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The physiology and biomechanics of “skyscraper running”

February 5th, 2010

You’ve seen the news stories about races up various tall buildings like the C.N. Tower and Empire State Building… Now, in an upcoming issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, you can finally learn all about the physiology of these races!

pirelli-buildingIt’s actually a pretty interesting paper. The researchers (from the University of Milan) do a general analysis of 36 world stair-climbing records for buildings ranging from 48 to 421 metres high. They also collected a bunch of data from a specific race in Milan (up the Pirelli Building, a model of which is shown on the right), and compare their results to a mathematical model of stair-climbing.

The reason the sport is so well-suited to this kind of analysis is that stair-climbing is fairly simple, biomechanically speaking. We don’t store elastic energy in our legs with each stride — our main task is simply raising our centre of mass from the bottom of the building to the top. (To be precise, the researchers calculate that 80.4% of the energy expended by racers goes directly into counteracting gravity. Just 4.5% goes to accelerating limbs with respect to the body, and the remaining 15.1% goes into the turns between flights of stairs.)

So what’s the take-away message from this research? I’m not sure. Certainly this conclusion doesn’t sound too earth-shattering:

Our studies suggest that the best athletes are those who do not show any sudden speed change, and therefore that athletes must wisely dose their initial effort in order not to jeopardize the rest of the performance.

Still, reading the paper made me want to try one of these races. Apparently they demand a mix of aerobic and anaerobic energy, much like middle-distance running. And then there’s this:

Another attractive aspect relates to the presence, in most skyscrapers, of handrails that maximize the muscle mass involved and, consequently, the mechanical/metabolic power of the ascent, conferring the race with a feel of a global, maximal effort as in rowing.

“Global, maximal effort” — sounds like fun!