#5 Fitness Focus: Feet/Minute

As far as we are concerned, keeping motivated is the key to fitness because that's what gets you out the door day after day, year after year. The most clever trick I've heard of for staying motivated was the woman in the Midwest that was going to reward herself with a trip to Hawaii after she walked the equivalent miles between her home and Hawaii on a treadmill. In contrast, our prior motivation tools were the garden-variety type, which was participating in annual events. As runners in our 30's and 40's, we ran the 10K "Cascade Runoff" for many years and the team relay "Hood-to-Coast" a number of times. And one year we completed the Portland Marathon. Then as cyclists we joined 2000 other riders a number of years for the week-long "Cycle Oregon."

But since 2000 when I rode about 5,000 miles in a year as preparation for overseas cyclotouring, numbers have been our main motivator. For the first decade of cyclotouring, the numbers were limited to elevation gain and miles per day. When our 9 month tours abruptly dropped to 90 days in 2011, I bought a heart rate monitor to give us new numbers to watch while we hiked and biked. Average and maximum heart rates and 1 minute recovery times were the primary numbers to watch when in either mode. But this summer we tumbled to "Feet/minute" when hiking as a new way to motivate ourselves. Bill's "gee-whiz, wouldn't it be interesting if…." quickly became a reality when I realized that the number he longed for was already available to us on our 15 year old altimeter.

Why Bother With Feet/Minute (ft/min)
Ft/min is kind of a boutique number, a number that doesn't matter much but is another indicator of level of effort on steep slopes, going up or down. But the novelty of it was enough to keep us revving our engines on the steep slopes and it was a great reality check.

Ft/min was precisely the number I needed this year given that one of my goals was to increase my walking speed on steep descents as well as on relatively level ground. My only strong suit has been going uphill, so I had 2 significant projects for 2012. By repeating relatively short out-and-back trails, like Stevia, our favorite fitness trail, I knew that my descent time was much, much slower than my ascent time. On very steep trails with difficult footing, it could take me twice as long to go downhill as uphill. My uphill speed was significantly faster than the average recreational hiker on the trail and yet my downhill speed was significantly slower than most others.

Before August of this year when we tumbled to monitoring ft/min, I could only judge improvements in my speed if we did out-and-back routes, which we try to avoid, or compared myself to Bill, whose ascent and descent speeds were similar. We were both significantly faster with our newly employed fore-footing technique on the trails so comparing myself to Bill was literally a moving target. But measuring ft/min gave me an independent, outside opinion of my performance and indeed I was close to matching my uphill speed on the downhills in August and was exceeding them in September. (Monitoring speed with our GPS is unsatisfying because our routes often wind in and out of satellite connection.)

Our Bench Marks
Our average rate is currently in the 33-36 ft/min range when we are pushing ourselves hard to get up a steep trail in the Alps: that's sweat streaming down from our temples, heavy breathing, "get out of my way" mode. For brief intervals, we'll hit numbers like 42 or 48 ft/min on the uphills. But now on the downhills I can sustain numbers in the 30's, matching my likely average uphill rate. If we break into a bit of a trot and it's really steep, we can briefly hit the 70's and 80's while descending. It feels like a break-neck speed and certainly challenges our coordination on rocky surfaces.

On a day when we were pushing for an expected 30 minute, near-sprint up a trail, I had dropped behind, feeling like I could hardly go on. I felt like I was barely moving and Bill had left me in the dust. I looked down to see my rate up the hill was 42 ft/min, which totally reframed the situation for me: I was going slowly because it was very, very steep and I was actually performing well. Knowing that made it easier to continue on rather than stopping.

We were also fascinated to see that our ft/min and heart rates fluctuate independently. We can be gasping for air and feel exhausted over a wide range of heart rates. So sometimes ft/min gives us a more motivating bit of feedback on the inclines than heart rates and it's always more interesting on the declines when our heart rates drop significantly.

On the last hike of our 2012 summer season, Bill discovered yet another use for ft/min. At over 10,000' elevation and still going up, he'd been experiencing the headaches and poor thinking associated with altitude struggles for a while. He discovered that if he keep his rate of elevation gain below 20 ft/min instead of letting the power of his legs set the pace in the 30+ ft/min range, that he felt much, much better and didn't need to stop to clear his head. It's promising that maintaining a steady, lower level of exertion will be a powerful tool in aiding him to hike at higher elevations than in the past.

I wouldn't rush out and buy a device that reports ft/min unless you are needing a new number to spur you on, but if you happen to have an altimeter or other device with the measurement on it, using it might be entertaining. See if it calculates an average rate in addition to reporting your current rate.

The Power of Comparisons
Bill noted that the first place finishers in tower runs, like the run-up the Empire State Building, were ascending at approximately 100'/min, which gave a context for our top rate on trails of 48'/min. Such runners sustain that rate for 11 minutes where as we may hold that pace for a minute or so. But our 33-36 ft/min rates can be sustained for 10-15 minutes at a time. It's an amusing comparison that gives our average and best numbers a little more meaning and makes them a little more motivating.

A potentially more useful comparison will be with our ft/min rates when hiking in the US over the next year. The trails we've so far hiked in the US SW don't have the 'outdoor laboratory' quality of the Alps trails we traverse. To be a good fitness trail for us the route has to have continuous steep stretches that keep us going at a high rate for 30-60 minutes. The footing has to be good enough that we can pick up some intensity as reflected in either our heart rates or in ft/min. But our new ft/min tool will challenge my perception that our SW trails don't measure up--this year we'll know for sure.