Thursday, August 25, 2016

Zahida's Tips for the Grouse Grind

For my readers outside of Vancouver, sorry for this post as it's about a very local topic. The Grouse Grind is a popular and challenging hike to the top of one of the local mountains in the Vancouver areas - Grouse Mountain, in North Vancouver, BC, often referred to as "nature's stair master". It's only about 2.9km in total distance, but this is straight up and therefore challenging with 2,830 stairs taking you up to the ~1100m summit. A novice hiker can complete it in about 2 hours, the average hiker likely takes about 90 min. A regular runner is likely to finish it in about an hour or so, as the common thinking is that the effort is similar to running 10km. The fastest ascent recorded is something crazy like 25min.... Anyway, as you can see, it's a perfect little workout with a big fitness impact!

I decided to write about the Grind because it's one of my favourite non-running workouts to do, particularly in the summer. Stair climbing certainly uses the legs yes, so it's not necessarily something to do to rest the legs entirely or to recover from running. But stairs work the legs in a different way from running and there are huge benefits to this:

  • Plyometric workout that builds strength and power in the legs - this is very important for both endurance and speed.
  • Uses stabilizer muscles such as gluteus medius which gets neglected running (and we cannot neglect this as runners). Stability is so important for injury prevention.
  • Improves your ability to run up hills by improving your VO2 max.
The above benefits are from an article I pulled from Runner's World. See the full article here

Many of my runner friends agree that this workout is great for cross-training and I'm a bit of a regular on the hill. I thought I'd tell you a bit more about why that is as I outline my tips for a great experience on the Grind. These tips are numbered, but they are not truly in priority order.

Zahida's Grouse Grind Tips

1.    If you want to improve your performance, go often: 

If you want something to feel easier over time, practice can only help. The first time you do the Grind, you'll probably hate yourself for choosing to do the workout. Next time you do it, it will automatically feel easier and you'll hate yourself a little less. Some of that is mental (I now know I can do this), but some of that is adaptation, especially if you don't wait too long before you go again your second time. You want your body to adapt to the stresses of the workout so it can handle it more easily. Also because this workout includes lots of stairs and a bit of hiking on rocks, getting a good rhythm / cadence in your stride comes with practice and confidence. I recommend going once a week at minimum if you want to see such improvements because any longer than that, your body or muscle memory forgets any rhythm it's learned. 
One of my ink drawings, this one titled "A Fine Grind"

2.    Invest in a Grouse Grind local's pass: 

No, this is not an ad for Grouse and they haven't asked me to endorse them. I am just all about getting the best deal. For $129, you get a full year of use of the mountain, meaning unlimited use of the Skyride plus additional perks. Each time you hike up, you need to take the Skyride to get back down the mountain and if you pay per use, this is at a cost of $10 each time. As mentioned above, if you want to make progress and improve your performance on the Grind, the best way to do that is to go often. 12 hikes later, or 3 months of going weekly, and the pass has paid for itself, and there's still the rest of the year. For a bit more, you can get a parking pass and a timing card to track your progress. There is even a 2-year pass available with more of a cost savings. These additional benefits are worth it, but I opted for the basic 1-year pass. The investment means I am prioritizing going to the hill more often (a bit of buyer's remorse doesn't hurt!). And I'm making a point of taking advantage of the additional benefits of having the pass such as using the peak chairlift (which is free with a pass but would otherwise be at a cost) to/from the very top of the mountain, taking guests up/down the hill for tourism and nature programs for 50% off, etc. And when Christmas comes around, I won't be hiking, but I'll be sure to go up the hill using the pass to enjoy the holiday-themed events and attractions such as the outdoor skating rink etc.
Birds in Motion nature program at Grouse Mountain.
3.    Respect the rules of the trail

I firmly believe in following the rules. They are in place for safety and also for the maintenance of this popular trail. I never hike the Grind when it's in its off-season months. The trail closes because of climate-related safety concerns and also so maintenance work can be completed. Some people hike when the trail is closed and put themselves at risk. In the same vein, hiking down the hill is prohibited for both safety reasons (for yourself and other hikers) but some choose to do it to save $10. My thinking is that if you want to hike for free, there are literally hundreds of other options in BC for this as we're truly blessed with trails, mountains, and works of natural beauty to explore. Paying $10 for a workout is truly not a big deal when you think of what gym memberships or fitness classes can go for. Also, if you do something risky and get yourself in trouble, you put someone who has to come rescue you at risk. I know I am opinionated about this and that some will disagree with me and think I'm uptight, but to me, there's nothing more important than staying safe, both for your own well-being as well as for others.

4.    Be prepared with appropriate gear

This goes along the same theme of staying safe. I think some who aren't familiar with our mountains don't realize they are hiking up a real mountain. Proper clothing will allow for a comfortable and safe experience. Or perhaps when you're at the base of the mountain, the summit doesn't look far away (it's because what you can see isn't the top of the mountain, so it doesn't look high). Or they hear it's a 90min hike, and that sounds easy, but it's 90min straight up! So you will see people in jeans or inappropriate footwear, and I can only imagine how miserable they will feel on the trail, let alone how the bad shoes could lead to poor footing and perhaps a slip or fall. The bare minimum should be a running shoe; I choose to wear trail runners so I have additional traction and a harder sole and toe guard for any steps I take that may be sloppy when I start to fatigue. Definitely wear comfortable, breathable and moisture-wicking clothing as you will sweat...a lot. I usually hike up in shorts and a tank regardless of the outside temperature because otherwise I feel too warm from the workout and elevated heartrate. I take a small waist pack (I prefer to not wear anything on my back because I get a very sweaty back) that has room for my Grouse pass, safety whistle, ID, keys, cell phone, water, and a clean shirt to change into when I get to the top. The clean shirt is a must in my books because while you're comfy hiking, once you stop and you're in a wet shirt on a windy mountain peak, you will feel cold quite quickly. I make sure to eat a good breakfast before I get to the mountain, but if I don't have the chance to eat before, I might pack a small snack with me in case I need a sugar boost.

5.    Water, it's non-negotiable

I always take water or sport drink on this hike. For me, it's about an hour's workout, so I might not actually feel the need to drink water during. But it's nice to have the option should I need a sip or two along the way. Sometimes I drink none of it, and sometimes, I drink all of it and refill at the summit. Either way, it's nice having the option as staying hydrated is important and there's nowhere to get water on the trail. You don't want to be so thirsty but be stuck without. Also, it's important to remember that you are out in a natural setting and that there's always the possibility of something going wrong. Weather could change suddenly, you could get hurt and need help or extra time to get off the hill, or even though unlikely, you could get lost (it has happened before). Anyway, regardless, you're not 100% in charge when you're out in the wilderness; even though this trail is well traveled and not out in the middle of nowhere, it's still a mountain and deserves respect. A bit of water with you could be something very important if you got stuck somewhere for a bit. Or you could encounter a struggling or unprepared hiker and you could help them out by offering them a much needing swig.

6.    Be aware of and encourage others

I get it, some people like to listen to music to tune the world out and get into their own zone. But I like being aware of my surroundings and aware of when a faster hiker is behind me and wanting to pass. I also like to be able to engage with and acknowledge other hikers. Some people, myself included, really care about their finish times. You could really impede or frustrate them by not letting them pass (or by not even knowing they need to pass). I like to at least say "hi", "good morning" or something like that to every hiker I see. But I will often crack a corny joke or say something encouraging along the way to those I see on the trail. You're sharing the trail, might as well contribute to it being a positive space. And as a regular, I feel I know my way around that I can genuinely offer encouragement to other hikers. I know for a fact that the first and third quarters are the hardest. I know which sections are easiest. So when I see someone struggling, I can both congratulate them for being there to start with, and offer then reassurance that something easier is around the corner.

My very first time I did the hike, I was indeed a "novice hiker" who needed 2 hours+ to finish. I was very overweight and had very little cardiovascular fitness. When I got home from the hike, I took a bath and then went straight to sleep, slept for about 15 hours, and could barely walk the next day. It was too much for me, and although I felt sorry myself, I was still very proud that I finished. It was empowering but eye-opening too, as the friends I went with had a much easier time with it. But the barrier I had of being very overweight wasn't a complete barrier - I still did it. When I see struggling hikers, I can't help but recall this old version of myself, when this hike was seemingly impossible for me. I remember fondly this one complete stranger who saw me struggling on the 4th quarter of the hike. She was super encouraging and told me she was a regular on the hill and at the point where we were, we were definitely only 10min from the summit and that I was definitely going to make it there. It was likely 10min for her and 25min for me, but regardless, this little tip filled me with a feeling of "I can do this". Now, literally every single time I hike the Grind, whenever I get to this point, I think of her and I say to myself, "just 10 more min." With this positive self-talk, I'm able to brush the sweat off my brow, smile, and put aside any feeling of fatigue or discouragement brewing.

7.    Count your "kills"

I know this is seems like the opposite of encouraging others, but my advice is to not do this out loud! I like to count how many people I pass on the trail and also count how many people pass me. I make sure I pass more than I get passed. When I do pass others, I will be encouraging yes, but I might catch myself singing in my head "another one bites the dust". A group taking a rest break is great because after you say a friendly hi, you can fully break out in song in your head "and another one gone, another one gone...(keep going depending on how many there are)..... another one bites the dust". I feel a bit of competition wills me to move faster. It's not meant to sound or be disrespectful, but simply a way to keep myself honest and pushing my pace. I don't want to get too comfortable hanging out behind someone who isn't going as fast as I am capable.

8.    Measure your progress

Especially if you go regularly, find a way to measure your progress. Then you see you're making change and it'll only motivate you to keep on. You can purchase a Grind timer so you can use the official timing system and track your hikes on the Grouse web site, etc. I take my own stop watch and start and stop it at the same official timing areas. What I like about that is that in addition to my completion time for the full hike, I can also see my splits for each marked quarter of the hike. This allows me to set goals during the hike and a realistic finish time. I record my splits when I finish so I'm able to compare how I do next time.

9.    Don't stop! And don't look up!

If at all possible, don't stop moving when on the hill. You can easily slow yourself down when it's gets hard or your breathing gets taxed. I sometimes take a 3 second break to reset my breathing and take a swig of water, but my feet are always moving, even if slowly. I find this helps, again with keeping a rhythm, both in stride/cadence as well as with breathing and heart rate. Stopping can also make it harder to get going again in case of any pooling of lactic acid as your legs fatigue.

And while it's tempting to look up to see what's next, it can really mess with your head if you see what look like miles and miles of stairs to climb and you're feeling tired. I will look up maybe 10 feet ahead of me just so I make sure I'm staying on the trail and who's ahead of me that I might be needing to pass, but that's all. I want to stay focused and positive!

10.  Celebrate your achievement

There's little to see along the journey up, so be sure to check out the view at the top once you get there. It's really breath-taking, and it is empowering to notice that you got that high up on foot. You may not be the fastest, but regardless, marking your time at this photo spot is well worth it. Go ahead and brag! 

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