Prepare for your Eagle County summer adventures by getting in peak shape now |

Prepare for your Eagle County summer adventures by getting in peak shape now

Rosanna Turner
Daily Correspondent
Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of "The Vail Hiker," hikes on Shrine Ridge near Vail Pass last July with her grandson. Gilliland offers spring training tips to aspiring summer hikers.
Special to the Weekly |

Hiking your first 14er

Longtime local hiking legend Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of “The Vail Hiker” and “The Summit Hiker,” offers these basic tips for first timers attempting a 14er, a peak in Colorado with an elevation of over 14,000 feet:

Break in your hiking boots before hitting the trail.

Start early in the morning to avoid afternoon storms.

Always bring windproof and waterproof clothing. Even if you start hiking on a bright, sunny day, temperatures can drop steeply the higher up you go.

Don’t forget a headlamp or flashlight, in case you get caught in the dark or experience bad weather.

Know the signs of altitude sickness and hypothermia, which Gilliland said can happen if your body gets wet, even if it doesn’t seem that cold.

Study up by reading a 14er hiking guidebook.

Gilliland said the easiest 14er for beginners is Quandary Peak. The trailhead begins outside of Breckenridge in Summit County, north of Hoosier Pass.

For many in the mountains, in the winter it’s easy to stay in great physical shape, so when spring comes around, you might already have a bod that’s ready for the beach, even though in Colorado those are few and far between.

Still, as the weather warms, your first day back on the bike or hitting the trail can still feel a bit brutal — your muscles still need time to switch from skiing and riding all day to cycling and hiking. With winter winding down, spring is the perfect opportunity to start thinking warm thoughts and changing up your fitness routine. We asked some local fitness experts to share their best spring training tips, not just to be bikini-ready by summer, but so you can ride, hike and paddleboard with ease.

● ‘Training slow to get fast’

Jake Wells, certified personal trainer, owner of Form Attainment Studio in Edwards and pro cyclist, said for those looking to get in shape for cycling, the spring season is the time to build your “aerobic engine,” which can carry over into all types of warm weather athletic activities.

Wells said recently there’s been more research and renewed interest in the science behind “training slow to get fast,” where you focus more on upping your baseline metabolic rate or heart rate, which gradually increases your fitness level over time.

In order to “build your base,” get a metabolic test in order to find out your heart rate zone and your VO2 max: the maximum amount of oxygen your body uses during intense or rigorous exercise. Knowing your VO2 max can give you an idea of your cardiovascular and endurance fitness level. Wells said there are typically five heart rate zones. Zone 1 is your heart rate when doing normal, everyday activities like walking your dog or going for a leisurely walk. Zone 2 is slightly more aerobic than this, where you have to pay more attention to what activity you’re doing. Zone 3 is just above this and a little more intense. Zone 4 is your “hour of power: what you can maintain if you were going to go all out for an hour,” Wells said, and Zone 5 is your VO2 max zone, the threshold at which you can only do something for 2 to 5 minutes.

Wells said during spring training, your focus should be on Zone 2, where “you have to pay attention to make sure you’re working hard enough to get that heart rate up, but not working so hard that you’re getting into Zone 3. You really have to focus on keeping your intensity right in that sweet spot.”

Wells said to think of your body like a car, with the goal being to increase your overall miles per gallon, not just how well you can rev the engine and sprint across the finish line, collapsing on the other side.

“Establishing that Zone (2), you’re able to increase the amount of oxygen you’re able to consume while you’re working out or while you’re working hard,” Wells said. “If you can focus on that Zone 2 and be more efficient here, you’re able to use oxygen and fat as fuel more effectively.”

As your body becomes more efficient, your Zone 2 will shift and activities that once got you huffing and puffing will now seem like a breeze.

● Getting your body back on the bike

To gear up for cycling, Wells said an easy strategy is to devote one day on the bike, even if it’s just by taking a spin class or using the CompuTrainer at the gym.

“With cycling, the muscle memory (will come) back,” Wells said. “Instead of waiting until May for that to come back, (it’s good to) keep it there at some capacity, even if it’s a small capacity, all year.”

If you’re still enjoying the late-spring fresh powder that’s always a nice surprise, Wells said skate skiing is one of the best things you can do to prep yourself for cycling. Skate skiing utilizes the glutes, the lower back, hamstrings and quad muscles, all of which are used in cycling.

Wells said something many overlook, and not just during spring training, is stretching and keeping your joints limber.

“Having a flexibility routine in your (workout) program is key to maintaining joint health,” Wells said.

● Hiking your tush to the top

Even if you’re used to the altitude, that first hike up your favorite trail after a winter of skiing or riding downhill can still make you run out of breath. Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of “The Vail Hiker” and “The Summit Hiker,” has been hiking in the valley for over 44 years. Since many trails don’t open until the end of May or early June, Gilliland said the best thing to do this time of year is to just start walking up the steep roads and hills in town to get used to the incline and build your stamina. You also need to prep for going downhill.

“Ascending goes somewhat better than the decline in terms of your muscles,” Gilliland said. “The downhill stress on the knees (can be) really bad; it puts heavy stress on your quads and your knees. Walking up and down those steep hills prepares you for that.”

Try a 14er

This summer, you may feel inspired to hike higher and farther than you’ve ever gone. For many in Colorado, this equates to hiking their first 14er, a peak in the state that exceeds 14,000 feet elevation. Prime 14er time isn’t until late June and July, but it’s wise to start practicing now. Gilliland said in addition to Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, cycling is a great spring cross-training activity.

“One of the problems with hiking a 14er is getting inflammation,” Gilliland said. “It happens to a lot of people. If you start biking, you strengthen those muscles in the knee area, and that makes you strong for climbing and descending.”

Gilliland said one thing people don’t consider when hiking a 14er, especially as you age, is assessing your depth perception. As you get closer to the summit you’re more likely to encounter talus, or jagged rock.

“If your depth perception is not good, it’s very difficult to walk on those rocks,” Gilliland said. “It strains your brain and it’s exhausting. People (who) have any issue (in that area) should hike with poles, because poles give you more kinesthetic reference points.”

Gilliland said certain steep local trails are a good way to gauge how prepared you might be for a 14er. She suggests trails in East Vail, such as the Bighorn Creek Trail or the Pitkin Lake Trail.

“If people have a hard time on those hikes, which are a challenge, they will know that they will have a hard time on a 14er,” Gilliland said.

An easy upper body routine

Like many winter sports, cycling and hiking still engage your lower body more than the upper half. To train for water activities like paddleboarding and kayaking, it’s important to integrate exercises that work your arms and chest.

Brett Donelson, personal trainer at the Athletic Club at The Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon, said training your upper body is not complicated, but the key is to be consistent. Donelson said there are four simple exercises that give your upper body a solid workout: a woodchop (where you swing your arms from high to low across your body in a sweeping motion), push-ups, pull-ups (for which you can use an assisted pull-up machine) and some type of row that works your lateral muscles.

“Anytime a new client comes to me, that’s what we start with, whether they’re 60 years old or they’re an elite athlete,” Donelson said.

Donelson said there’s no need to work your upper body incessantly and recommends doing these exercises three times a week. Donelson said after a season of using your lower muscles on the hill, people sometimes neglect their upper half.

“They work their lower body so much, and they’re just tired,” Donelson said. “It’s more of a motivation thing. When you ski all day, the last thing you’re going to want to do is go workout your chest and your back.”

Donelson said you don’t have to spend an hour in the gym on your upper body. Doing these four exercises only takes about 20 to 30 minutes and is something you can fit in during the week. Donelson also recommends using balance balls like a Bosu ball or DynaDisc, both which mimic being on the water.

With all this talk of training, it’s easy to forget why you’re working so hard to get fit in the first place. Both Wells and Gilliland agreed that in addition to focusing on the physical, getting your mind prepared to race across the finish line or reach the summit is an essential part of spring training. Wells said in the spring, it’s OK to let your body rest and try new activities, so that when summer comes, what you love to do will seem fun again.

“A change is as good as a break,” Wells said. “(It’s important to be) mentally fresh for the season you want to be good for.”

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