Some notes for beginners by Shaun Brassfield-Thorpe
1) Height of Step
This can be varied at different times during training but it is best to start fairly low and later (in subsequent sessions) to increase in height to add intensity (the higher the step, the harder work it is).
Rather than give an exact height I will try and explain this in relation to the body.
With an activity such as running, the highest one actually wishes to bring the knee is to form a right angle i.e. the knee pointing straight out from the body. This would be equivalent to running at considerable speed and represents a greater range of movement than would be employed by a long-distance runner (if you look at a sprinter you will realise they raise their knees higher than a marathon runner etc). While one may take the knee higher for the purposes of stretching etc it would be counter-productive to raise the knee higher than a right angle in actual running as this would mean that some of the motion is going upwards rather than forwards (which represents bad economy) – so applying this to stepping and assuming one is stepping to aid running training etc (not other activities which may employ different body positions) then the maximum useful height for the step would be whatever causes the knee of the front leg to be raised to approximately a right-angle. Above this one may still find stepping useful for overall leg-strength development etc but the motion would be less relevant to running specifically. Naturally the actual max height of a step is thus determined by the height, leg-length, active flexibility and leg-strength of the individual.
Although the comparison is not actually very accurate in some ways it may be useful to think of using a low step as mimicking a slower running pace and a high step as equating to sprinting (this is meant to be a metaphor only but you may see what I mean if you think of the height of the step as fulfiling the same basic function as the length of a stride in running).
In general terms, a step height of maybe 6 inches to 8 inches (15 to 20cms) is fine for either beginning training or for endurance training, although individuals with good flexibility, leg strength and stamina may be able to start higher.
The height can be increased as training continues as one way of increasing intensity without adding duration to the workout.
The other main ways of increasing intensity but not duration are
A) adding XL (Extra Load)
B) increasing pace/cadence
C) Increasing Stride Length
Given that the maximum height will vary between individuals, and bearing in mind that perhaps the best way of assessing this is simply to try differing heights, a “rule of thumb” for selecting a higher stepping height may be to choose a step that is around ones knee-height when standing next to it. Obviously this is only a guide but it may be useful as a baseline.
Altering your stride length (stepping closer to, or further away from, the step) is another way of altering intensity as well as changing the specific range of motion; for cross-training purposes it is therefore often best to select a stride length for stepping that mimics the range of motion involved in your chosen sport/activity and/or vary your stride length in order to cover multiple ranges of motion.
2) Stepping Method
There are numerous (if not an infinite) number of stepping patterns and rhythms one could employ during step training but not all of these are especially useful if one is training for an activity such as running, hill walking etc (e.g. side stepping, turning etc can be very useful in other sports).
When you have become familiar with step training there is really no reason not to create and adapt patterns of your own to keep your training fresh and more interesting but it is probably a good idea to start with something simple that can be repeated easily and more or less indefinitely.
A good basic pattern would be the following :
Stand in front of the step at a distance that allows you to step up easily.
Step up with one foot (I will start with the right in this description but as the pattern repeats it does not matter which foot you begin with).
You now have the right foot on the step and the left foot on the ground.
Bring the left foot up onto the step next to the right foot i.e. both feet are on the step.
Now step back with the left foot and place it on the ground.
You now have the right foot on the step and the left foot on the ground.
Bring the right foot onto the ground next to the left foot (as you began).
Now step with the left foot.
You now have the left foot on the step and the right foot on the ground.
Bring the right foot onto the step and place it next to the left foot.
You now have both feet on the step.
Return the right foot to the ground leaving the left foot on the step.
Now bring the right foot to the ground next to the left foot (as you began)
Repeat the sequence as above. This pattern (left and right sides as above) counts as 2 steps i.e. 2 x up-and-down with the body.
Here is a simple animation which may make the above description easier to understand
A quick note; as will become rapidly evident, the above stepping pattern is rather different to running. This can actually be an advantage as unlike running where one gets a 1-2 change over on the stride, with this stepping method each leg is forced to work for a longer load-period (1-2-2-1-1-2-2-1- etc), which may make running seem a little easier by comparison.
3) Muscular emphasis during stepping
At this stage there are 3 main possibilities of how you can step using this pattern :
a) using roughly equal emphasis on both the front and rear legs
b) emphasising the front leg to lift the body while the back leg is simply drawn up onto the step
c) emphasing the rear leg to push off the ground to bring the rear leg up onto the step (using less force with the front leg).
All of these are useful and applicable; I would suggest initially not emphasising the action of either leg and just concentrating on the motion of stepping generally. Later, when one has the stepping pattern ingrained and does not need to think about this at all, it can be useful to switch between a few minutes of front-leg emphasis and a few minutes of rear-leg emphasis.
4) Learning to step effectively
Before one considers adding XL, increasing tempo or height etc, one first has to become very familiar with the basic exercise itself.
Do not be tempted to rush things too much, even if the training seems easy. Stepping may highlight weaker areas of your anatomy, especially during the first few sessions of training, but you may not notice the effect while training, you may just feel things over the next day or two.
If you don’t or no longer feel any special effects during or after stepping then it may be time to add XL etc, but if you do it too quickly you may still complete a stepping session perfectly well but leave yourself too stiff or tired for training the next day (which would obviously be undesirable).
If you are warmed-up then the upward phase of stepping can be performed as quickly as is comfortable for you (bear in mind that faster movements will become more tiring with repetition). However, at least for the first few sessions, make a point of stepping down backwards relatively slowly. In reality, the speed of the motion is not the issue, the important point is that you should be stepping off the platform fairly gently and with good control, not allowing your bodyweight to crash downwards which could cause strain on joints and tendons.
A good training method (which also applies to running) is to try to make your steps / footfalls virtually silent. Unless you are using shoes on a wooden floor or similar surface (which will amplify the noise of your steps), if you are producing loud slapping sounds with your feet then you are probably stepping up or down with too much force – which at best wastes energy and at worse can cause strain and impact damage.
In early training especially (but in reality always) try to keep your stepping movement smooth and controlled at all times. If you can step with a fluid action, good posture and good balance then it may be possible to add either speed or height or XL. But if your stepping is jerky, ragged, wobbly or in any way uncontrolled then adding XL, greater height or faster pace would be a very bad idea – very much like “trying to run before you can walk”.
When you begin stepping you will probably find the first few minutes fairly easy. Control your pace at this point rather than speeding up as it can be a long way until the end of the session – just like activities such as running, pace judgment with stepping is important and you should initially aim to complete a training session at a fairly constant tempo before attempting to try any more advanced methods.
5) Footwear and training surface
You don’t usually need to wear any special footwear for stepping as long as your trainers / shoes etc give adequate support (or one could train barefoot). However it is a good idea, in the early stages at least, to step down onto a surface that isn’t too hard as it may take a little while to learn to step downwards and backwards “softly” while controlling bodyweight (especially with XL).
6) Cadence / Step Rate
At this point do not worry about attempting to set a specific cadence (number of steps / reps per minute etc).
In all probability, this will determine itself through practice at whatever will be your (current) optimal level. However, do try to keep the tempo / cadence constant in early training (later on one may do intervals of faster stepping then slower to recover etc).
While stepping will almost certainly raise your heart rate, increase breath rate and make you hot and sweaty, you should aim not to allow yourself to become out of breath or quickly exhausted, even if this means reducing the work-rate a little.
Becoming exhausted during exercise often leads to a deterioration of form and posture – this should be avoided at all costs.
When a person is acclimatised to an exercise it is then possible for them to push themselves harder while maintaining good from, posture and breath, but it is extremely difficult to keep good form etc when pushing ones limits while trying to learn an exercise.
Get the form right and fitness improvement will follow.
Aim for a harder workout at the expense of good form and you are heading for disaster.
7) Muscular, Cardiovascular and Aerobic Fatigue
Step training can be hard work – which is often why we suggest it. It is a taxing exercise which works the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and places a considerable amount of strain on the core (including the lower back) as well as almost all areas of the legs (quads, calves, hamstrings etc). Exactly where any individual may feel the strain of the exercise will of course depend upon their general fitness levels and also upon any specific training they have or have not undertaken previously.
For example, a runner who is used to running on a level track may not feel a huge effect in the legs generally but may feel (during or after stepping) that they have worked their front hip-flexors or lower back a good deal; someone with a history of heavy weight training may not find that stepping requires much strength (e.g. when compared to squats) but may rapidly tire due to the number of repetitions; a person with currently relatively weak leg strength may feel much of the effect in the quads or hamstrings due to the lifting and lowering involved, while another person may simply find the cardiovascular / aerobic effort a challenge – and so on.
In all cases, if muscular strength or cardiovascular or respiratory fitness appears to be limiting performance then the best advice is just to train sensibly e.g. reduce the tempo or pause for a short rest and then continue.
8) Use of XL (Extra Load)
Stepping works very well with XL – but added load should be introduced carefully. This is not only because XL will make the exercise harder / more intense (which is true of any exercise) but also because stepping involves a balance component.
If XL is added more quickly than the body can adapt to the change of balance that this can cause then the person is liable to misjudge or mistime their stepping, especially when stepping backwards.
Care should be taken to ensure that XL does not adversely effect balance (e.g. distribute weight evenly around the body not just placing it on the back – try a mixture of weight vest, holding dumbbells, weighted belt, ankle or wrist weights etc).
Ankle weights are generally fine for use with stepping as this is a relatively low-impact exercise but special care must be taken when stepping off the platform not to allow extra weight (where ever it is carried) to cause feet to crash into the ground. Always try to step lightly and silently.
Also remember that balance is less effected if XL is carried near the centre of gravity (e.g. close to or just above the waist). XL placed high on the back may not greatly effect balance on a flat surface but can cause notable instability when going up or down hill – or in exercises such as stepping.
Carrying light dumbbells can be useful if you want to greatly increase the cardiovascular effects of stepping and/or work the upper body at the same time e.g. try doing dumbbell “biceps curls”, “hammer-curls”, “reverse-curls” or “flies” while stepping. Again, a few minutes is no problem – half an hour is another matter…. but naturally one can do e.g. X-many reps then return to normal stepping just holding the dumbbells, then repeat (and so on).
9) Metabolic effects
Stepping can burn off a lot of calories both during and after exercise (through raised metabolic rate). Adding XL obviously enhances this aspect even more. While naturally the effects will vary with the individual (due to not only bodyweight but body composition, basal metabolic rate etc etc) stepping is one of the more demanding forms of cardiovascular exercise e.g. a person weighing 10st / 140lbs / 56kg who uses a step 12 inches / 30cms in height and steps at a rate of 30 steps per minute (defining one complete step cycle as being 1 up-and-down rep of the pattern for stepping given above) will typically burn off an average of 150 calories (gross) per 15 mins or 600 calories per hr. Naturally, increasing the height of the step, the number of steps per minute and/or adding XL increases this effect (often very considerably).
Aside from simply keeping good balance it is important to retain good overall posture when stepping (although this is true of any form of exercise).
Many people will find that when stepping they may have a tendency to lean forward as they raise their front leg onto the step. Try to avoid or at least minimise this and instead try to keep the core and trunk as naturally upright as possible. Don’t over do this (you don’t have to pretend you have an iron rod through your body) but do make a point of holding your spine in a natural, good alignment; you should be virtually as “upright” when stepping as you are when standing, walking or running.
Leaning excessively forward places additional strain on the core, including the lower back, and this is undesirable in this form of repetitive exercise. In addition, a forward lean can cause minor compression of the lungs and heart; while not in itself “serious” this typically has an adverse effect on the use of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and “leaning” in this way should be avoided. While “leaning” is perhaps more of a natural tendency when stepping, it is worth remembering that good running or walking form also requires a relatively upright position and that all leaning should come from the ankle NOT the hip.
Effective goal setting means defining specific aims and targets that are
1) (with time and effort) actually Attainable
2) Clearly Identified
3) In some way Measurable
Think of this as AIM –
Attainable – Identified – Measurable
– and ask yourself if your goal meets these criteria?
For example, being able to run for 50 miles, or to run a half-marathon in 2hrs 30 mins are examples of effective, clearly defined goals.
I) They are attainable if you practice long enough and hard enough.
II) They are clearly identified not simply a vague desire to improve.
III) They can be measured allowing you to know if you are improving, if you are getting closer to achieving your goal, and/or when you have achieved/surpassed the goal.
Examples of poorly defined – and thus less effective – goals would be things like “getting fitter” (How will you determine if you are fitter?) or “running faster” (At what speed and under what conditions? For how long? Over what distance?) – etc. These are poorly defined and thus ineffective goals – they do not allow for an easy way to measure progress or define success in achieving the goal.
Defining goals is the most important first step.
Having defined your goals, training can then be planned by determining what you need to do in training in order to achieve your goals.
Having clear goals then also helps keep you motivated and focused during training.
Effective goal setting usually means the goal should contain a measurable element.
Running a specific distance is something that can be measured.
Lifting a specific weight is something that can be measured.
Achieving a specific speed or time is something that can be measured.
If a goal itself is measurable this means that progress towards a goal can also be measured.
If you wish to be able to run 26 miles and at present you can manage to run 10 miles, then if in training you develop the ability to run 15 miles you are improving and moving closer to achieving your goal.
Having a poorly defined goal does not allow easily measurable and quantifiable progress; if your goal was to “run further” would being able to run 15 miles mean you have already achieved your goal, or that you still have a long way to go? How far is far?Is you current performance a small improvement or a huge improvement?
Clearly defining your goals allows suitable training to be chosen and it allows you to measure your progress (and thus tell if the training is working).
This is really a good motto for anyone seriously intending to improve their performance in either training or an event.
But how do you know what is Good, what is Better and what is Best in relation to your own performance?
First you have to record your performance on a regular basis.
Then you have to actually understand what your specific performance means.
And then you can set about meaningfully improving on your current personal best.
Let’s look at this a little more closely.
First, if you are not already doing so, you should get into the habit of recording your training in a training diary and recording your performance in events and competitions (for example in the form of a race report or an equivalent for your sport).
Secondly you should make an easy to read list of your current and all-time PBs. This may sound very simple, but there can be more to the question “Is this a Personal Best?” than you might think. Our article on Understanding Personal Bests may help.
Thirdly you should use your knowledge of your PBs to improve your training – and your event performance.
Using your Personal Bests to build on your successes in training and events
Personal Bests (PBs) should not simply be a static record of your achievements. They should be used to give you a clear target to beat in your training or competition.
First you must establish a Personal Best (PB) for a session/exercise/distance etc. Only count as a PB a time/distance/etc that you have established without suffering any major undue adverse reaction (e.g. if in the process of setting a PB you caused yourself an injury you would not count this!).
Don’t restrict recoding PBs to just one area of training – for example trying to get a better time for 5km on the flat. Instead, record your PBs for virtually all types of training you do (running, weights, cross-training etc) and break this down into PBs for all meaningful variations e.g. speed work; distance; uphill sessions; downhill sessions; running with or without XL; each individual weights exercise – including recording variables such as max weight, reps and sets; duration and speed on an exercise bike – and so on. This might sound quite a lot of paperwork and number-crunching to do but
A) It is not difficult to do
B) It only takes a couple of minutes at a time
and most importantly
C) It can lead to a great deal of improvement
Having established your PBs, try to improve upon your current PB next time you perform the same session. Don’t just have a vague idea of “doing a bit better”, set a concrete goal to achieve such as 1 second faster, 1 kg heavier or 1 minute longer duration.
Know what your current PB is – and thus what you are trying to beat – before every session. This will keep you clearly focused on producing a better performance every time you train.
Keep doing this regularly and your performance will always be improving.
When it comes to an activity like walking or running, choosing good socks is every bit as important as having good shoes or boots. While the specifics of what you may need will probably vary depending upon the conditions (e.g. extreme heat or cold, wet weather etc) socks with a “cool max” / “dry max” type fibre are usually a very good choice. Don’t skimp on choosing good socks. Most people are prepared to pay considerable amounts for good quality running shoes (often far more than is really necessary) and yet a lot of the same people just wear whatever socks they happen to find in the drawer that day; the best shoes in the world won’t help much if your socks aren’t at least as good (if not better) than your shoes or boots.
Basic points to remember include :
1) Make sure that your socks are a proper fit.
“Near enough” may be fine for wearing around the house or office but for running and walking you really need to make sure that your socks fit properly – “One size fits all” usually means “One size fits nobody very well”…
2) Never put your socks on in too great a hurry.
Make sure that you ease your foot into your sock carefully and that the sock covers your foot properly e.g. that the heel is in exactly the right place, that there is no bagginess around the toes and that you have no wrinkles in the fabric. A rucked-up sock is a near perfect way of causing a blister – so avoid this at all costs!
3) Make sure your feet are clean before you put your socks on
By this I don’t mean give them a wash but rather make sure that they haven’t picked up any sand, fluff or general grot (especially if you have just put something like vaseline on them). This is especially important if you are changing your socks and footwear outdoors, in the middle of an event, in windy conditions, in low light etc. Even a little bit of dirt stuck to the bottom of your foot or between the toes can lead to blisters etc after a few miles so while it may be frustrating to “waste” a minute making sure your feet are properly prepared before donning your socks, remember that this could end up saving you a lot of pain and lost time later.
4) Put your shoes on carefully
It would be a great shame to go to all the trouble of applying a lubricant, silicon or vaseline to your feet, making sure they are free from debris, carefully rolling your socks into place etc – only to then ruck up your socks by shoving your feet carelessly into your shoes. Make sure you ease your feet into your footwear in such a way that you don’t disturb your socks. Taking a few extra seconds over this could make all the difference between finishing a race with no foot problems and hobbling for miles with blisters.
5) Practice this in training
Don’t treat footcare advice as being something to practice in a race only. Get into the habbit in training so that it becomes automatic. This will speed up any sock-change (or shoe-change) during an event and help to ensure you don’t forget the basics if running under pressure.