Workouts Without Borders

By Paul McHugh

An outdoor fitness trend born in the last year and a half is likely here to stay, aided by hybrid work schedules.

As sunrise light bakes San Francisco’s gray fog into a peachy meringue, human feet pound out a beat on walking trails and running paths across the City. And this resurgent fitness frenzy isn’t confined to land trails. The rhythm of outdoor activity picks up percussion from workout buffs lifting kettlebells on park lawns, the whir of skates and bikes on closed stretches of the Great Highway and in Golden Gate Park, the splashes of stand-up paddleboarders and the arm strokes and kicks of swimmers. These are the sights and sounds of a Bay Area that has rediscovered a region’s marvelous outdoor legacy. The trend might’ve ignited during a pandemic year — as people reckoned an open beach about a hundred times safer than any enclosed space — yet all signs suggest that a wholesale lifestyle shift to the out-ofdoors is real and enduring.

The word “hybrid” is used a lot these days to describe the new workweek: a professional mix of office visits blended with work-from-home shifts. And while health and safety concerns induced people to vacate offices and embrace working remotely, people were also faced with shuttered gyms and the need to adopt new exercise regimens in the fresh air of regional parks, trails and shorelines. As gyms now ease back open, members may return for some classes — yet many will keep taking advantage of outdoor venues and the versatile guided workout programs offered online.

Hybrid work policies now blend seamlessly with hybrid workouts.

On a recent morning, I encounter Hanna Tran on the 16th Avenue tiled steps in the Sunset — among the most beautiful and famed of the City’s scores of staircases. Tran, 45, a systems analyst now working remotely full time, was out power-walking with her collie, Simon. “When I had to go to the office, I could only walk some evenings,” she tells me. “Now I’m able to go every morning. It’s cooler, less crowded, far more pleasant. It’s a wonderful, permanent shift for us.”

Foghorn Fitness trainer Keir Beadling, shown at the Presidio, knows the ropes when it comes to outdoor workouts.
Foghorn Fitness trainer Keir Beadling, shown at the Presidio, knows the ropes when it comes to outdoor workouts.

City fitness guru Keir Beadling is not surprised. He’s watched similar changes ripple across the Peninsula. “I’ve exercised outdoors since I came here in ’99, and I’ve never seen crowds out there like I do now, whether it’s a surf beach, swimmers at Aquatic Park, or workout classes carpeting the Marina Green and the Presidio’s Main Post Lawn.” Beadling, 52, doesn’t just spot trends, he creates them. He quit a career in business litigation to launch Evolve Sports, a sports marketing firm that elevated the Mavericks surf contest into a national, then global, phenomenon. He transformed himself into a leading trainer at the Olympic Club and the Presidio YMCA. When COVID tightened its grip on gyms, he launched his own Foghorn Fitness to guide online classes from the backyard of his Beach Street home.

His yard has a swatch of AstroTurf dotted with bits of Hyperwear fitness gear, plus a MacBook propped on a chair. That laptop gives him a window view of his clients and it lets them follow him on a workout that begins with breathing and stretches and then jumps into a rapid-fire sequence of exercises. “This works better than I ever thought it would,” Beadling says. “We can actually watch the sweat drip off each other. I can easily correct form and posture. And we certainly can keep the enthusiasm going.” His method allows Foghorn Fitness to sell not only live sessions but recorded ones, too, as well as distribute free nutrition and general health tips. “Zoom sessions are a definite thing for now and for the future,” he says. Beadling will return to gyms to teach, but Foghorn shall bound ever onward. “Smart gyms will offer both,” he predicts. “Workouts that are in-house and online.”

“As gyms now ease back open, members may return for some classes — yet many will keep taking advantage of outdoor venues.”

“I’ll do some live gym classes, once things settle down,” shares Foghorn client Ann Shepherd, 56, the co-founder of the San Francisco diversity nonprofit Him For Her. “But I’ll keep up my online sessions with Keir. You just can’t beat the convenience.” She exemplifies that convenience — and commitment. The morning I watch Beadling leap around his backyard while offering directions spiced with funny patter, Shepherd copies all of his workout moves while on vacation in Idaho. “I enjoy training outdoors, and so do they,” Beadling says. “I see most people training with me are out on their own decks or lawns.”

Our broad swath of greenbelts, parks, beaches and open spaces render the Bay Area a spectacular venue for outdoor exercise. As Shepherd says, “Here, I can go out and exercise year-round. Not many other places in the country make that possible.”

Anna Wankel (left) and Eleanor Pries get ready for a surf session at Ocean Beach.
Anna Wankel (left) and Eleanor Pries get ready for a surf session at Ocean Beach.

Among our outdoor spaces, the biggest dog by far is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or GGNRA. It boasts nearly 83,000 acres both north and south of the Golden Gate as well as more than 90 miles of bay and ocean shoreline. In 2019, the park experienced some 17.6 million visitors, making it our nation’s most-visited park, says GGNRA spokesperson Julian Espinoza. In 2020, visitation fell off by a third (with major attractions like Alcatraz and Muir Woods closed), yet it still was the second most-visited park. Many were first-time visitors who fled heat and sooty fire-season skies inland. Local beaches were swarmed. Rangers stayed busy enforcing Spare the Air rules (No cookouts! No beach fires!) and performing cliff rescues. A pair of regular surfers, Eleanor Pries, 43, an architect, and Anna Wankel, 45, a firefighter, told me that the number of surfers at Ocean Beach has roughly doubled since prepandemic days. “More people work at home now, and they can slap their schedules around,” Pries said. “They just say, ‘Hey, the swell’s up, let’s go!’”

Of course, the trend is not restricted to the City; it reverberates across the Bay and down the Peninsula. Up in Marin, the venerable Sea Trek outfitter — specializing in sea kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs)— forged its own response to COVID by sanitizing all equipment between users, and still saw business nosedive. Sea Trek responded by hiring trainers shut out of their gyms and let them begin a fitness boot camp on the company lawn, with sessions that incorporated interval training using boards and kayaks on Richardson Bay. Now, says program manager Mitch Powers, customers are flocking in greater numbers than they did before the pandemic, and they plan to continue those boot camps.

On the Peninsula, early in the pandemic, I watched cyclists jam the popular Cañada Road route that parallels Crystal Springs Reservoir until its asphalt seemed to vanish under packs so dense they bore more than a slight resemblance to the start of the Tour de France. And westward car traffic toward San Mateo County beaches surged — making it seem like Half Moon Bay was holding a Pumpkin Festival every weekend. Officials, alarmed by park, beach and trail use that had tripled or better by April 2020, closed more than a dozen parks and preserves, only gradually easing them back open a month later. The county parks system responded by creating a trip-planning tool called Explore Nature and a Reading With a Ranger program and posting both online. Now, in 2021, outdoor facility use continues to grow, but not at such a robust rate. Coping measures include signs encouraging visitors to pack out their own debris (accumulation was a problem), to maintain health measures such as distancing, and to consider alternate areas if lots are full.

A runner and a cyclist take advantage of alfresco workouts on a stretch of the Great Highway that has been closed to motor vehicles
A runner and a cyclist take advantage of alfresco workouts on a stretch of the Great Highway that has been closed to motor vehicles

Most of the Bay Area’s green and open space was set aside through the labors of dedicated activists in the latter half of the 20th century. But with recreational use still on the rise, it’s fabulous to see fresh venues arise as well, like the new Crane Cove Park created by the Port of San Francisco, and the Crosstown Trail, designed by entrepreneurial citizen volunteers. The Crosstown, a 17-mile route that slashes diagonally across the City from Lands End to Candlestick, was merely an urban-plan recipe eyed by dreamers until volunteer activist Bob Siegel decided it was time to turn up the heat and stir the pot. He collected suggestions for route segments from a horde of green groups, neighborhood associations and clubs. The trail project — completed in 2019 — incorporates some 2,600 feet of elevation gain-loss; but designing it as a fitness venue wasn’t a primary aim. “Our main thought was, how do we make this route totally engaging and cool?” says Matthew Blain of SF Urban Riders, a group that participated. “We wanted to bring people to parts of the City they don’t ordinarily see or think about.”

The Crosstown route threads together gems such as the Rose Garden, the Hidden Garden Steps, Grandview Park and the Visitacion Valley Greenway. Visitors are invited to do this trek by segments or in one jolly go. But as you traipse this route, don’t hunt for physical signage. The Crosstown is first and foremost a virtual concept; all needed directions and maps and phone apps are posted on the project’s website. The profile of public use is shown by visits to the Crosstown site. Blain says views were constant until February 2020; then hits fell off by half April through August, when some trail segments were temporarily closed. Now, with it all back open, site views are ramping up. Visits spike whenever a story featuring the trail is published.

A civic entrepreneurial spirit also sparks activity at the new Crane Cove Park, found at 18th and Illinois streets. On a weekday morning, calm Bay waters here are flecked with dozens of laughing, shouting kids. They bob around in life vests, learn to paddle inflatable SUPs and play a boisterous game on a floating dock. Proudly herding them is Adam Zolot, 52, assisted by 15-year-old Leila Tehrani. “To cope with the pandemic, I connected to nature,” Zolot says. “Just kept my board strapped on my car. I’d get out of the apartment, drive to Pier 52 and paddle the Bay. Did it every day for six months. I got to know this area well and gained confidence to help others explore.”

The initial “others” were locals who jumped at his invitation to join the new Dogpatch Paddle Club, which Zolot launched in September, on the same day the Port of San Francisco announced Crane Cove would open. His announcement spread through a group page on Facebook and a post on the neighborhood platform Nextdoor. “After that, the freight train just started rolling,” Zolot recalls. “People joined by the dozens, then by the hundreds.” The club is free, run by volunteers and now boasts more than 900 members.

Next, Zolot founded a small business, Dogpatch Paddle, to provide services, gear rentals and lessons. Since he knew neighborhood kids badly needed chances for healthy outdoor exercise, the shop announced weekly paddleboard camps — and Zolot’s sessions promptly sold out through August. Presently, Dogpatch Paddle operates from a storefront on the floor of Zolot’s apartment building. He hopes to expand into Building 49, a large galvanizing shop built back when Crane Cove was part of a waterfront shipbuilding industry. (The “Crane” name doesn’t refer to shorebirds, but to a pair of heavy-lift swiveling derricks that remain on-site as historical exhibits.) “The Port of San Francisco had the vision to transform this into a public recreation park,” Zolot says. “It’s a vision we fully embrace.” Tehrani has her eye on that horizon. A competitive swimmer on her high school team at St. Ignatius, Tehrani found her athletic life sharply curtailed at the height of the pandemic. “It hurt my social life,” she says. “Plus, all the parks and pools were closed.” That’s when she turned to the outdoors, taking up paddleboards and open-water swimming, which she says, “will always be part of my life now.”

Bay Area residents of all ages and lifestyles have made similar discoveries amid what otherwise has seemed like a fraught year. As trainer Beadling puts it, “Achieving true fitness is not about just being able to grind out a tough training session. The actual reward is a healthier life.” Plus, he adds, “Exercise outdoors in view of nature inspires health. … Fresh air might just be the new drug of choice. Probably the one Huey Lewis was looking for, you know?”

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