When she worked as a dental assistant, Kathleen Zalko didn’t live and breathe fitness. But a career change motivated her to take exercise much more seriously: Now a personal trainer at the gym named after and run by her Ironman husband, Ron, Zalko makes physical activity a priority. She has noticed an increase in energy and has lost more than 25 pounds.
With warmer weather coming, Zalko is as enthusiastic as anyone about spending more time in the great outdoors, whether it’s to play tennis, walk the seawall, or swim at Kits Pool. Although longer, milder days are a great motivator for people wanting to spring back into fitness, Zalko has some advice for those who are itching to return to such activities as in-line skating, cycling, or hiking but who have spent the last few cool months putting the down in downtime.
“Ease back into it,” Zalko says in a phone interview. “Especially if you haven’t done much all winter, you really want to start light. If you like running, don’t try a one-hour run your first time out. Keep it light so that you avoid injury.”
Warm-weather sports like cycling, running, and swimming are outstanding cardiovascular activities. However, Zalko emphasizes the importance of weight training. “Strengthening the muscles will help with everything, every kind of sport,” she says. Equally crucial to improved performance is core conditioning: “Core strength helps support your back and reduces the risk of injury.”
Proper shoes specifically designed for outdoor use are a good investment, she notes, adding that it’s vital to warm up before doing any vigorous physical activity.
With running being one of the most popular Vancouver pursuits, people eager to shed the winter blahs—and bulge—can take cues from those who run regularly.
Consider the “10-percent rule”: allow for a gradual return to your prewinter pace and energy level by increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of your workouts by no more than 10 percent per week.
John Stanton, founder of the Running Room, has other useful tips in the revised Running: The Complete Guide to Building Your Running Program (Penguin, $24). Many of the book’s principles can be applied to any sport or training program.
For instance, Running addresses level of exertion. How can you tell just how hard your body’s working when you’re climbing the Grouse Grind or power-walking along Jericho Beach? An easy way to monitor your physical output is to use the talk test: you should still be able to carry on a conversation. If you can’t, you need to take it down a notch.
Getting back in shape after hibernation doesn’t need to be complicated. Try a few fartleks (the Swedish term for “speed play”). Done just as easily on foot as on a bike or a pair of in-line skates, these low-tech intervals involve short, varied bursts of speed. Pick a landmark, whether it’s a tree, a parked car, or a streetlight, and go at about 80 percent of your maximum effort to get there. Then slow down and let your heart rate reduce before selecting another landmark and doing it over again.
Physical stress should always be combined with rest, Stanton explains, to allow the body time to recover and repair. Overtraining involves doing too much too soon.
“Even in the early stages of a fitness program, physiological balance can be re-established in approximately 24 hours,” he writes. “Start out by exercising no more than every other day or a minimum of three times per week.”
And avoid becoming a weekend warrior. Exercising on alternate days instead of going hard all weekend and doing nothing during the work week will help you avoid injury.
Zalko recommends doing yoga or going for leisurely walks on rest days.
Mixing things up is another universal principle when it comes to fitness. Cross-training—participating in several activities—strengthens your whole body without straining or injuring sport-specific muscles and joints. Too much of the same thing, particularly on a body that’s not ready for so much repetition, can easily result in overuse injuries.
Cross-training also boosts endurance and promotes smooth action between muscle groups, according to Stanton. Plus, it provides much-needed variety: Boredom is a common reason people give up on exercise.
Working out with other people is a remarkably effective way to stick with a fitness program. Stanton describes the power of the group run as “amazing”: by expanding your circle of like-minded friends and being exposed to a team atmosphere, you make running a way of life.
For those who like group exercise classes but don’t want to be stuck inside a gym when the weather’s nice, Zalko suggests signing up for an outdoor boot-camp course. These high-energy workouts take place rain or shine. (Ron Zalko Fitness offers sessions at the Seaforth Armoury.)
When you’re playing outside, don’t forget about the elements: remember to use sunscreen, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Exercising outdoors can be dangerous during a smog alert. Even healthy people can experience trouble breathing, throat irritation, and coughing or wheezing. On those occasions, Stanton suggests rescheduling your run or taking it inside to an air-conditioned facility.
The rewards of training include weight loss, stress relief, improved mood, increased energy, and better self-esteem. And as Stanton puts it in his book, everyone has an inner athlete just waiting to get up and go. Zalko would agree with that.