Monday, January 31, 2011

Trying out snowshoeing

I confess: I've been anxious to try snowshoeing for some time.

It always seemed like the perfect wintertime activity. It's good exercise, fairly easy to learn (unlike snowboarding, which I needed about 10 minutes and a bruised hip to figure out it wasn't for me), and you can do it pretty much anywhere.

Much like hiking, snowshoeing also has an exploration/adventure aspect to appreciate. Vigorous workouts in the gym are one thing, but there's something to behold about getting outside and enjoying the scenery.

Monday's snowstorm was the perfect excuse to give it a try. What better way to make the most out of the weather than to sample footwear made for the conditions? "While other people are complaining about the snow, I'll be hiking up hills and enjoying the heck out of it," I told myself.

So, with a pair of borrowed snowshoes in tow (a big thanks to Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports owner Jon Andersen for lending me his), I made my way over to Seven Mile Creek.

I chose Seven Mile Creek for several reasons: It has the biggest hills, I enjoyed hiking there last spring, and it's right off Highway 169, thus making it easy to get to even in a heavy snowstorm. Most of all, I figured nobody would be there, so there wouldn't be anyone to laugh at me if I took a bad fall getting used to the snowshoes.

As it turns out, there really wasn't much of a "getting used to" process for the shoes. It was pretty much just strap 'em on and go.

I had to use a high-kneed walk to keep the shoes from getting stuck in the mass amounts of snow (the picnic tables at the park were pretty much buried) and turning around was like a less awkward version of walking in skis. But aside from that, it was essentially the same as walking.

The biggest problem I had was tiring myself out too quickly. Like any other new activity, snowshoeing gives the body a unique workout that it's not used to (I mostly felt it in my hips and calves) and should thus be approached gingerly at first.

Despite being aware of that notion, I decided to meander off the park's trails and attempted to climb some of its bigger hills. The trails weren't necessarily easy to walk (judging by the lack of tracks, there probably hasn't been many people out there lately), but they were starting to feel boring. I figured half the fun of having snowshoes is to go places you normally couldn't go in regular shoes.

Aside from the occasional tumble (snowshoes don't grip as well as I thought they would), I made it up the hill just fine. However, after climbing the ravine between Trails 1 and 2 to the park's scenic overlook (park map here), I came to realize that I made a pretty egregious mistake: I was breaking a pretty good sweat and it was starting to feel cold outside. If that wasn't enough, I had gotten pretty thirsty and left my water in the car ... on the other side of the park.

Realizing that I was starting to get fatigued, I took a far more conservative route back to the parking lot. I wound up needing the extra energy too, as my car got stuck trying to get out of the parking lot. In case anybody is curious, shoveling a car out is even less pleasant after two hours of snowshoeing.

Despite the not-so-pleasant ending, I thoroughly enjoyed snowshoeing and will definitely look into getting a pair of them for myself in the future. I don't know if I would want to do it competitively (my hips are still very upset with me), but at the very least, it's another activity to help me get the most out of winter.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Spare thoughts on Arrowhead 135

The Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon kicks off at 7 a.m. Monday in International Falls, and as anyone who read my story in Sunday's paper will tell you, it's not exactly a race for the faint of heart. Matter of fact, it's not a race for just about anyone besides cardio extremists and winter camping fanatics.

For those unfamiliar with Arrowhead 135, it's a 135-mile race from International Falls to the town of Tower that takes place almost entirely on the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail. Competitors have 60 hours to complete the race and may chose to either run, bike or ski the course. This is all while dealing with temperatures in the 20-below range and having to haul their gear (usually around 30 pounds or so) the entire way.

I stumbled across the Arrowhead 135 during a prior post about strange and unique races beyond your run-of-the-mill 5K's and triathlons. I remember my first reaction being: "Well, I'm never doing that race." Come to think of it, that's still pretty much how I feel about it. I enjoy winter camping and I enjoy long-distance running, but I don't see myself ever wanting to combine the two in that extreme.

Still, being the advocate of health and fitness culture that I am, I found it to be a fascinating race to write about. It doesn't get much more extreme than that for road races and the people I interviewed for it proved to be just as interesting.

With that in mind, here's a few other notes about the Arrowhead 135:

  • Jennifer Flynn, the cyclist I interviewed for the story, will actually be doing her first bike race ever at Arrowhead. She was previously an ultramarathon runner, but took up cycling after fracturing her foot. Maybe it's just me, but if I was signing up for a first race of a particular cardiovascular discipline, it wouldn't be Arrowhead. Incredible.
  • According to the results on Arrowhead's website, race director Dave Pramann still has the course record for fastest time, finishing on a bike in 15 hours, 45 minutes in 2006. Quick math equates Pramann to averaging 9 mph if he was pedaling the entire time. By comparison, St. Peter native Bruce Maertens biked across the entire state of South Dakota (415 miles) last summer in a record time of 20 hours, 48 minutes, which averages out to about 20 mph (Jim Rueda column about it here). Just a further testament to how tough the Arrowhead 135 course really is.
  • According to Pramann, competitors from more than 20 states and 6-7 foreign countries have raced in Arrowhead. I find that surprising. Anyone who's ever taken a vacation in the wintertime can attest to how much of a climate shock it is to step off a plane in Minneapolis after being in Florida for a week. Imagine what it's like for a 130-pound ultramarathon runner from Brazil trying to adjust to 20-below weather while running in the snow for two days.
  • Great story that I simply couldn't fit into my article: John Storkamp, a multiple-time Arrowhead participant, has had his fair share of rough times on the course, but few worse than his first year. At about two in the morning the second day, due to extreme exhaustion and disillusion, he started running hard because he thought he was only 5 miles from the finish. He was in fact 35 miles away. He began sweating heavily -- a recipe for disaster in 20-below weather -- and wound up falling asleep while going to the bathroom. Realizing how cold he was getting, Storkamp woke up, stripped out of his sweaty clothes and crawled into his sleeping bag to warm up. Can't really think of too many races where a life-or-death situation came about for me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Trampoline as a fitness tool? You better believe it

Pretty much anyone who has experienced youth has experienced trampolines at one point or another.

Remember that friend down the block that had a big one in their backyard? Or maybe it was a small one you had in the basement, which you then placed at the bottom of the staircase for Lord-knows-what kind of stunts when your parents weren't home. (note: I'm not saying the latter was me, I'm just speaking hypothetically ... mostly)

Whatever the case, trampolines are about as much a part of being young as action figures and Super Soakers. It's not without good reason either. I mean, who didn't enjoy trying to land back flips on a trampoline during a warm summer day when they were young?

Well, as it turns out, trampolines aren't just fun for kids. They're also a pretty nifty workout tool.

I stumbled across this article when I was working last week about how trampolines have become a hot new fitness trend. Supposedly, trampolines have a lot of the same cardio benefits as jogging, only without the wear and tear on your joints. According to the article, you can burn up to 1,000 calories an hour working out on a trampoline (equivalent to what you'd burn running or biking at a good clip).

Trampolines also offer a lot of benefits beyond what you'd get from biking or running. It also increases flexibility, improves balance and fine-tunes coordination because the unstable rebounding motion forces the body to become more aware of its surroundings.

The article lists a host of different trampoline classes going on across the country, including a trampoline dodgeball tournament in San Francisco (admit it, part of you REALLY wants to try playing that). Further digging reveals websites like this one where you can purchase fitness-oriented trampolines for home workouts.

Fair warning about trampolines: They can be dangerous if you start trying to get too elaborate with jumps. I've had my fair share of awkward landings on them, and as this Simpsons clip would indicate, they're nothing to mess around with.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Elliptical bikes: Hey, at least the bike seat is cheap

Anybody who read my blog during RAGBRAI knows that strange sites were a regular occurrence.

Contrast in bike styles was no exception. I saw people traveling across Iowa in everything from a unicycle to rollerblades to banana bikes. One participant even managed to bike across the state with no legs, pedaling a recumbent bike with his feet (blog entry about it here).

Lost in the fray of cycling ecstasy was a RAGBRAI participant pedaling an elliptical-style bicycle across the state. I recall seeing the elliptical bike early on in the week and read about it later in the Des Moines Register.

I was going to blog about it at the time, but there was just too much to write about and I simply forgot about it. Thankfully, the elliptical bike concept was discussed around the newsroom the other night to help refresh my memory.

Essentially, it takes all the finer points of an elliptical running machine and converts it into a bicycle. So instead of being cooped up in a gym, you can hit the bike trail and enjoy the outdoors on an elliptical. And, as my coworker pointed out, you won't to sit on an uncomfortable bike seat for the duration of the ride. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Well, there's drawbacks to consider. For one thing, you won't find a cheap elliptical bike in a shop anywhere (they generally cost around $2,000-3,000, including the ones on the ElliptiGO manufacturing website). Considering the complexities of an elliptical machine compared to a bicycle, I would also venture a guess that the increased number of parts would make it a heavier object to propel.

There's also sheer aerodynamics to consider. By it's very nature, you're standing straight up while using an elliptical machine, whereas most road bike users are hunched over their bike's frame during a ride. There's probably a lot more wind resistance to account for.

Still, at the very least it's an intriguing exercise alternative to normal running or biking. It will be interesting to see how the elliptical bike does in the health and fitness market.

My guess: Lower the price, then people will buy it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A recipe website that will make your mouth water

Admittedly, my dietary habits aren't what health nuts would call ideal.

My cupboards are filled with Hamburger Helper, pancake mix and all the necessary provisions to make a mean pb&j. For the most part, my diet consists of whatever I can prepare on the fly. Sometimes, that means things like apples, bananas and granola. Other times, it means pizza and (God forbid) cookies.

Consequently, I'm hardly a person to go to for advice when it comes to healthy eating habits. Heck, half the reason I exercise like I do is so that I can take a few more liberties with food.

However, once in awhile, I enjoy taking the time to prepare a healthy meal. And with that desire comes the need for recipes, particularly for someone as cooking illiterate as I am.

Which brings me to point of this post. I received an e-mail recently from a reader that directed me to a blog entry on titled "Recipes for Runners: 100 Delicious Dishes for Every Step of the Way."

The post pretty much has every type of recipe an active person could want. There's groupings of dishes for breakfast food (including a recipe for oatmeal pancakes, already a regular in my diet!), carb loading, weight loss, post-race meals, and yes, even deserts. There's even an entry for homemade multigrain energy bars. The recipes come from a variety of cooking websites, all of which seem pretty straightforward and easy to follow.

At the very least, it's enough recipe suggestions to keep me busy for awhile.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The lonely rowing machine

As usual, the onset of a new year has the YMCA crowded with newly-minted gym junkies looking to make good on their health-conscious resolutions.

It's been difficult at times to find an open machine. I usually try to get my workouts done during the late morning/early afternoon lull. But even then, I'll occasionally find the treadmills, ellipticals and exercise bikes to be busy. Weightlifting stations can also get a little crowded, as curious first-timers try to feel the burn with unfamiliar machines and equipment.

However, one gym item that often seems to get overlooked is the Concept2 indoor rowing machine (also known as an 'erg' in rowing circles) nestled quietly in the corner of Y's Life Center. A curious hand or two will try the indoor rower out from time to time, but for the most part, it is readily available. For me, the 'erg' is not only a piece of exercise equipment, but a nod to the nostalgia of college.

I was on the club rowing team while I attended St. Cloud State, and in all honestly, I used to HATE using 'the machine' during winter training. It had all the aches and pains of actual rowing, but none of the perks like being out on the water and not having to stare at a wall the whole time. Indoor workouts usually consisted of blaring loud music, monotonous time pieces and the overwhelming stench of the dilapidated, b.0.-infested handball court where the rowing machines resided (it's unclear whether or not that workout area was sanitary). No wonder practice attendance dipped so much during winter months.

However, due to my addiction to cardio and the aforementioned crowded machines at the Y, I have recently found myself getting reacquainted with the old 'erg.' I also got inspired after reading about a current rower at St. Cloud State who is 'erging' 2 million meters in five months -- an almost-incomprehensible distance in that amount of time -- to raise money for the team and a cancer foundation (full story here). I figure if he's going to suffer through that much time on a rowing machine, the least I can do is endure it on occasion.

My rowing workouts have been pretty modest compared to 'good ol' days;' usually 10-15 minutes at low intensity about 3-4 times a week, with the occasional 20-30-minute piece tossed in. It took awhile to get used to it again (I've been using the rowing machine at the Y for about 2-3 weeks now), but now that I'm comfortable with it, it's become a regular -- and beneficial -- part of my workout routine.

In a lot of ways, rowing is the perfect cardio exercise. It works out your entire body, burns more calories than biking and it's easier on your joints than running. Plus it's a great way to work on rhythm, coordination and posture.

Bringing personal experience into the testimonial, rowing also happens to be the sport that started me on the path to being the workout fanatic that I currently am. I was in sports in high school, but it wasn't until rowing that exercise ceased to feel like work and instead became fun.

Here's a video on rowing technique from Cambridge Rowing Club.