Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Workouts

Winter has again descended upon the Midwest with its icy, snowy fury. It is a beautiful yet bone-chilling time, with winter winds whipping across the prairies and lakes at a ridiculous number of miles per hour.

Some days are worse than others, of course, and winter brings lots of opportunities to sneak in workouts that aren't even really seen as workouts. Sledding, hiking in the snow, and skiing are all vigorous activities. The extra calories your body burns just being outside, combined with the activities, make these fun activities extremely effective workouts.

Even with that being said, though, there is no doubt that winter comes with its own challenges. There are fun, active days, yes. Then there are the other days. Days when even the dogs don't want to go outside to relieve themselves, the streets are too slick to walk on, the temperature is too low for the kids to safely sled more than five minutes.

Days of sitting on the couch inside. Days of comfort foods like hot chocolate and thick cream-of-anything soup. Days of work days that either are or seem to be longer, since they start and end in darkness. Days of growing rear ends and bellies!

So how do we overcome the winter blahs? How do we break the cycle of working so hard to get in shape over the summer only to grow soft over the winter, again?

This is a question I have asked myself each year, and one I will probably ask myself every winter for the rest of my life. Its also one where there are a lot of different opinions, and many good ideas available as answers.

The three most common answers seem to be as follows:

1. Bring your favorite outdoor activity inside, and make it interesting enough to stick with it.

Admittedly, depending on your favorite activity, this could be a substantial investment. Cycling enthusiasts use everything from stationary bikes to literally bringing their outdoor bike inside and hooking it up to a trainer or rollers. Walkers have the treadmill, runners have better treadmills, and swimmers have the gym. Better off swimmers even have indoor swimming pools that work similar to treadmills. Talk about investment!

These things alone are not enough though. Most people quickly find that although they mimic the outdoor activity, they are not as challenging, mentally or physically.

You can combat this effect to some degree by adding some bells and whistles, such as DVDs that simulate outdoor conditions, like Spinnervals or Runnervals, heart-rate monitors and iFit workouts to be sure you keep up the fitness levels you would normally sustain outside. Also, there are some really great phone apps out there as well that will keep time for you and work you through intervals of your choosing.

2. Dress warmer and do it outside anyway.

Obviously, this one relies on the fact that it is possible to do your preferred workout outside safely in the winter. Runners, walkers, and some cyclists fall into this category. If you go this route, a few precautions should be observed.

Dress warmer should really be dress appropriately. Stay close to home and at least have a general idea of what conditions signal hypothermia and frostbite. Wear fabric that is made to keep you warm, yet wick your body sweat away from you to keep you dry. Shoes should be switched out to more appropriate winter gear, to be warm enough and also to provide proper traction. Cyclists may consider more appropriate winter tires. Winter also usually means more darkness, so visibility should be a top concern. Consider wearing reflective clothing, and bike lights are required in all fifty states after dark.

Buddies are excellent for winter workouts. Someone to keep pace with and also to keep your mind off the cold can be a valuable asset for the long winter months. Check with the local gyms or bike shops for groups or individuals who share your routine.

3. Switch to a completely different base activity.

Many people truly believe that this is one of the healthiest options. The epitome of cross-training, this option allows you to focus on the areas that may have been neglected during the other months of the year.

Walkers could try indoor stationary bikes, which work different leg muscles than their regular activities, yet burn just as many calories and are just as intensive aerobically. Runners could do step routines, which is still an impact, aerobic exercise but works similar muscles to cycling rather than running. Cyclists could focus on mid- to upper body strength training, as these areas are often neglected during the cycling season, and round it off with a nice treadmill walking routine to build bone strength.

Balance your new activity with your goals in your old activity. If you are a swimmer, you need strength training and aerobics to keep in line with your goals. If you are a cyclist, you need to tone your upper body without bulking so much that the added weight will deter from your speed when you return in the spring. Runners should still have some routines that add impact, to keep up with the bone strength they need when they return.

In the spring, you should plan for a light load at first to ease you back in to your preferred activity. Although you may initially feel like you have fallen behind, you will quickly bounce back and the current theory is you will actually then surpass your prior fitness levels. This is due to the cross-training and alternatively resting your usual routine to avoid burnouts and plateaus.

...The three ideas actually sound really good, don't they? In theory, any one of those could carry us through a healthy winter and leave us raring to go come springtime.

Myself, I bounce back and forth among the top ideas. I do a little cross-training, I do a little outdoors, and unfortunately, I do a little sitting around. Yet this year, as every year before, I am determined to break through the winter blahs and remain physically fit.

Fitness is a journey, after all, and it will be interesting to see how my winter journey held up when spring finally arrives.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I am officially a cyclist - I love to bike

I realized this past weekend that I don't just like to bike, I love it.

I know that sounds pretty simple and doesn't really seem like something that would require a lot of thought, however, it still surprised me when the idea struck me.

I love to bike.

I started biking as a form of exercise, to gain muscle strength, to trim a few pounds. I continued because I liked it.

But I seek it out, plan around it, and look forward to it because I love it.

I love the way the wind feels.

I love zipping around corners.

I love working hard to get up a hill, and then racing down it.

I love that I can simultaneously do something that burns so many calories while just hanging out with my kids.

I love that its mostly free, that maintenance is easy, and that I can spend as much or as little money on the hobby as I want.

I love that its changing my outlook on things like vacation and free time.

I love that I don't have a TV show for every night of the week now.

I love that whether there is a half hour of daylight after work or three, there is plenty of time to get in a quick ride.

I love the clothes, the gear, the feel of the saddle.

I love passing cars and even, call me crazy, getting buzzed by cars.

I love "taking the lane" and using hand signals.

I love being part of another society, a group all our own.

I love to bike, and therefore I am a cyclist.

Who knew?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Active Vacations - Ace is the Place!

This year, we have been on a fitness quest. Determined to keep fitness up front and center in our new healthier lifestyle, we tried to decide on a vacation that would be within our budget, relaxing, entertaining, and most importantly, active.

Finding this balance for both my husband and I seemed hard enough, but adding to it two children of very different activity levels and capabilities made it seem near impossible.

We searched many "adventure destination" websites and pamphlets, only to find that many were beyond what the kids could handle or way beyond what our wallets could handle.

I was looking at cabins everywhere from Colorado to Tennessee, and becoming more overwhelmed by the minute. Until I stumbled on Ace.

Ace Adventure Resort is located in Oak Hill, West Virginia, a mere eight hour drive for us in Northwestern Indiana. It has cabins, tents, RV sites, and various other levels of accommodations on the property. It has miles and miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails. It has woods, it has hills, and it has fishing and swimming lakes.

Best of all is the "Play Lake," included free of charge for every day that you either stay with Ace or take part in one of their various tours.

It is a huge play lake with giant inflatable playgyms, including a trampoline, balance beam "runners", climbing icebergs, and various slides. It also has a lake zipline and giant slide, accessible by climbing up a forty foot tower of stairs.

For families, this lake seals the deal.

Of course, various other packages are available to add on to your vacation, such as river rafting, rock climbing, mud obstacle course, horseback trail rides, ATV rentals, to name a few. Zip-line canopy tours, mountain biking tours - the list goes on and on.

Our family decided to go on the Class II and III river rafting all-day tour. It was well worth it. An Ace bus takes you safely down to the launching point on the river, and you are loaded up with PFDs and helmets and paddles.

You are assigned a tour guide, and all the guides are friendly, helpful, and FUN. There is a lunch break about mid-trip, and the food is phenomenal. At the end of the trip, you are greeted with much appreciated child and adult beverages, and a light-hearted bus ride back to the resort.

The scenery is beautiful, the weather pleasant, and the cabins we stayed in clean and well-stocked.

For an awesome, fun, and active family vacation, we highly recommend Ace Adventure Resort. Well worth it!

Check out all the details and activities at their website

You will not regret it. Maybe we will see you there next year!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Finding Rails-to-Trails Beauty in West Virginia

"Oh I wouldn't leave your car down there though. I'd just walk it. I wouldn't leave my car down there," the guide reiterated.

Disappointment had to have shown on my face. I was determined to find the Minden-Thurman Trailhead, and now that I did find it, and confirmed it, there was a mile of mountain between me and the supposed no-parking zone.

"We wouldn't mind the ride back, but we have the kids. About how far would you say it was?" I asked, hopefully, wanting to hear something like a half a mile.

"Over a mile for sure. Maybe two," she answered, then again, "but I wouldn't leave your car down there."

Again with the car warning. Now, there is a parking lot at the trailhead, mind you. Its on the map, and its in all the guides handouts, and we've seen it as we passed. Other than not being well marked, it is there. It exists.

However, it is at the edge of not only the national park, the New River Gorge no less, but also a very poor, very old, very forgotten old mining town of Minden. While the people of Minden looked just like any other small town people to my husband and I, when a local warns you not to park down there (repeatedly), you figure you better not take your chances with the only vehicle you have with you five hundred miles from home.

I practically stomped back to the truck and my awaiting husband.


"We have a few options," I started. "The first three involve us splitting up, and the fourth involves a drive over to the Southside trailhead and skipping the Minden-Thurman altogether."

We discuss for a moment the first three options, then decide that maybe leaving a woman and her two young kids in the woods in an area that is not safe to park in may not really be an option at all. Ditto to the woman riding down the side of the mountain (and more slowly back up it) by herself in the same area.

We drove to the Southside trail, against all of our plans.

Finding the Southside trailhead was just as exciting, especially winding around on West Virginia's beautiful but ridiculously danger-ridden roads with their excessive use of warning signs. Every turn showed trucks tipping over, warned of dangerous grading and brake-inspections before use, and of course the ever present threat and signs of falling rocks. Not the least of which were actual boulders bigger than a small automobile sitting dangerously close to the road after having obviously fallen, again proving the need for the massive truck we had decided to use for the trip.

We started the zigzagging drive around to our new destination. Marveling at the beauty of the area and the abundance of natural waterfalls we saw along the way, we were still discussing the possibility of leaving the truck empty with the windows down and a sign that says "Nothing good here" on the front seat. My husband was insistent, however, that it wasn't so much what was in the truck that would be stolen, but that the truck itself would be gone and stripped before we finished our ride. I have to admit, he did point out a few choice houses along the way that made it seem a real possibility.

Another mountain-scaling drive down into the riverbed area, a few more wrong turns (for all of WV's signs, they sure are missing a lot of trailhead signs), and three quarters of a very large gas tank later, we arrive at the parking area.

To a sign that states, "Commercial vehicles only."

Laughing, still in good spirits in the impenetrable way only vacations can create, I ask a National Park Service worker where we are supposed to park. A few minutes later, we are on the trail, and on our way.

Let me just say, if I had to WALK down the mountain carrying my kids and my gear on my bike, this trail is so worth it. It runs a gorgeous seven-plus miles next one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. There are just enough people to remind you to share, and miles where you may not see anyone at all.

There are inlets and footpaths down to the river, one of which we used to stop for lunch. The views are spectacular, the terrain on the trail almost flat, with easy grades leading slowly up and rolling slowly back down.

Its one of the rails-to-trails which are not paved, and I hope it stays that way. It is wide and open, yet rides immediately next to a drop off down to the river and a steep slope up on the other side. It is heavily wooded but you are not ever on single-track or crashing into tree branches. It is everything rails-to-trails strives to be, and well worth the effort to get there.

For the more ambitious of you, or at least for those not toting along a reluctant nine year old and a chatty pre-teen, there is a connector path of less than a half mile, to allow access to the Minden-Thurman trail and another three-plus miles of heaven.

Be warned, though, that you may have to walk your bike on the rocky connector, and you will have to carry it up a short set of stairs built around a rockslide once on the Minden-Thurman.

All in all, it was a beautiful day. We stopped for a hot lunch of tacos and chips, cooked earlier, on large flat rocks big enough for the whole family and seemingly made just for picnicking along the beautiful New River.

We saw rafters forging a Class III rapids, then catching an eddy to pick up their photographer. We saw a train ambling by across the river on the new tracks, and more blue heron and monarch butterflies than can be counted.

I had a healthy, active, fulfilling outdoor day with my children and husband, with beautiful pictures of a picnic by the river and a day on the trail.

Cherish the memories. Cherish the ride.

To find a rails-to-trails system, go to their website at:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fitness for the Frugal - 5 Items NOT to Skimp On

Fitness items come in waves of fads and fashions, but here are a few necessities that we shouldn't skimp on:

1. Water bottles

Reused disposable water bottles can leak harmful chemicals into your drinks, as can cheaply made plastic washable bottles. Opt for stainless steel or BPA-free plastics and remember, you will not have to replace it nearly as often.

2. Shoes

Proper footwear is key. It can mean the difference between injury and fitness, comfort and blisters. Hiking shoes have extra grips, running shoes extra cushions, biking shoes that allow for clip-ins. Shoes are often on clearance, especially if you are more worried about price than color or style, but always have a good pair suitable for your activity.

3. Helmets and safety gear

This one is a no-brainer. It doesn't have to have a designer label on it, but safety gear for whatever sport you are choosing should be something you never skimp on. Helmets should be appropriate for the activity and should be replaced if they are ever subjected to a heavy impact. They have done their job at that point and they need to be retired. Ropes and climbing gear should be inspected before every use for frays and weak points, etc. Staying safe should be a higher priority than saving money. If you can't afford the gear for a certain activity, choose another one until your first preference is within your financial limits.

4. UV Protection

Even winter sports fanatics can be sensitive to the sun's rays reflecting off the snow, and summer sports fanatics know that sunscreen, sunglasses, and the right clothes make long trips and the days following much more pleasant than a nasty case of sunburn. If you are at a high risk for skin cancer or sensitive to the sun due to illness or medications, this goes double (or triple!) for you.

5. A great attitude

Absolutely free! Don't let money worries ruin your plans. Choose something within your limits - there is always something within reach. There are local, state and national parks available to use free of charge. There are discount vacations, natural wonders, and adventures right outside your front door if you know where to look. Bad weather, injury, and other minor catastrophes will happen, unfortunately. But with a great attitude, it can become a tiny mishap compared to a ruined day.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Survival of the Fittest...Or the Most Prepared?

There are a lot of shows on TV these days focusing on survival tactics. From extreme heat to extreme cold, from inner city riots to post-apocalyptic scenarios, cable television plays out over and over again the basic needs of survival.

Most of the survival situations come upon us unannounced - for example, a vehicle breaks down in the desert or a plane crashes into the water. Most of them we cannot relate to, and hopefully will never have to recall them.

However, we often put ourselves into (albeit less) dangerous situations on our planned outdoor excursions without even realizing it.

Like last week, for example, I decided to bike about halfway back from our hiking trip. I had my husband drop me and my bike off on the side of the road when we reached six miles from home.

"Are you sure?" He asked me worriedly. "Its pretty windy out today."

"I'll be fine," I nearly scoffed back at him. "We do six all the time and this is all flat this way!"

He drove off in his truck, I put my helmet and backpack on, and followed on my bike. Within minutes the truck was far from sight down the long country back road. The wind, however, was brutal.

Determined not to give in, I pedaled on. I was thrilled when I found the street that marked my halfway point, because it meant I'd be turning south and finally have the wind at my back. Only as I pedaled further after the turn, I realized - this wasn't the right road.

I was close to home, so I was not lost. I knew exactly where I was. I also knew the road I was on and the road going home did NOT meet. At all. The road I was on led to a busy, busy highway with a shoulder just wide enough for Evel Knievel to ride his bike along next to the speeding semi-trucks.

And I wasn't him.

My six mile ride home turned into a nine mile ride home, of which one half mile was ridden on lawns and fields along the above mentioned highway to avoid the shoulder catastrophe. So it also, besides growing in length, turned into a mountain bike ride.

It was a hot sunny day, but I had a backpack full of water, graham crackers, and fruit snacks. I had a helmet and a cell phone and identification. The most danger I was in was having to face the embarrassment of calling my husband and admitting to him what I did wrong on the ride.

However, had I left without my phone, or without water and snacks, it could've been another story altogether. If I had been hit by a car and didn't have my wallet, how would they know who I was? Or who to call?

If I didn't come home on time, where would my husband look for me? Certainly not on the roads I was on. If I was smart, I would've called or texted him an update. I could've said I had plenty of energy and was taking the long way - to avoid the embarrassment - instead of hiding in shame and risking the highway without anyone knowing I was even on it!

My friend and I went hiking the other day, and I brought four water bottles total for myself and my two kids, plus water in the cooler in the car to refill. She brought two water bottles for herself and three kids.


Often we purposely put ourselves into situations where we could dehydrate, get poison ivy, get lost, get injured, all for the sake of having fun while staying fit. It makes sense to at least carry a small bag of gear to deal with these things or avoid them completely.

We need to have fun, be brave, get fit, explore. But we need to be prepared!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Don't Judge a Book by its Helmet

"Be careful!"

Two little words. They mean well - they shouldn't be enraging. Its almost comical really.

I'm sure it would get a good laugh, and I'm sure tomorrow I'll laugh about it. Because it is kind of humorous, right? Except tonight it isn't.

Not to me tonight. Not to me sore and wishing I was just the same and carefree as everyone else seems to be.

I was out on my bike ride today - my newest obsession in my quest for fitness. I have found that I love to ride. When I ride, the only hurts I feel are good hurts, like the burn of exercise a normal person feels, the burn of muscles rebuilding, getting stronger. Not the aching of joints and shots of nerve pain, but pure strong exhilaration.

Yet one of my problems is I get dizzy. I'm on meds too, and one of their side effects - you guessed it - dizziness. Double doses of dizziness, great!

I don't fall down (yet), but it can be disorientating. So I decided if I'm going to ride a bike and zip down hills and fly around corners and share the road with cars, I'm going to wear a helmet. Because with my luck, one of those moments, those zipping moments, will be the first time I fall.

And herein lies the problem.

Because I don't go all out with the style - I don't commit. I ride a mountain bike, as of now, until I save up enough pennies for a road bike. I wear jeans. Yep, jeans. I wear a light, or white, t-shirt, and its usually baggy.

None of this builds a picture of speed in your head, does it?

So I can see why the friendly neighborhood man thought the helmet a bit out of place. I could see why he might mistake me for someone else, someone with a more severe disability.

I can see, just a teeny, tiny, eensy, weensy bit why he would smile at me like I am "special."

Yet I am mad!

"Be careful," he says as I pass, with that smile you reserve for children or the naive or the slow.

"Be careful."

And I ride on, enraged.

But I still wear my helmet. Most of us should wear helmets. Some of us need helmets. Others don't need to know why.

Tomorrow I will laugh about this. For tonight, though, I just ride.