Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Nathan Wentz.

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Over the years, I’ve learned that in order to be a healthy athlete, I need to do much more than just mountain bike–I need to be serious about cross-training, stretching, and participating in other sports. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

Heading into 2017, I thought to myself: “How can I transform my thinking to promote a healthy balance in my athletic life, and not get too hung up on JUST mountain biking all the time?” It occurred to me that I need to shift my focus from racking up mountain bike miles and instead track some other metric to gauge whether or not I’m successful. (But don’t get me started on success.)

“What gets measured, gets managed,” as they say (the actual source of this quotation is hotly debated). But in a related sense, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed. While I love creating spreadsheets to track my metrics across a wide variety of goals ranging from athletics to finances and everything in between, I’ve realized that I can’t track everything in my life. Some things I need to simply let be, allow them to remain unmeasured, and simply enjoyed in the moment. So, to promote health in 2017, I decided to stop consciously measuring and managing some metrics (like bike miles) and start measuring another metric.

My current key metric is human-powered elevation gain across all sports.

Elevation Gain: Leveling the Playing Field

Photo: Greg Heil

While miles of human-powered travel are most easily achieved on the bike, creating an elevation goal helps level the playing field between many different activities. Sure, sports like road biking will always have an advantage, but I don’t spend much time on the road bike. Hiking will always have a disadvantage because hiking down takes just as much time and effort as going up.

But if you take, say, backcountry skiing and compare it to mountain biking, the amount of elevation gain per hour is pretty similar. You cover much less mileage per hour while backcountry skiing than on a mountain bike, but due to the straight-up-the-mountain nature of the sport, you can easily log thousands of feet of vertical gain in a half-day of skiing.

Since I could easily track elevation gain across all mountain sports and have a relatively close comparison, I thought this could be the solution to improving my physical health by dabbling in all kinds of sports, using many different muscle groups.

The major hiccup in my 2017 diversification plan was re-tearing my ACL early in the year. Not having an ACL cut my ski season short and, I eventually found, made it difficult to hike down big mountain peaks. But instead of calling it quits on the goal, I doubled down on my bike riding, attempting to climb 250,000 vertical feet in the 12 months of 2017.

250,000 Feet

Attempting to climb 250,000 feet in one year may seem like a lot to some people, while to others it may seem like very little. Aaron Rice, a ski bum from Vermont, just set the world record for vertical gain in one year while backcountry skiing: 2.5 million feet. I had never tracked my elevation explicitly before, so I wasn’t sure where to set the bar for myself. So, I spent ah hour retroactively going through my Strava data from 2016, and found that I’d climbed roughly 181,000 feet in 2016. While that wasn’t a banner year for me, gaining 70,000 more feet–an increase of almost 40% year-over-year–seemed like a pretty significant stretch.

Rider: Mike Harris. Photo: Greg Heil.

As the fourth quarter of 2017 hit, I found that I was way ahead of pace on my elevation goal. If things kept going according to plan, I’d be sure to hit 300,000 by the end of the year! But again, I had no ACL in my knee, and made the tough decision to get surgery on November 9th.

Cutting off two months of the year–in addition to the previous hip injury I had overcome–meant that yet again, 2017 wasn’t a full year of athleticism. Despite those challenges, I was far enough ahead that I still reached 250,000 feet, and by the beginning of November!

But just barely. Technically, my spreadsheet shows 249,030 feet. That puts me well within the range of rounding error for GPS units, so I’m calling it good. GPS units are notoriously horrible at tracking vertical gain, which is why I relied on Strava’s recalculations to (hopefully) provide more accurate data. Despite those recalculations, I identified many times my elevation gain numbers would vary significantly on the exact same route. Based on the inaccuracies of GPS units, I’ll call getting within 1,000 feet (in just 10 months) good enough. 🙂

So what’s the goal for 2018? Again, I think I may be changing the metrics that I evaluate to do an even better job at diversifying my athletic pursuits this year. Still, as a secondary goal I would like to move the needle from a quarter million feet of climbing to a third of a million. That’s another 83,000 feet… but if this year goes well, it should be doable.

Here’s to an excellent 2018 of pushing boundaries!

# Comments

  • rmap01

    Greg, I really appreciate the self-reflection. First, I couldn’t agree more with setting tangible goals and measuring progress against those metrics. Elevation goals are great because it will clearly impact your fitness The only (potential) concern I’d have is the possibility of injury for someone that increases their elevation riding too quickly (this has been a problem for me in the past with incorporating too much hill training too quickly in my running workouts). Also, not sure why you can’t have a mileage goal as well. For example, if faced with only a “low elevation gain” ride option will some people be less motivated to ride since it will not allow them to make any real progress toward their goal?

    But I guess the broader question is this: if your end goal is “health” shouldn’t you be incorporating metrics that are more directly tied to that goal? As mentioned earlier, riding trails with lots of elevation gain should improve your fitness and overall health. That can be measured (at least indirectly) with some of the following metrics, which are available on a variety of fitness trackers/devices:
    – RHR (Resting Heart Rate)
    – Body Fat % (or BMI)
    – VO2 Max
    – HRV (Heart Rate Variability)
    There are other fitness metrics as well (strength-based, enduranced-based, etc.) that can provide a sense of progress toward a fitness goal. Another great metric is race times or even, dare I say, setting PRs on Strava segments :0. Just some food for thought…

    • Greg Heil

      Great thoughts rmap01! I might not have expanded on it much in this specific post, as I don’t want to spend TOO much time talking about my past injuries, but in this context “health” mainly means “not getting injured.” Not getting injured refers primarily to training load injuries, but I’m trying to remain cognizant of traumatic injuries as well… and avoid those! Of course, as you mentioned you can experience training load injuries even with an elevation goal.

      But why do I not want to get injured? Why, so I can have more adventures, of course.

      More on this in a future column, but my main goal with riding has never been “fitness” or “health” as most people define them, but rather, adventure.

      Do health and fitness play a part in adventure? Sure. The more fitness you have and the healthier/injury free you are, the more adventuring you can do!

  • sake

    I live in central Florida, what is this “elevation gain” you speak of? I think if I rode Santos or Alafia every single day of the year, I would never come close to 10,000 feet. Since you live in beautiful Salida, I don’t blame you one bit for using that as a metric. I would probably incorporate elevation as a metric too if I had easy access to those mountains!

    I just bought a Garmin Fenix 3HR at Christmas and this is the first time I’ve gotten this into recording metrics on my rides and runs. Unlike you, the majority of my training is on my road bike or running, and unfortunately, my mountain bike time is way less than I would like. Because of this, my goals are all currently mileage based. Like the above poster mentioned, maybe I’ll incorporate some other measurements.

    Nevertheless, whatever motivates you is good in my book.

    • Greg Heil

      “maybe I’ll incorporate some other measurements.”

      This is definitely the meta-narrative of this column. Focusing on just one metric may be helpful, or it may lead us down a path to excess and injury. If mileage is working out for you? Great! For me, not so much…

  • mongwolf

    Greg, imo, the best thing about the 333,333′ (or 63.13 miles) of elevation you might conquer this year, will be the approximate same amount of descending you will get to do. Wooohooo !!!!!!!!!!!!! Go get ’em champ, and here’s to you staying healthy this year.

    • Greg Heil

      Thanks Floyd! 🙂

  • mongwolf

    As I mentioned in our email dialogue last week, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the 1/3 million feet of climbing. So finally, I took the 333,333′ and divided it by 4000′, which is a rigorous day on the mtb for me at this point in my development. That comes out to 83 days or rides of 4000′. That is 3 rides with 4000′ of climbing every 13 days (13.2 days). Interesting … at least to me. =) Of course I’m just looking at mountain biking, and you are planning to do various sports and activities.

    • Greg Heil

      Once you start breaking it down, it seems pretty achievable. Like you said, 4,000 feet in a day is a solid day of MTB. But 333k divided by 52 weeks is 6,403 ft per week. Let’s say you do just 5 shortish rides per week–that’s 1,280ft of climbing per ride. It’s almost impossible for me to ride for an hour, hour and a half and do less climbing than that. And if we start considering weekend rides with 3-5k feet of climbing… all of a sudden it starts to sound more achievable 😉

  • mongwolf

    Greg has put out a lofty but feasible goal for this year — feasible for him that is. =) What are other’s goals for the year, especially for riding?

  • Aaron Chamberlain

    Last year was a banner year for me. I didn’t quite hit my mileage goal because of an aggravated achilles tendon, but I came close. I rode 4,500 miles and my goal was 5,000. But, I did climb 350,000′ in 2017!

    This year, I’m focusing less on hitting a specific mileage target. I’ll still be riding plenty, but it’s more about just having fun. The good thing for me is that my idea of fun is really, really long bike rides. Planning on doing some enduro races around the Southeast as well and probably ORAMM. That’ll be my one big race for the year.

    • Greg Heil

      4,500 miles… a banner year indeed! Maybe one of these years 🙂

      What enduro races are you planning on hitting?

    • mongwolf

      Aaron, you definitely went all in last year with the 5000mi goal and going with a personal trainer. Sorry about not hitting the 5000 mi target, but hey, 4500 mi and 350,000′ of climbing are significant achievements. You deserve a relatively lighthearted year this year … … lighthearted for you. Your lighthearted year would crush most all of us.

  • Aaron Chamberlain

    Coldwater Mountain (Anniston, AL), Pisgah Enduro (Old Fort, NC), and Windrock (Oliver Springs, TN).

  • Plusbike Nerd

    My fitness goal is to ride at 4 to 5 times per week for ~2 hours each time. If I fall short because of weather or other commitments, I try to ride more the next week. Some weeks I might only ride 3 times while other weeks I might ride 6 times. If the trails are too muddy or snowpacked for my Plusbike rubber, I ride on paved and gravel roads. I consider anything above 15F as warm enough to ride. If I had a goal it would be to ride 2 out of every 3 days or about 240 days per year. It keeps me fit!

  • BBelfield

    You’re a nut! My goal for summer is 100’000 down, chairlift up!

  • mongwolf

    Greg, what bike will you be climbing most of those verts this year? Just like all miles are not the same, obviously all elevation gains are not the same either, depending on the bike.

    • Greg Heil

      Floyd, you never know what the year will hold 🙂 That said, last year my #1 personal bike that I used was my GT Force by far. That’s usually the case. I rode my road bike maybe 5 times, maybe less. Fat bike got some decent action, but not nearly the same level as the GT.

      That said, I probably spent more time on test bikes than on the GT, but most of my test bikes last year were relatively long-travel trail and enduro bikes as well: Rocky Mountain Slayer, GG Shred Dogg, Niner RIP 9, Ibis Mojo HD4… maybe others?

      Also, above you said the best part of doing the climbing is the 333k feet of descending. Well, I was thinking about it, and 333k feet of climbing in a year usually nets me WAY MORE descending than I do climbing! Between shuttle laps (which I do quite a bit of, especially mid-summer) and days at the bike park, it’s pretty common for me to descend way more than I climb in a day.

    • mongwolf

      That Mojo HD4 looks really fast on you. I think you NEED one. Either way, should be an an awesome year. I can’t wait to start riding, but it seems so far away. Yesterday at the mid of the afternoon it was -10F with 30-40 MPH winds. Wind chills were -40 and worse … and that was the warmest part of the day. Uuuuggggghhhh. All I can do for now is dream of riding/exploring all the little mountains around Ulaanbaatar. Quick question. How much does your GT Force weigh as you have it set up right now (pedals included)?

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