FF2:  Fitness Focus Revisited - The “How” & “Where” (Spring 2011)


Substitute Behaviors

“I sold our 3-story home,  moved into an apartment, and then I had to join a gym” was the lament of a 75-ish yoga student of mine many years ago. I’ve held her experience close to me ever since, vowing to remember the lesson she learned the hard way: any change in routines requires careful assessment of what you are losing that you had not anticipated you would be losing. In her case, running up and down all of the interior stairs and doing the general home maintenance chores had kept her sufficiently fit. When she switched to the ease of apartment living, she suddenly became weak and out of shape because she hadn’t identified a substitute behavior pattern for ‘doing stairs’.

Pushing is harder & more treacherous than pedaling. (2002)

I thought again of her realizations when a more vigorous enforcement of EU visa rules caused us to abandon our lifestyle of cyclo-touring in Europe for 9 to 10 months per year for the last 10 years. I frequently re-evaluated our fitness regime over that decade and consistently decided that the lifestyle inherently provided us with an above-average mix of CV, strength, and flexibility activities--a mix that would require diligence to replicate if it vanished. And suddenly now was the time for that diligence, the time to assemble a new package of activities that would at least match the fitness quality of the old lifestyle. The pressure was suddenly on to find a new answer to the “How” of our fitness focused lifestyle.

I reviewed the elements of our daily ‘workouts.’  Nothing like pedaling a 100+ lb loaded bike up a mountain pass to take our strength and endurance training to a point we’d never be motivated to do in a gym workout (and I doubt that I could tolerate the high noise level of spinning classes). And the occasional need to literally push those heavy loads, sometimes by both of us muscling a single bike up 20+% grades, was another level of effort we wouldn’t willingly undertake as a planned workout. For me, just keeping my bike upright at a traffic light could be a core strength exercise, especially if we’d just loaded on a lot of food.

Over the years we’d supplemented our summer biking trips in the Alps or the Pyrenees with hiking to give us the bone-building pounding that cycling didn’t deliver. At home in the winters, we took up walking as much as 10 miles a day to both maintain some fitness while riding significantly less and to keep the beneficial pressure on our bones.

Overall strength & flexibility pay unexpected dividends. (2008)

Including scrambles up rock faces in our summer hikes reminded us of the need to develop upper body strength in directions not challenged by the bike and spurred us to keep up with our morning stretching routines for the flexibility and overall balance in our tissues. These stresses, strains, and nudges were woven into our built-in fitness regime that pivoted around cyclo-touring--body challenges that we’d strive to retain when cycling took a back seat in our lives by necessity.

The abrupt need for a lifestyle change that was triggered by a Dutch immigration’s official at the Amsterdam airport while we were departing for home in December of 2010 left us scratching our heads for an equally appealing and vigorous substitute lifestyle. Dozens of times each year we asked the question “How else can we maintain this level of fitness with outdoor activity but without exhausting our motivation?”  The joy of cyclo-touring was that it required little will to keep going because the overall experience was so delightful. Everyday had its less than delightful intervals, but that happens no matter what one does.  Every time we asked the question “What else would meet our needs as well?” we came up with the same answer “Nothing” so we kept pedaling.

As the weeks turned to months while we waited for an answer from EU officials as to whether we’d be allowed to return in the summer of 2011 to retrieve our bikes and gear stowed in a storage locker in Vienna, we pressed harder to craft a new lifestyle. We hoped that our re-entry to the EU would not be restricted and that we could continue to enjoy summers in the Alps hiking and perhaps biking, but that left 9 months of every year to fill with vigor and enthusiasm. Our level of fitness crescendo’ed late every spring, reaching its peak in the summers in the mountains, so it just wouldn’t be safe to show up in the Alps out of shape. Luckily for us, pressing harder for answers in the early spring of 2011 started delivering results.

Resistance to Resistance Training

Stumbling upon the book “Younger Next Year” in March 2011 convinced me to increase my commitment to performing a more complete resistance training or weight lifting program but I still didn’t know what that would look like. I really loath being indoors in gyms and yet I am absolutely committed to the importance of being strong, especially as a woman. I hoped to find a middle ground between the usual solution of going to a gym and our lifestyle solution which provided twice daily lifting and toting of panniers, and occasionally carrying my heavy bike, up and down stairs to sustain my upper body strength. There had to be a way to coax myself into weight lifting when I was no longer hoisting bikes and bags. Bill proposed exercise bands as a good home option and began using them while I, less enthused, fiddled with them outdoors several times a week while on our RV trip.

It was being snowbound in our rented RV in Sedona, Arizona in early April and me being further housebound with ankle tendonitis that had me happening upon an infomercial for “P90X Extreme Home Fitness”.  Only because a former colleague had mentioned a few months prior that he was doing the DVD workouts (and found them overwhelmingly difficult) did I even pause to hear the marketing pitch. I was instantly sold. Every workout using weights had an exercise band option, which was perfect for us. Bikes or not, we wouldn’t be hauling around dumbbells or going to gyms as we continued to travel.

Like my friend, I was impressed with the variety of movements and the ‘multiplanar’ approach of P90X, which had many of the resistance movements occurring in 2 or 3 planes, instead of one. Over the last few years I had become sold on the efficiency of integrated movements inherent in many sports as a superior way to build strength and I did not want to exhaust my will power by doing single plane weight lifting. A quick look online reassured me that we could dodge the $200 TV special offer and instead pick-up a set of new DVD’s from Craig’s List for about $60 when back in Portland. And just like clockwork, in less than a week after dropping off our rented RV in Las Vegas, we were cracking open the cello-wrap on our own set of deeply discounted, never-used, disks. 

P90X strength workouts also improve flexibility & balance.

The P90X program proved to be a perfect fit for us. Of all of their routines, the yoga segment was the  least incremental and, in my opinion, most poorly designed for beginners. But that didn’t matter for us because we were both experienced, though a bit rusty, with every pose presented. We knew the cautions that weren’t mentioned, we knew even better ways to modify the poses when needed, and we knew the refinements beyond those described by the instructor.

Another day’s workout was all done bounding on the forefoot or toes, which was right up our alley. We’d been increasingly strengthening the necessary muscles and connective tissue for the last 18 months with our forefoot striking when hiking and jogging and welcomed the additional cross-training for our new gait. So, despite not being weight lifters, we showed up for class with above average preparation for the wide-ranging workouts. And better yet, the challenging workouts confirmed what I had thought was true: we were both already at a pretty high, pretty well-rounded level of fitness level, especially for our age (none of their demo students were gray-hairs).

That being said, we were of course wimps on the scale of weight lifters, which hardly mattered to us. We were there, we were doing it, we were getting all the way through the 60 minute or more workouts, and weren’t striving to take on “The Hulk”. And given that we were new to resistance training, we severely limited the amount of weight used because our muscles would be ready for the loads long before the more vulnerable connective tissue. So we happily started our lifting program with cans and jars from the kitchen cupboards while we waited for the latex-free band set that Bill ordered (in deference to my latex allergy) to arrive. Then we’d switch from the pantry to the bands to supply the resistance but still keep the focus on low ‘weights’ and high reps for months.

Our cyclo-touring lifestyle had been a bit deficient in resistance training and our new, evolving lifestyle had already filled that gap. Whether we continued our travels overseas or at home; on bikes, with public transportation, or in an RV; we’d be able to take our DVDs and bands with us; we’d be able to maintain our resistance training at the level of our choosing for as long as we could motivate ourselves.

(For any accomplished yoga practitioners reading this: consider doing 5 minute headstands with leg variations on a regular basis. I do so daily and the ab strength from that single pose allowed me to almost complete the entire 15 minute P90X ab workout of about 350 rep’s on the first day I tried it. I knew that my ritual was giving me strong abs but I was stunned at how ‘competitive’ my level of strength was.)

Sport, But Which One?

Our “Travel with a Fitness Focus” would still need to revolve around sport to sustain our interest, but which one was the still the question. Cyclo-touring is wondrous but the planning overhead when biking abroad is daunting. We’d accumulated so much experience in Europe that Bill was willing to do the planning on the fly but it still often required several hours a night to refine a route for the next day or to find lodging. Occasionally we would layover for a ‘catch-up’ route planning day.

And you can’t always just go and hope it works out.  Bill abandoned an entire route in Turkey one year because of the long distances between food, water, and lodging and another route in the extreme south of Italy because the highly seasonal lodging was all buttoned up until the heat of summer. Over the years we had many glitches in finding lodging even with careful planning so we learned not to take big risks with it. Repeatedly going overseas for a non-European extended cyclo-tours would require more ongoing planning overhead than we are willing to accept at this point. And for the most part, cyclo-touring in the US is better done as 1 or 2 week loops rather than wandering for months at a time like we are accustomed to doing.

Hard not to love hiking under brilliant blue skies in the late winter.

Hiking had become our ‘other’ sport and we’re considering making it our primary fitness pursuit now. The ‘hiking from an RV’ trip was planned before the EU visa fiasco arose, but the trip to the SW was a rip-roaring success and hiking in the US suddenly rose to the #1 spot. Our lone cyclo-tour many years ago in the US SW didn’t make us want to do that again but this year doing day rides in the many National Parks and Monuments looked like a good cross-training option.  Developing a nasty bit of tendonitis in my ankle towards the end of our RV hiking trip underscored the importance of back-up sports because walking aggravated it whereas biking was tolerable. So, “near-daily hiking with bike day trips in the US” became our newest proposal for the “How”--how we’d get our exercise.

Suddenly, our “travel with a fitness focus” lifestyle for the next decade was gelling. Hiking, day rides, and DVD directed CV and resistance training using bands, perhaps while outdoors, would be the basic diet. We were cautiously re-introducing running as forefoot strikers in minimalist shoes and hoped to blend in some mountain running and neighborhood training runs too.

After hearing about our cycling friends taking a 2 month downhill ski vacation, I began fantasizing about a snow holiday for some variety. Perhaps we could find affordable tourist apartment rentals in the US from which we could cross country ski and/or snowshoe. I’d had a small sample of both sports and Bill had had none, but they seemed inexpensive and easy enough to take-up, especially if our primary goal was a CV workout. Bill wasn’t keen on the idea at first but it didn’t take long for the winter holiday to fill-out in his mind.

Making It Happen

Bill’s exploratory trip in a rented RV in the early spring this year suddenly looked inspired because it gave us first-hand experience with a way to implement the “how” of our new fitness strategy. The key for us would be being outside in decent weather and an RV in the US would do for us what we attempted to do with biking in Europe, which was follow the dry, warm weather. Unlike Europe, the US actually has a pocket of genuinely better weather in the winter, which is in the SW and the many snowbirds there are testament to how reliable it is.

Inspired by the new possibilities: Barb in “Saguaro” Pose.

Buying our own rig so we could follow the footsteps of the moderate weather to the best hiking venues looked to be the obvious answer to our new lifestyle question.  We needed something nimble enough to get us to more trail heads than we could access with the rented RV but something comfortable enough that we could live in it for 6 months at a time. I wanted the rig to accommodate our custom bikes indoors rather than on the back bumper or ladder as is the standard practice in the snowbird community. And those yet-to-be-purchased skis would need to slip in somewhere too.

All of these needs and others were on our minds as we scrutinized daily life in our rented RV and examined the trucks, trailers, 5th wheels, vans, and truck campers of our fellow snowbirds. To make a very long story short, we reluctantly settled on a truck camper as being the best compromise. Unfortunately it was the most expensive option when looking at both the price/square foot of livable space and at the cost to haul that expensive space around. And we still had doubts if we’d go nuts in the small living compartment and if we could stuff everything in that we needed. But we were highly motivated to make it work, so a truck camper became the presumed mode of travel for the next decade.

Visualizing owning a truck and camper was an unsettling process. We hadn’t owned a car for 10 years, hadn’t bought one for 20 years, had begin to wonder if we’d ever own a car again, and then Blam! we were shopping for a long bed, 4x4 truck with an extended cab. For months we thought we’d have to have duallies, or double rear wheels, but we hoped to manage without them and we hoped to get by with gas rather than diesel. The thought of driving one of these monster trucks on some of the narrow city streets in Portland neighborhoods literally kept us awake at night. 

At Least We Have A Plan

We were quite glum after accepting the need to quickly find a new lifestyle when the European cyclo-touring model imploded on us and we eagerly glommed onto this hopeful new image of us hiking from a camper in the SW. At least it was a starting point; at least it would launch us quickly. So, we hope that within a month or so after returning from Europe with our bikes in mid-September that we’ll be heading south in our new (or new to us) truck and camper. We’ll let you know if the plan makes it off of the drawing board.