Vail Daily column: Fitness lessons from pursing the mountains |

Vail Daily column: Fitness lessons from pursing the mountains

I was having a routine conversation with a good friend over coffee the other day. Michael is the quintessential leader. He is a well-respected leader in the fire industry and a man of utmost character and virtue. I am honored to be his friend. Our conversation included the state of learning and development of staff within fire stations, the significance of turkey sausage and coleslaw, and the optimum level of fitness for occupational workers. As my coffee got cold standing on a soapbox ranting about the current state of programming for our public safety officers, it dawned on me how ridiculous fitness programs have gotten for the sake of making things shiny and complicated.

I was at a movement conference earlier this year as Gray Cook was talking about exercising in the natural environment. He said something that stuck with me. He encouraged trainers to get their clients outside to climb trees. A trainer spoke up and said, “We do! Our gym takes clients into the woods and we hang our TRX straps on trees to exercise different movements and it’s really cool.” Cook snapped back, “Forget the TRX strap and just climb the darn tree!” An interesting epiphany.

We have fabricated gyms and exercises that promote a different type of fitness than what is needed for survival. These fancy contrived exercises have created fitness that is somewhat useless when the rubber meets the road. We have minimized real fitness to make things easier and more palatable. A far stretched example, but if you don’t have the requisite strength to climb a tree to pick fruit as a necessity for survival, the ability to perform a mechanically more advantageous rowing motion using a TRX strap or pushing the spring on the reformer isn’t going to help you. I realize I can take this hunter-gatherer survivalist approach to living too far; after all, the supermarket is around the corner and the human race is vibrant and we aren’t on the verge of the endangered species list. This outlandish survivalist point of view that sounds cool can be just as silly as the argument I’m making. Nonetheless, unauthentic manufactured fitness is sometimes a problem. We don’t play, hunt or climb anymore because the instinct has been killed in modern society, and therefore we have man-made gyms and functional exercises that we perform to get our rub ‘n’ sniff sticker for the day.


Make no mistake. There is no better fitness teacher and stressor than the natural environment. For example, I have been skiing and playing hockey for most of my life. The past 17 years, I have skied with metal rods screwed into the entire length of my spine. Anytime I get a massage or adjustment, I usually get comments on how enormous my legs are. I have very disproportionately large hams compared to my paltry upper body. It has been a source of insecurity for me at times. My thighs continue to grow and chafe because it is necessary. My legs have to continuously adapt to pick up the slack for my spine that cannot contribute to the effort. The mountain has caused this adaptation. I couldn’t ever fabricate an exercise to precisely mimic this. An elite rock climber has a “back like a flying squirrel and legs like a starved chicken.” This is precisely because the body only adapts to the demands you place on it. Rock climbing causes this to happen for the very purpose of survival. Large legs are too heavy to carry up a rock face. The body takes what it needs and gets rid of the excess.


We need to ask ourselves, “Is this a good exercise to help me better prepare myself for future needs, or is it an exercise that I do because Tony Horton said it will make my biceps look good for the ladies at the beach this summer?” There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but if you can’t even get out of a chair without your back hurting, then is it really worth pursuing a good looking set of guns?

By the way, Michael, I really do think the push-up test for firefighters is silly. The ability to perform push-ups has zero correlation on your ability to perform your job successfully. Good talk!

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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