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Zach Miller best Stair + at home cardio workouts for trail & Ultra runners

Zach Miller best Stair + at home cardio workouts for trail & Ultra runners

Training indoors for a trail race: sounds impossible? It’s not: take it from Zach Miller, who used to train for trail races while working on a cruise ship.

For many of us trail runners, the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak is the first time we’ve been confined to a small space, unable to run outside. We’re wondering if and how we can keep running during the Coronavirus epidemic, and trying to figure out what this means for our training. We’re feeling lots of different things: anxiety and fear for our loved ones and for the world at large; confusion about how to do indoor cardio (and how to do it effectively); and uncertainty about how these conditions will affect our trail races and other goals.

Here at, we’ve been coming up with as many creative ways as we can for you to do cardio at home without equipment. But for us, the co-founders of, this is also the first time that we’ve been unable to keep training like we’re used to. 

But there’s one well-known trail runner who’s got many, many months of experience of training indoors–in small spaces–for long distance races: Zach Miller.

Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

You might know Zach as a professional trail runner for The North Face and Buff, and as the two-time winner of the über-competitive The North Face 50 mile race; 2015 winner of the CCC; and twice top-ten finisher in the UTMB. But did you know that Zach used to work–and train–on a cruise ship?

Yep! When he was in his early twenties, Zach worked contracts of anywhere from 3 months to 9 months on a cruise ship. That meant that his training was far from the trails, and that he had to get creative in order to build and maintain his trail running skills.

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Zach used the ship’s stairwells to train for elevation gain, and combined stair workouts with a treadmill and bike trainer to build trail shape. (Don’t have a treadmill? Get creative with our trail running cardio exercises without equipment.) 

The coolest part? While living and training on the cruise ship, Zach won the JFK 50 mile and Lake Sonoma 50 mile races (in 2013 and 2014 respectively.) Seriously. 

We felt really, really inspired talking to Zach about this. If Zach can win two tough, 50 mile races while training on a cruise ship, then we can definitely keep up our trail shape in our living rooms. It’s possible! 

Since Zach’s got way more expertise about working out indoors than most of us, we turned to him for some training advice. Here’s what he had to say about how to train for a trail race indoors, and some sample indoor workouts to follow depending on which equipment you have–even if you don’t have a treadmill or indoor bike.

Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

Here’s what Zach’s got to say about his cruise ship trainings:

“My stair workouts [on the cruise ship] were nothing fancy, but they were consistent and progressive and I find that sort of training to be highly effective. 

Basically, all I did on the ship was run up and down a stairwell.  Pace could be whatever–the key was to make sure I got on the stairs and put the time in.  

Running up and down stairs is a bit daunting mentally, so I started small.  I think when I first started, I would do around 20 or 30 minutes of running up and down the stairs as a workout.  

Each day that the ship was at sea, I would run up and down the stairs until I hit my time goal.  Then I would usually jump on the treadmill right away and put in a certain amount of time on there as well. (Note from if you don’t have a treadmill, you can improvise with one of these at home cardio exercises with no equipment.) 

Then, each week I would increase the stair running and the treadmill running by a few minutes (I think I would add like 5 minutes on the stairs, and 7 minutes on the treadmill each week.)

The increases were pretty small, just a few extra minutes. But over time, they added up.

By the end of my ship contract, I was up to about an hour of stairs followed by around 17-20 miles on the treadmill.”

Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

If you want to recreate Zach’s cruise ship workouts at home, here’s his advice: 

If you have a treadmill, do some: 

  • Progression runs: “Start out easy, then, every few minutes pick up the pace a little bit.  Do it gradually so that you finish at your fastest pace. You might be going super easy in the beginning and running a fast tempo pace at the end.  It’s awesome for building fitness and is a lot of fun.”
  • Interval workouts: “Try doing 10 x 3 minutes hard with 1.5 – 2 minutes of rest. It’s a great workout, and a good way to make the time fly by. Pair it with a 15 minute warm up and a 15 minute cool down, and you’ve got a killer workout.”
  • Fartlek runs: “Just run a whole variety of paces at random intervals.  It’s kind of like playing tag. There are barely any rules. Just keep mixing up the pace.  If you want, put on some up-beat music, and vary your pace with the tempo of whatever plays. Or push the chorus and relax on the rest.”
  • Ladder workouts:  “I still use these to this day!  Alternating between minutes of hard and easy,  first building up and then back down. Try doing 1 minute hard/1 minute easy, then 2 minutes hard/2 minutes easy, then 3 minutes hard/3 minutes easy, then 4 minutes hard/4 minutes easy, then back down…3/3, 2/2, 1/1.”
Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

If you have a bike trainer: 

“The bike trainer is another great way to get fit and I use it like the treadmill–doing the same workouts listed above. I rarely do just a steady ride.  I almost always do some sort of interval workout, ladder workout, etc. If you can do it virtually with other people and with music that’s also great.

On the ship I used to do spin classes with my shipmates and I would crank so hard!”

Some final tips from Zach about doing indoor cardio workouts:

A few overall tips:

  • Make it fun 
  • Vary the pace
  • Throw in music (or keep it quiet and build a mind of steel)
  • If it’s too daunting, start small (like 10 minutes) then gradually build from there
  • Make a goal and hit it 
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And finally, here are some sample workouts that we’ve written for you using Zach’s techniques:

If you have a bike trainer or treadmill:

  1. Stair intervals + progression run: 

Start out by doing 20 minutes of stairs–at a constant, easy pace. (A 5-6/10 on our perceived effort scale). Then do 10 intervals of 30 seconds: for the first 30 seconds, run up one step at a time. For the next 30 seconds, do two steps at a time. This way, the intensity will vary even if you keep the same pace. 

Once you’re done, jump on the treadmill or bike trainer and do: a progression effort of 30 minutes where you start with an effort of 6/10, and push it a little harder every 5 minutes, ending at tempo pace.

If you don’t have a bike trainer or a treadmill, you can do this workout: 

  1. Stairs + Interval workout: 

Start out by doing 20 minutes of stairs–at a constant, easy pace. (A 5-6/10 on our perceived effort scale.) Then do 10 intervals of 30 seconds: for the first 30 seconds, run up one step at a time. For the next 30 seconds, do two steps at a time. This way, the intensity will vary even if you keep the same pace. 

Once you’re done, do a combination of running in place for 5 minutes + 2 minutes of rope running + 1 minute of Heissmans + 2 minutes of jumping jacks. Here, you’ll have 10 minutes of pure cardio with a variation of intensity. Repeat it 3 times, and you’re done!

Want daily indoor workouts like this, tailored to your needs? Sign up for our FREE indoor training plan. Designed specifically for trail runners who are affected by the COVID-19 measures.

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