When I’d Rather Be Out Playing, Here’s Why I Train

Here’s to making the gym a little more like a mountaintop.

A few years ago, I read a caption on Instagram accompanying a photo of a muscled, shirtless adventure man in the mountains. It was about how he had abandoned exercise in the traditional sense–weight-training, gym memberships–for a life so full of adventure and activity that his six-pack had, in fact, gotten even more chiseled (he didn’t say it quite like this, of course). He was in better shape than he had ever been, and all he really had to do was have fun.

I’d love to be that guy. Hike, ski, climb, adventure, and never worry a minute about how my body looks, moves, bends and feels, because it’ll all just work itself out into a neat and symmetrical and impossibly fit machine. But thanks to a lifestyle that has me city-bound six months a year, semi-regular work hours, and a body that wasn’t built-to-perfection for much of anything other than sitting in a hammock and reading a book, I have to work out if I want to maintain any level of fitness. As, I assume, most people do. I get to adventure in bursts: a week in Utah, a weekend in Vermont, 6-week stints of traveling and skiing in the winter. When I’m at home and working, space and time constrain adventure to daydreams and training, even though I’d rather be ski touring, slogging along with a heavy pack, or paddling out than lifting weights and down-dogging.

There are two ways to look at most outdoor sport: sheer hedonism, or a soulful pursuit that requires an insane level of skill, dedication, and fitness. They both ring true, and yet they have always, in my mind, chafed against each other. A friend of mine joked in a bar this winter that “working out is counter-culture” in skiing. Because of course it is–we drink beer and jump off things and spend all of our available time and money on the same damn thing, day after day, until the seasons change and we move on to our next obsession. It’s not exactly good for you. If you call getting up early for every powder day discipline, then, sure, we’re disciplined. But the few times I went to the hotel gym at Alta’s Gold Miner’s Daughter this winter, I was the only one in there. Most of the other live-in employees had something better and more fun to do–ski–than worry about their dwindling triceps or tight hips. But if we want that skiing life to be sustainable–physically or mentally–we need to take care of ourselves. So why don’t we pay more attention to how our bodies are handling all this exertion and abuse?

The time I put in at the gym and on my yoga mat isn’t exciting. I’m not going to post it to Instagram, or remember it fondly in 20 years, or, until today, write home about it. But without the hours I spend in the basement of my local Planet Fitness, grunting my way through lunges and chest presses and seemingly endless ab workouts, the hours balancing and twisting and thinking about my breath on my yoga mat, and the less-than-scenic runs around my neighborhood, I’d never be able to do what I really love to do. Which means I wouldn’t be able to constantly drop in and out of different kinds of physical activity–say, a week of yoga followed by a few days of sedentary travel followed by heinous 14-hour days of packing around 45 pounds in the Cascades. So while I’m happy for (and a little envious of) those who can stay fit and injury-free during their outdoor pursuits without dedicated training and those able to make every workout an adventure, I’ve had to learn to look forward to and relish my less-glamorous activities. And I think it’s high time that the work we put in when we aren’t surrounded by stunning peaks or coastline gets its due.

When I started weight-training at 17, the only thing I knew about caring for my body was that running far made me slender and let me hike faster, and running stairs made my legs strong and let me hike higher. Having the tools to train intentionally was revolutionary: I could build strength in my core and back to help carry large loads or focus on my glutes and thighs in the fall to make the transition into ski season easier. When I stress-fractured my femur at 19–too much running and high-impact training, too little recovery–my physical therapist taught me the importance of strengthening not just the big-ticket muscles but of paying attention to the unique construction–strengths and weaknesses included–of my own body. When I picked up yoga during my recovery, it brought everything together. I learned to recognize poor alignment, to identify my stronger muscles taking over when neglected areas should have been putting in the work. I developed an acute sense of how my body moves through space, which gave me the tools I need to pre-empt overuse injuries and strengthen and stabilize injury-prone joints. My skiing, climbing, and surfing all improved dramatically, not just because of increased fitness, balance, and flexibility, but because I better understood how and why my muscles work the way they do. Better yet, I was able to bring the mindfulness of yoga and mental stamina of gym-bound training into the real world: breathing meditations to take my mind off my aching body during brutal hikes, calming my mind and gathering my focus before an intimidating move on the climbing wall, summoning up the willpower to send it to the end of a long, thigh-splitting couloir when all I really want to do is take a break.

So no, training isn’t my chosen way to sweat. But every time I’m quaking mid-lunge and wishing I had just skipped my morning workout, I remember that the work I’m putting in now is a key part of, say, the volcano climb I’ve got planned in a few weeks. Every time I lower myself into a chatturanga, I’m building strength for that next paddle-out. When I recognize the direct connection between my day-to-day workouts and the things I really look forward to, even the most mundane circuit training becomes an intrinsic part of a life of adventure.

Photo by Paxson Woebler

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Showing 5 comments
  • Levi

    Nice article. As a 36 yr old former mountain guide I’m just now realizing that the quality of the time I spend in the the gym is directly proportional to the quality of the time I get to spend outside. Didn’t use to be this way, but beers, burgers, and babies will wreak havoc on the old body. Here’s to suffering in the gym so we don’t have to suffer outside!

  • Pally boy


  • Lindsay

    Great reminder. It took me until my 30s to figure it out.

  • Adam Weinrich

    Great article – I can relate completely. Recently I started doing workout routines from http://www.mtntactical.com, many of which are specifically designed for mountain sports. (Note; I have zero commercial incentive to mention these guys. I pay them a monthly fee like everyone else.). I’ve always gone to the gym and done yoga like you are describing, but often in a haphazard way and with the thought in the back of my mind that I’d really rather be skiing or paddling and anything else outdoors instead of lugging around dumbbells or doing wheel pose. I’ve found that doing structured excercise routines specifically designed for outdoor sports has super-charged my motivation at the gym each morning. And it also gets even more excited for ski or climbing season to start a “ski pre-season” routine two months before the first snowflake falls.

  • Ryan Hill

    Great insight to the life that most of us lead. Gym time is how you prepare for the goals. It can be tough to remember at times, I forgot it a bit this winter and found myself paying for it this spring.

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