11):1275-8. PMID: 8289616.

2. Luketic, Ruth; Hunter, Gary R.; Feinstein, Carol. Comparison of StairMaster and Treadmill Heart Rates and Oxygen Uptakes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 1993 - Volume 7 - Issue 1 - p 34-38

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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