Fresh Air

by Judd Handler on May 01, 2003

Developing outdoor training programs can enrich your client’s exercise experience and provide an additional revenue stream for your business.

Do you ever feel like a remote island in the sea of competition for clients? Take heart; you’re not alone.

The expanding world of fitness options has spawned myriad training studios, gyms and specialty services. Within a few-mile radius in your city, it may be common to find an array of coexisting exercise options: small fitness studios, large-chain gyms, women-only express workout businesses, SuperSlow resistance training enterprises and, of course, the ubiquitous yoga and Pilates studios. Such a smorgasbord can be good for both consumers and trainers, but the sword slices both ways. With so much competition, how can you ensure that your business isn’t passed by when another fitness entrepreneur sets up shop down the street?

Consider diversifying your services and standing out from the rest by offering your clients the option of training outdoors.

Arguably, modern Americans spend more time indoors, perhaps reluctantly, than ever before. As more consumers have pushed to escape their responsibility-imposed indoor incarceration, outdoor fitness programs have begun to catch on. In January 1999, IDEA Health & Fitness Source reported that “as baby boomers age, they crave adventure and a chance to exercise outdoors after being stuck inside for hours in front of a computer…” In the 4-year interim since that article appeared, both consumer hunger for outdoor training experiences and the number of PFTs willing to accommodate this trend have grown.

According to a State of the Industry Report released in 2003 by the Outdoor Industry Association, the number of people recreating outdoors has grown significantly. More than 69 percent of the population—149 million Americans—participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2001. That’s a lot of potential clients.

An increasing number of PFTs training both individuals and small groups aim to enrich their clients’ workouts and lives by incorporating easily accessible outdoor settings—such as parks, beaches and trails—into their program designs. Experienced outdoor trainers report that an outdoor walk, jog or hike can not only rejuvenate a client’s body but also feed his mind and soul. Beyond this basic use of the outdoors for exercise, other clients want to be pushed to the extreme; these people have driven the growth of adventure sports training and fitness boot camps.

However, not all clients are so eager to train outdoors. You may need to convince them of the benefits of outdoor exercising before they agree to try it. Balance is another key: Most people enjoy a combination of indoor and outdoor training.

Once you decide to take it outside, do your homework. In this article, a few trainers share how they successfully carved a niche in this arena for themselves.

Scouting Locations

Perhaps the most obvious questions to answer in considering outdoor training is what you plan to do outdoors and where you plan to go. These tips may help you answer those questions.

Take Advantage of Free Facilities. “If you don’t have access to a nearby beach or park, check out high schools in your area,” suggests Karen Martin, an independent certified trainer in Cocoa Beach, Florida. “Many have basketball and tennis courts, tracks, fields and a football stadium.” In addition to taking advantage of Florida’s beaches and parks as prime training locations, Martin makes the most out of local high schools’ free training amenities. “You can’t beat stadium stair climbing for a high-intensity cardiovascular workout,” she says. “To get the most out of stairs, use them for exercises such as lunges, step-ups, dips and push-ups.”

A park is another useful training venue. You don’t have to pay a park to use its resistance training equipment: Park benches, picnic tables, and chin-up and pull-up bars can be employed for upper-body strength workouts. Be imaginative. If you’re the type of trainer who invents new exercises in your sleep, take that creativity outdoors, but don’t forget to bring your regular bag of tricks with you. Bands, tubes, medicine balls and other training implements can all be used outdoors.

Consider the Terrain in Your Area. What outdoor activities can you do in nearby settings? For instance, if you’re a trainer in Miami, you’re obviously not going to take a client ice fishing, but, if you are in Minnesota and have a client who knows how to ice skate, that can be the client’s cardio session for the day. (You can use ice fishing as your cool-down.)

Explore the Land Before Taking a Client Outdoors. Training outdoors increases the risk of injuries. If you’re going to take somebody for a hike, scout the location beforehand and become familiar with every crevice, crack and divot.

Real-Life Applications

Attorney and certified personal trainer Al Amado, founder and owner of Amado Fitness/OutFit in Houston, has trained clients outdoors for more than 5 years. Some of the Houston landmarks where he trains are Braes Bayou, Terry Hershey Park and Ant Hills Bayou Trail.

Years ago, Amado had a revelation that “working out just to look good or pumping iron just for the sake of pushing weights around is not much fun.” At first, selling his clients on the benefits of outdoor training was a challenge; many were reluctant to train outdoors because of the lack of resistance training equipment. “Some of my clients had the attitude that machines are best,” he says. “That’s what they had been indoctrinated to think, so I had to educate them and change their perspective.”

Amado introduces his clients to functional, multiplanar movement and then adds resistance. “Suddenly, they find resistance training in rustic settings with logs and stones quite challenging,” he notes. Estimating that 75 to 80 percent of his business comes from outdoor, sport-specific training, Amado now finds his main struggle with clients to be bringing them back inside the gym to use machines, barbells and dumbbells.

“There’s a lot more to personal training than how much your client can bench or curl,” says Markus Heon, a boot camp-style trainer at Cardiffit Gym in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, who has been taking clients outdoors for 10 years. Heon conducted small-group boot camp training for U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers while stationed in Germany and, although he doesn’t look down on conventional indoor resistance training, says that the “big bulky guys who can bench a ton” are typically the ones who lag behind in his outdoor boot camps.

Like Heon, Amado believes in the yin-yang relationship between indoor training and outdoor training: “I tell my clients that, like life, training has to be balanced.” Amado instructs his clients to “learn it inside and take it outside.” If you’re going to train clients outdoors, first teach them the movements in the gym so they can apply them functionally outside.

Brian Buturla—personal trainer; certified yoga and qigong teacher; and owner of Brian Buturla Private Studio Personal Training in Norwalk, Connecticut—says that he has been training clients outdoors ever “since the florescent lights, banging weights and roar of the treadmills started giving me a headache about 12 years ago.” Connecticut’s Sherwood Island State Park, Compo Beach and Devils Den are some of his favorite locations for training clients.

“Gravity is the ultimate resistance if you do your job right and know how to harness its power,” Buturla says. “Medicine balls, tornado balls, sand, rocks, trees, water, cliffs, playgrounds, tracks, bleachers and other natural obstacles can all be used in different ways to deliver a resistive force that your clients will never forget and ultimately must understand and master.”

Buturla concurs with Amado and Heon that outdoor training provides more real-life applicability. “Most machines produce great hypertrophic results that do not translate into real, balanced, functional human strength out of the gym or lab-like environment,” he says. Nonetheless, do his clients complain about the lack of outdoor resistance training? By using his knowledge and being creative, Buturla has managed to satisfy clients concerned about this.

According to him, building muscle in an outdoor environment is easy: “Just pick three or four plyometric exercises that your client can safely learn and perform. Then mix in cardiovascular and abdominal work and a unique warm-up that includes elements of dynamic movement.” Buturla, who first experimented with outdoor training in 1992 by taking clients out to a parking lot for wind sprints, says that, by using this training combination, you can create your first successful outdoor training session.

The Mind-Body-Soul Connection

“The same four walls get boring, no matter how many times you update your equipment,” adds Buturla, who trains in small-group and one-to-one sessions. He and other outdoor trainers claim that people naturally gravitate to being outside. He believes that becoming healthy and fit is all about returning to nature and balance and that how we function in our natural environment is essential to our health.

“The wind, water, earth and air are all vital forces and elements that people need to stay healthy and balanced. I feel that learning how to be less automated and more like our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago is one of the most important things I can teach my clients,” Buturla says.

People love outdoor training because it not only provides a varied workout but also nourishes their spirit, according to Barefoot Sage founder Susan LeSage, who, in addition to personal training, organizes small-group training trips to the Grand Canyon and the mountains near her Santa Monica, California, home. “My clients tell me they want to reconnect with nature,” she says. “They realize that exercising not only is about sculpting the body but also is a vehicle for emotional and spiritual health.”

LeSage thinks that nature grounds people and that outdoor training transcends their health. She conceived her small-group outdoor training business 12 years ago, believing that personal trainers have a responsibility and calling to get people moving and help them discover their authentic selves. “Starting an outdoor program is challenging and takes tremendous dedication,” she says. She also points out that training clients outdoors requires a different system of teaching because, unlike a gym or studio, the outdoors is an uncontrolled environment.

Trainer Catherine D’Aoust—who owns and operates GAIA (Earth Goddess) Adventures in Vancouver, British Columbia—says that fitness clubs and gyms can be stuffy, crowded, smelly and noisy. D’Aoust focuses her outdoor training on women, who, in her estimation, can be intimidated by the gym environment and often bored by doing one routine repeatedly. “In the outdoors, those considerations disappear,” she says. “The fresh air, sunshine and majestic vistas of bodies of water and mountains offer not only a myriad of training choices but also spiritual and physical fulfillment.”

D’Aoust admits that a midlife crisis at age 40 pulled her away from the security of a 12-year engineering job and led her to a PFT career that has evolved into taking clients rock climbing, hiking, cross-country skiing and kayaking. Instead of putting her clients on conventional indoor cardio machines, she uses Vancouver’s local 3,000-foot natural stair climber, the Grouse Grind, to get them in shape.

Adventure Sports and Boot Camp Training

Adventure Sports

Humans constantly strive to conquer new terrain. Indeed, the 1990s saw best-selling books and movies about the growing popularity of climbing Earth’s largest peaks, including Mt. Everest. Eco-Challenges have also become increasingly popular, further showing that, whereas some people may feel out of their comfort zone by going outside for a walk, others need a grueling outdoor training regimen to feel refreshed.

With that in mind, Tony Molina of Santa Monica, California, believes that some people won’t settle for a stroll in the woods, because they need to challenge themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. (Molina—a former U.S. Marine amphibious-reconnaissance team leader and Gulf War veteran who has completed every Eco-Challenge to date, placing as high as fourth in 1998 in Morocco—owns Adventure Fitness Training with his wife, Valerie. Between them, they have 20 years of private outdoor training experience.) If, for example, a client informs Molina, whose business is predominantly one-to-one, that his goal is to participate in the New Zealand Coast-to-Coast Solo Adventure Race, his training regimen might include not only an ocean kayaking excursion with surf entries and exits but also Eskimo roll practice followed immediately by a lactate-threshold run up a mountain with a backpack.

Although most clients won’t request such intense, specialized training, Molina advises trainers to “pick a sport and become very proficient in it.” He also suggests, “Stop the bodybuilding mentality. Unless your clients are working to become bodybuilders (for which most don’t have the genetic makeup), train them to enhance their lives.”

Molina’s clients bike the local Los Angeles-area canyons and use Malibu Creek State Park for orienteering, climbing and endurance training. He even had to invest in kayaks, cargo nets, climbing gear and ropes, surfboards, wetsuits and balance boards to complete his equipment retinue.

For most PFTs, outdoor training is not a standalone revenue stream but a nice supplemental source, some earning approximately half of their income this way. Molina is the rare trainer who has built not just a niche but a full-on business and earns a healthy income ($75 to $110 per session, depending on the package chosen) by focusing on certain adventure sports.

Boot Camp Training

According to Amado, if you plan to offer boot camp-style training, you should be careful of how you market your services; some people may be turned off by the phrase “boot camp.” “I don’t like ‘boot camp,’ because it implies, ‘Hammer my butt as much as you can and drive me into the dirt,’” he says.

Whether passing out business cards or flyers or placing ads, consider whether or not the boot camp crowd is really a market that you think you are qualified to teach and one from which you can draw significant income. If you go ahead with outdoor boot camp training, keep in mind that you don’t need to yell at your clients like a drill sergeant.

“I don’t look at it from a military angle at all,” Molina says. He incorporates into his training some of the choreographed evolutions he learned while in “recon,” but he weaves them into an athletic expedition race setting by using exercise science themes for implementation.

Paul St. Ruth—athletic manager of Arrowhead Alpine Club in Vail, Colorado—started a boot camp class nearly a decade ago. Several of his friends and club members would join him for workouts in Vail’s pristine settings, and, eventually, St. Ruth, a personal trainer and certified kayaking instructor, was teaching a formal class. Currently, he is training two people for their first multidiscipline adventure race.

“For different reasons, I think that some of my clients were intimidated by the gym and that others were bored,” St. Ruth says. Luckily, some of the popular activities in Vail require strenuous physical exertion. He regularly takes his clients snowmobiling, kayaking and mountain biking. “I train people to be the best kind of all-around athlete, and, in my opinion, the best athletes are the ones with a cross-training lifestyle,” he says.

To Be Certified or Not to Be Certified?

For technical skills such as climbing and kayaking, Molina feels that certifications are mandatory to “execute client risk management properly.” However, he doesn’t feel that certifications are necessary for other, nontechnical activities such as jogging, flat-road bicycling, running and trail hiking. For his clients’ needs, Molina believes that his being one of only three people to compete in every Eco-Challenge to date is “enough certification for a lifetime.”

One person who strongly believes in outdoor training certification is Tina Vindum, founder of Outdoor Action Fitness in the San Francisco area. Also an IDEA presenter and ACE-certified personal trainer, Vindum created the Outdoor Action Fitness Certification for fitness professionals. She charges $269 (plus $30 for materials) for the extensive 2-day, 13-hour workshop, which includes lectures and hands-on physical training experience. Upon successful completion of the written and practical exam, participants obtain a certificate of completion (1.0 ACE CECs) for the Outdoor Action Fitness-Level I Workshop. To qualify for the complete Level I certification, participants have 90 days to complete a second education module through a self-study program utilizing the course materials in the instructor manual.

Why does Vindum, a former world-champion mountain biker, see the need for an outdoor training certification? “We see more and more people take to outdoor and boot camp-style training,” she points out. “There are no set standards or guidelines for fitness professionals who want to teach in the outdoors.” Vindum claims to have both witnessed accidents and heard horrific stories involving people seriously injured in boot camps and other outdoor training pursuits. In contrast, she has seen only one sprained ankle in her program since starting it in 1995.

The Outdoor Action Fitness course prepares trainers for many types of outdoor terrain, whether Manhattan’s Central Park, a Kansas corn field, a Colorado mountain peak or a sunny Southern California beach. The program also teaches how to create, structure and administer a safe, effective and time-efficient program.

“Outdoor training is a wonderful way to augment a trainer’s indoor programming,” says Vindum, who also trains clients privately for approximately $75 per session. She believes that, if a trainer (or fitness club) offers outdoor fitness in addition to indoor training, the trainer will both gain and retain clients.

Another reason Vindum created her certification program is to help trainers who struggle with structuring outdoor programs and setting up their businesses to include outdoor sessions. Her program provides information on scouting locations, spotting, exercise form, communication, terrain issues, bugs, poisonous plants, weather factors and proper clothing.

John Spencer Ellis, president of the National Endurance Sports Trainers Association (NESTA) since 1992, has developed a very successful format for boot camp fitness. He offers an ACE-approved adventure fitness certification (1.8 CECs). Ellis’ certification course lasts 3 days at his fitness resort in the mountains of Big Bear, California, and includes business database software packages and a 3-year mentorship program. At $2,500, the cost of this certification is hefty but also includes a consultation with registered dieticians, unlimited toll-free consulting, ad slicks, logo artwork, online marketing strategies and more.

Obviously, if you’re mellow by nature, boot camp might not be for you. “It’s definitely more exhausting than one-to-one indoor training,” says Ellis, one of two trainers who teach at his boot camps. Nonetheless, despite the physical exertion, he finds that conducting small-group boot camps is more rewarding than indoor training. “Because every day is different, the boot campers are constantly excited and their energy is always high,” he says. “It’s like you’re on stage. You get that same rush.”

Although general (non-sport-specific) outdoor training certifications are neither required nor ubiquitous, having one will increase your clients’ confidence in you. On the other hand, if you’re a fitness professional with lifelong experience in outdoor training, the certificate is just, as GAIA Adventures’ D’Aoust puts it, “icing on the cake, a resume builder.”

Marketing Strategies

You’ve scouted your location, obtained sufficient liability coverage (discussed in “Liability Issues” on page 20) and perhaps notched a new specialty certification on your belt, but how do you drum up some business for your new niche? Some trainers who take clients outdoors rely on word-of-mouth advertising. Others promote via flyers, newspaper and magazine ads, and online marketing.

If you are a member of your local Sierra Club, you probably receive its bimonthly publication, Sierra. This and other publications for outdoors enthusiasts are great places to spread the word. Molina places ads in Competitor magazine and invites journalists to come out and participate in his racing courses and clinics. In turn, the journalists write articles on his events.

You can advertise for free with clever online advertising strategies. For example, if you have a Web site, you can create a reciprocal link to clubs for outdoors enthusiasts. You can also create some captivating flyers and post them in health-food stores and restaurants. As with your training, be creative with your advertising.

Is Outdoor Training for You?

If you have a passion for the outdoors and the thought of training clients in a natural setting fills you with excitement and purpose, consider taking your clients outside! If this is all new to you, have patience and break into it slowly. Educate yourself and start your program with simple power walking and outdoor push-ups.

Training your clients outdoors is an excellent way to break up the monotony of indoor routines. With more people realizing that they want and need to be outside to combat the stresses of life, work and family, it’s also a strong potential revenue stream. By offering that release, you’ll benefit humanity as well.

IDEA Personal Trainer, Volume 2004, Issue 5

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About the Author

Judd Handler IDEA Author/Presenter

Judd Handler trains clients at the Body Refinery, a personal training studio in Encinitas, California. Also a multidiscipline writer, Judd contributes to the San Diego Jewish Journal and other publica...