Work It Out: Early-season workouts for trail running, mountain biking and backpacking
May 14, 2017
Few things are more frustrating for trail runners and mountain bikers than hitting a plateau. And, if you've been doing this long enough, you know it can hit anyone, even die-hard fitness junkies who spend most of the winter months on the treadmill and stationary bike.
Never fear — there's hope for you yet.
"It's important to not burn yourself out or over-focus when you're training for a race," says Kelly Gerken, fitness supervisor with the Breckenridge Recreation Center. "There's a mental conditioning coach, named Chris Jenzen, and he says it's important to let your mind have downtime from running, as well as your body."
A training regimen for cardio-heavy summer sports like running and cycling begins now, long before the thick of race season, and taking a methodical approach will help your body and mind reach a peak at the exact right time.
Now is also prime time for avid hikers and backpackers to get back in trail shape with simple gym and outdoor exercises made to boost stability, strength and stamina — the exact same elements you need for any trail sport.
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For the mountain biker
Sometimes, road cyclists and mountain bikers alike get too caught up on training in the saddle. Spin classes and solo workouts are fine and dandy, but, if you plan to hit Summit County's endless singletrack this summer, you need to look at the whole picture.
"The legs are of course a huge component, but your calves and upper body are also huge," said Renee Rogers, fitness coordinator at the Silverthorne Recreation Center. "When you're really climbing up a hill and engaged, you want a strong back and core. The stronger you can be up top, the longer you will last."
In other words, biking ain't only about meaty thighs: about 75 percent of every pedal stroke comes from your calves, Rogers says, and anyone eyeing rides of five or more hours needs bicep and tricep strength to handle sustained uphills and downhills.
After a ride, be sure to show your body a little TLC with a simple recovery. Rogers suggests walking and gently circling your ankles to stretch out your calves. Another option is heading to the pool for a cool-down, and always be sure to hydrate throughout.
"You want to flush out the lactic acid anytime you're active," Rogers said. "If your muscles are working one direction you want to stretch them in the opposite direction. Think about biking: You have a few hours of the forward motion, so you need to stretch back, into the back of your quad, after you're done."
Standing calf raises: Stand straight, with heels slightly apart and arms at your sides (weights optional). Slowly rise to your toes, hold for three counts, and then return to your heels. Repeat 20-30 reps for three sets. When it gets too easy, add weight, stand on a stair with heels hanging over, or use a seated calf-raise machine.
Leg curls: Hamstrings, quads and calves are all intricately connected. To build hamstring strength, try a seated leg curl machine (legs curl beneath the body) or a prone machine (legs curl over body).
Bridge position: This one works your legs and core. Begin on your back, with knees bent and heels planted 6-12 inches ahead of your butt. Keep your eyes on the ceiling and lift your hips. Hold 10-30 seconds and return to the ground. Do 15 reps for three sets.
For an advanced bridge, extend one leg when your hips are lifted. Return to the ground and lift the other. You can also add a fitness ball beneath your heels and roll in with every lift.
Pushups: Biceps, triceps and pecs are vital for long, sustained climbs. Keep your back straight and core activated throughout. Try 10-20 reps for three sets. Increase as needed. The goal here is endurance, not strength.
Seated back rows: This one works your biceps, triceps and upper-back muscles. On a seated back row machine, grip the handles and lean back until your body is slightly past 90 degrees, with knees slightly bent, back straight and shoulders stacked. Pull handles to your chest in a controlled motion. Try 10-15 reps for three sets.
For an advanced exercise, try single-arm rows on the machine or bent-over rows with dumbbells.
For the trail runner
Similar to biking, trail running is heavy on leg strength, but the dynamic nature of rocks, roots and everything else scattered on the singletrack makes training much different than a standard road race. Unlike biking, though, running can be much harder on each individual leg.
"Running consists mostly of a one-legged stance," Gerken with the Breck Rec Center says. "You need to work that for a few weeks before getting on the trail."
Along with strength, Gerken also likes one-legged exercises to build stability and balance for the trail. These elements are also bolstered by body-weight exercises like lunges and burpees.
"You use a lot of balance and core stability with trail running," local trainer Julie Wilson said. "That's where something like the mountain climbers and even downward dog is helpful."
Single-leg squat: To build endurance, Gerken recommends training at the gym with higher reps and lower weights. Begin a single-leg squat with body weight or light dumbbells held at your sides. For balance, prop your foot with a TRX cable or on a chair. Begin in a standing position, with eyes forward and shoulders back. Squat on one leg without letting your knee hang over your toes. Return to standing. Try 15-20 reps and three sets. Bump the reps, sets or weight when it becomes too easy.
Side-steps: Begin with an exercise band (a stretchy piece of circular latex) around the outsides of both ankles and enter a squat position, with knees bent and eyes forward. Step your right leg out to the right while maintaining the squat. Step your left leg right to return to your starting position. Take 20-30 steps in one direction, and then repeat in the opposite direction.
Mountain climbers: Begin in a high plank position (not a pushup position), with elbows slightly bent and core tight. Raise your right knee up and into your chest. Return to plank and repeat with the left leg, alternating through 15-20 reps of three sets.
For an advanced mountain climber, bring your right or left knee to your elbow on the same side, and then bring your right or left knee beneath your body to the opposite elbow. Alternate on both sides.
Downward-facing dog: After a run or running workout, Wilson likes finishing with the downward-facing dog yoga pose. It stretches hamstrings and quads while working on balance. Plus, she says, everyone can benefit from a little yoga in their life.
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