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Getting in Shape for Outdoor Sports Season

By Paola Singer
The Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones

IT’S THAT TIME of year when thoughts turn to hiking, bicycling or simply walking in the park.

Nearly 60% of Americans over 16 take part in at least one outdoor activity, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, a nonprofit unit of the Outdoor Industry Association. But many people are — literally — fair-weather athletes, the foundation found. In a 2004 study on active lifestyles, 59% of respondents said they practiced outdoor activities only when the weather cooperates.

       Health clubs have been sprinting to offer training programs that help such athletes prepare for their active season, with many offering seasonal courses to train for specific outdoor or club sports. About 72% of gyms in the U.S. now have indoor cycling classes that simulate challenging on-the-road bicycle rides, according to a survey by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Next month, New York Sports Club, a chain in the Northeast, will begin offering a six-week program that focuses on increasing speed, strength and range of motion for golf, tennis and softball players.

       To get in shape for a variety of summer sports, we booked personal workout sessions in five health clubs, each lasting about a month. Having a trainer listen to our goals, design our workouts and monitor our progress produced positive results in most cases.

       In Los Angeles, we were intrigued by a program at Myogenics Fitness that promised buff, lean muscles in just 20 minutes a week. According to this program, by using extremely heavy weights and moving them at a sluggish pace, the body builds muscle faster. Just the thing to whip us into shape for a planned trek on a high-altitude trail.

       At Myogenics in West Hollywood, the weights were heavy enough to feel extremely uncomfortable, and after the first session we drove away with our arms shaking. We slogged through four more sessions. Sure enough, the machines seemed to exercise our muscles more thoroughly than anything we had tried before, and the weights we were using on most machines had doubled. We felt ready for the big hike.

       In Jersey City, N.J., we joined New York Sports Club seeking to strengthen our back and arms to prepare for a summer of kayaking. Since we didn’t want to commit to a one-year membership, we had to pay a higher initiation fee, plus the monthly fee, plus a package of five 30-minute training sessions, for a total of nearly $500. We were sweating already. We discussed our objectives with a trainer who created workouts using mostly free weights for our upper body, and a stability ball for core strengthening. The trainer also calculated our target heart rate for cardio exercises. A few days before our fourth session, we found out our trainer was no longer with the company, but the new trainer provided an even more challenging workout. We haven’t had the chance to hop in a kayak yet, but we did rent a boat in Central Park and the rowing was a breeze.

       At Battery Park Swim and Fitness, a New York City gym owned by the Fitness Co., we signed up for four weekly one-hour sessions to get in shape for bicycling and running. We were warned against going overboard and told to focus on safety and good form. The workouts included a treadmill warm-up and easy weight-lifting exercises for all muscle groups, such as bench presses, biceps curls and leg presses, along with squats and crunches.

       Our trainer said consistency was the key and that doing light exercise on a regular basis is a better way to achieve overall fitness than pushing too hard in a crash program. This seemed reasonable, but after the sessions we didn’t feel like we made much progress. It didn’t help that the trainer failed to show up for the fourth session.

       In Atlanta, we joined Crunch Fitness, a health club with locations in several major cities. Our goal was to prepare for mountain biking. Crunch quotes prices that can run as high as $199 for an initiation fee and $69 a month. But after we balked, we were quickly offered several markdowns for membership. We also bought a package of five one-hour training sessions.

       During the first session, the trainer gave us a fitness test, cycling at 80 revolutions per minute, against resistance, for five minutes. We scored average. Then, based on our interests, we were told we needed to work on core strength and balance, which prepares you to absorb the trail bumps involved in mountain biking, and cardio exercises that included an exercise bike programmed for hills and jumping rope.

       The trainer kept notes on our progress and made us keep a diary of our meals, to look for red flags. He consistently pushed us a little further than we thought possible, and advised us to work out at least three times a week and to add cardio. After a month, we could do curls with 20-pound weights (up from 10 on our first day) and our confidence was boosted by learning good form and losing a few pounds.

       In Austin, Texas, we joined Pure Austin, a local health club that labels itself “an indoor gym for outdoor people.” Aiming to get in shape for windsurfing, we paid $65 each for five personal training sessions and $120 for 10 passes to the gym.

       We went over our objectives with a trainer and after two sessions she found which muscle groups needed more work. She created a personalized workout designed to strengthen our core and build our arms, chest, back and legs, and also stressed the importance of stretching.

       In a few weeks, we could do more push-ups; our posture improved; our stomach appeared flatter; we had better definition in our upper body; and our legs were stronger. After a long day of Alpine skiing in April, we weren’t even sore afterward.

Sarah McBride, Valerie Bauerlein, Tim Eaton and Brian Cronk contributed to this article.