There are two kinds of training every athlete needs to do: concentric and eccentric. Concentric is the kind of muscle contraction that happens when muscle fibers shorten, as in lifting weights. Eccentric motion is when the muscle fibers lengthen while resisting a force, as they do when lowering a weight, skiing or snowboarding (one reason calves get cramps).
The problem is that most sports training done by recreational athletes is concentric, yet many scientific studies show that the biggest, most significant strength gains come from eccentric workouts. Walking downhill is a prime example of eccentric training.
Which brings us to in incredible eccentric workout just waiting for you in Little Cottonwood Canyon: Go to Snowbird, take the tram up and walk down.
“It’s a great time of year to do this exercise, not only because ski and snowboard season is coming up, but it’s absolutely beautiful in Cottonwood Canyon right now. The leaves are starting to change, the temperature is pleasant, and it’s much quieter. You’ll kind of have the mountain to yourself,” says Snowbird’s public relations director, Jared Ishkanian.
One ride up the tram costs $12. Stroll around and take in the beauty of the surrounding multi-shaded peaks contrasting against clear blue skies, with groves of trees starting their fall wonderland show; countless bright shades of yellows and reds and oranges. Sit for a moment at the 11,000 foot altitude and check out the hawks coasting the thermals. On weekends, Oktoberfest is in full swing, and you can stand next to the traditionally dressed alpenhorn players at the top of Hidden Peak as they play their long golden horns, sending throaty music echoing among the cliffs to the revelers below.
When you’re ready, start the walk down. Ishkanian says it’s good because hiking down works different muscles and trains your legs at altitude—all of which is excellent for every athlete, but especially for skiers and boarders and even runners.
There are dozens of paths from which to choose. Follow Regulator Johnson down to the left, or at the bottom of the first pitch take the cat track to the right. Wander the paths through fields of bright wildflowers still blooming. As you make sure each foot is securely anchored before taking the next step, gloat a little about the fact that this serious eccentric workout will also improve your coordination and muscle power, in the same way that plyometrics does.
Of course, every silver cloud has a black lining, and this hour or so of eccentric work will be no exception. Eccentric exercise is the biggest source of DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. You won’t feel it by the time you reach the beer tent, so enjoy your last pain-free moment with a little bit of celebration for the changing seasons. Try a slice of the always heavenly chocolate cake, since you’ve already worked off the calories.
But, be prepared for the following day, when you’ll feel as if Torquemada and his henchmen at the Spanish Inquisition have had their way with you. This will not be the mild ache you get from an ordinary, overactive workout. You will be in serious pain. Eccentric workouts really hurt, and science still doesn’t know why. Everything will hurt— your thighs, calves, but most especially your buttocks. You will feel pain in muscles you never knew you had, and it takes a long time to go away—more than a week, depending on your level of conditioning.
But, the good part: You will have done more to get your body in shape than you could have done in 20 visits to the gym. And you can do it over again without suffering any pain; pay your dues once, and you’re done with DOMS.