An Insider’s Guide to Outdoor Training Sessions
Looking to grow your business? Just add fresh air and sunshine! Outdoor training sessions offer trainers a change of scenery, a return to simpler exercises, and a new way to appeal to clients. To help you avoid potential pitfalls, we asked NASM Master Trainer Darryl Cross for insider tips on outdoor venues.
People have been getting their sweat on beneath the blue (or starry) skies for decades. But according to the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends (now in its 10th year), trainers offering fitness classes and boot camps outside the gym first came into vogue in 2010. Though the trend has moved up and down the charts a bit in terms of popularity, it’s one that appears to be here to stay. (3)
Taking workouts outside offers many benefits for both client and trainer. Among them: It allows clients to escape the confines of the walls that surround them at work and at home. Many attendees also feel less intimidated showing up at a park or field instead of a gym. They also may prefer the functional movement and body-weight exercises used in many outdoor workouts over the equipment-based routines often found in gym settings. A 2013 study reported that many exercisers find in-nature workouts to be more enjoyable and even easier, allowing them to exert themselves more than they might indoors. Being outside for exercise has even improved adherence for some clients, which is good for their well-being and for your business. (2)
For trainers, outdoor sessions are often easier to run when they are kept simple. They require less equipment, they’re easy to adapt to a variety of fitness levels and body types, and they can get your creative juices flowing by challenging you to come up with total-body workouts that utilize different objects in the environment, such as park benches and tree logs.
The biggest hurdle in outdoor training, as in real estate, tends to be location, location, location, says Darryl Cross, MBA, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, GPTS. Darryl is one of only 60 NASM Master Trainers worldwide. He is CEO of HighPer Coaching, which serves members of the legal community, and owner of Rainmaker Fitness, which serves the general public, sports teams, and coaches. He is also a nationally and internationally certified rugby coach and a fitness performance consultant for two universities. In addition to offering a variety of indoor sessions, he has led classes and boot camps in fields and parks, on practice fields for sports teams, on the grounds outside of hotels, and in various other locations for corporate retreats and trade show conferences. If you’re considering starting outdoor sessions or growing this area of your business, consider these insights from Darryl on the possible challenges you’ll face and how you can surmount them. (1)
The Challenge: Finding a Venue
Competition for good outdoor venues can be fierce. One of the biggest is local youth teams like soccer leagues and peewee football, according to Darryl. Youth leagues take priority because of a long-standing history and because of involved parents and overzealous coaches. Here are some things he suggests you keep in mind when looking for an outdoor location.
- Consider your timing. If you see kids playing sports on a field when you’d like to hold class, you’re not likely to secure that space. Consider changing when you’ll host your session. You may have better luck booking one during hours when kids are at school or in bed.
- Look for lighting. If you’re holding class before sunrise, make sure there will be some light from street lamps or houses since it is rare to find inexpensive fields with stadium lighting. This can improve visibility of potential obstacles, and it will help clients feel safer.
- Investigate parking and facilities. Clients need a place to leave their vehicles and get safely to the training area. Access to restrooms and water fountains is also a plus. If your area doesn’t offer this, you’ll need to let clients know ahead of time so they can plan accordingly.
- Seek good visibility. Look for a setting that is secluded enough that your clients don’t feel self-conscious, but it should be visible enough to attract future business. It’s ideal if passersby will see you in session while jogging on a nearby trail or driving past. TIP: Have business cards and flyers available to hand out to people who express an interest in joining a future class.
- Avoid problem areas. If a field isn’t being used during an ideal training time, ask yourself why that might be. The next time it rains, pay a visit to the field a few hours later and see if there is a lot of standing water. The last thing you want is to have to cancel class due to poor field conditions.
- Consider private lands. Public parks and fields don’t have to be your only option. You may be able to make an agreement with a private facility. Hospitals, office parks and large corporations often have huge swaths of land surrounding their campus. For example, Darryl uses a field next to the local VFW building for free. Seek out the groundskeeper, maintenance person, or whoever is in charge of the facility and explain what you would like to do. TIP: Universities and other educational facilities typically aren’t a good bet. They likely won’t allow access unless a coach is an alum, and even then, they may need to be present at all of the sessions.
The Challenge: Securing and Maintaining a Venue
The first thing you’ll need to do when you find a potential spot: Figure out who owns the field. If it’s a state park, it’s obviously run by the state. Most city and county fields will fall under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation department. Sometimes the county and city share an area. You can usually find signage near picnic tables or outbuildings that will tell you who is in charge of the field. Here’s how to approach them to attempt to gain access.
- Create a detailed plan. Usually there is one person who is in charge of assigning access privileges to these fields. The more detail you can give them about what you intend to do, the better. They may worry that you’ll be digging up the turf by dragging sleds or flipping tires across it. So prepare a clear and thorough presentation of what you are hoping to do and how it will impact the space (if at all). Include the number of people you hope to have per class, exercises you intend to do, equipment you plan on using, what else you plan to bring (water bottles, towels, etc.), and how you plan to ensure the area is cleaned up after each class. Sometimes instructors enlist the class in a “clean up the park” session (if they’re willing) at the end of the class, picking up all trash they see as an extra gesture of goodwill. If possible, provide photographs or video of you with a class or diagrams or a map of what area you’d like to use. Many people have trouble envisioning something based solely on a verbal explanation.
- Explain the benefits. A lot of times, you’ll need to do a little sales pitch. How will your activity bring traffic to the park? Parks and Rec departments especially appreciate when you can tell them how your program will be serving a need within the community. Ensure them that you’re a certified professional, which gives you credibility and them peace of mind.
- Build a relationship. Invite the point person to your sessions, and offer them some free passes. Even if you don’t think they’ll attend, it’s a nice gesture, and they may distribute them to family or friends. Answer all of their questions and address any concerns. Be patient and understanding. Once you have secured permission, be sure to follow up with a thank-you note. After your sessions start, provide an occasional report on how well everything is going and how much people are enjoying it. Offer compliments on the conditions of the area, and thank them again for their continued help. Most of the time, citizenry will only contact them if they have a complaint, and you don’t want that to be the only time they hear about your sessions.
- Aim for consistency. It’s easier to secure a venue for a regular time slot each week than for a one-time or once-in-a-while session. Having a regular time means your point person can put you on the calendar and know, for instance, that you’ll have the field on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. It’s something that they can keep in mind when others call to ask for access. It will become “your slot,” and you’ll be less likely to lose it. Plus, it’s better for business if you can offer a set location and schedule. That makes it easier for clients to put the session on their calendar, too.
- Ask about fees. Different locations have different permits and fees. Some may be free, others require a permit and one-time fee or a percentage of your revenues. Find out all of the details up front so you know what to expect and whether the program will be worth your while monetarily speaking. Pay your fair share and build the costs into your fees.
- Contact your insurer. You will need to add the venue as an “additional insured” to your existing Certificate of Insurance (COI). This must be done and approved by your carrier in advance. Don’t skip this step. Be just as professional as you would when working in a gym setting.
- Expect to wait a bit. Sports are typically seasonal, so if you try to book a field in the middle of a training season, you probably won’t get it. Look at fields in fall, but expect that you won’t be able to get on the calendar and secure them until spring. Don’t put out the word to clients about your sessions until you are completely sure you’ve secured a space and time slot.
Designing the Workout
First, resist the urge to change up the entire workout each week. Second, avoid switching locations often. This may seem exciting to the trainer, but it might stress your clients and create more logistics problems for you. Changing workouts too often means your clients never have time to get good at the workout and feel a sense of accomplishment or progress. Changing locations means they’re more likely to be confused or lost—or not show up. Just because it feels old to you does not mean it feels old to your clients. Other things to remember:
- Go through your workout without clients. Some activities seem better in theory than in reality. After you create a plan, run through it in real time in the location you’ve chosen at the time of day you’ve booked. There’s no easier way to discover if you need to make some modifications!
- Use what nature (and the park) provides. The less you need to bring in the form of mats, weights, sand bags, etc., the better. Make extensive use of playground equipment, benches, steps, and so on. These are a nice switch from gym equipment—for you and your clients. And real-world, functional workouts provide clients with a challenge that’s more interesting and may feel more like play and less like work.
- Resist the urge to be spontaneous. You already went through the workout as planned, but during a session, you spy a log that you could have clients do pushups on. Don’t be tempted to use it if you didn’t check it out beforehand. There could be a snake, bees, or other wildlife inside. Poison ivy could be growing on it, or it might be loaded with splinters. Don’t do anything random. You wouldn’t make a surprise change in the gym, so don’t do it outside either.
- Mark areas clearly. On a vast field of grass, it can be tough for clients to know where to go…or not. Bring flags or brightly colored cones and simple signage to designate where your clients should be for each station. You may also want to mark the outer boundary of the area you reserved and/or rope off hazards like a drop-off or rocky area. The more your clients understand where they need to be, the more they will be able to relax and concentrate on the workout.
- Experiment with class sizes. A smaller group means you’ll need to charge more per person, but they will each receive more personalized attention. Remember that the more they pay, the more they expect from you; they won’t want to just run laps and do push-ups. A larger group means you can charge less, but the activities may need to be simpler so everyone can do them with little guidance. Also, it can be tough to get 30 people to show up regularly, and without those numbers, you might be in the red. You may need to try a few approaches until you discover what works best for you.
- Create a welcome packet. Clients prefer clarity. They want to know where to be, what to wear, what to bring, and when the session will start and end. Provide directions and a photo using Google Maps. Take a picture of the parking area and explain where you will meet (say, under the pavilion or near the swing set). You might even want to make a video starting at the parking area and walking to the meet-up site, narrating what clients should look for and how to know they’re on the right track. You may also want to include links to videos of the exercises you’ll be doing or of a previous outdoor class you held. Also list everything they should bring, including sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray, a jacket, sneakers (specify if they should be old ones), water, and a towel. You want to do all you can to eliminate any feeling of awkwardness. This information needn’t be in a printed packet—you can send it in an email or post it on your website.
The Challenge: Arriving at the Field
Using outdoor fields may sound simple, but you can’t just park and run out onto the grass with your clients. The environment can change every week. A park is open to the elements and is often used by many people (and sometimes animals), so you don’t have control over it as you would a gym setting. Consider these factors before each session:
- Walk the area before clients arrive. Look for divots, branches, rocks, and other potential ankle-turners and hazards. You also won’t want a client to encounter animal waste or trash, so be prepared to clean up. If a recent storm knocked down branches or created swampy areas, consider shifting your location or modifying parts of the workout.
- Carry your permit and other paperwork. Once you have permission to use a field, take a photo of the paperwork with your phone, laminate a copy and keep it with you on the field, and keep another copy in your vehicle. People may challenge you to prove that you’re allowed to have that space, so you need to be ready to show them the proof (politely). Also keep the phone number and name of the Parks and Rec contact person (or whomever your contact is) so you can call them if necessary. But…
- Be as accommodating as possible. If you arrive at your space and find someone else using it, don’t take it personally. Approach with a smile and diplomatically explain the situation and show them your paperwork. Still, be as accommodating as you can. If you need only a small part of the field and a kids’ team wants to do an impromptu practice, offer to take just a portion of the area and leave the rest to them. You also might want to let your contact person know what happened, just in case the other party calls to complain or express concerns.
- Pack some basics. Carry a first aid kit and, if you can afford it, a defibrillator. Even if you told clients to bring their own water bottle and towels, have a few extras on hand for those who forgot or who underestimated their hydration needs. (You won’t want to offer to supply this type of thing for every attendee, though. That gets cumbersome and expensive.) This is another reason to list what to bring/wear in your welcome email or flyer, as was previously mentioned.
- Bring business cards. Again, just a reminder to keep these and/or flyers available so passersby can pick one up and join in the fun next time.
Above all, Darryl advises trainers to “embrace the simplicity of being outside.” People have been going outside to play since they were kids, he reminds us. As a trainer, it’s your goal to reintroduce them to the outdoor activities they know and love—but in new and creative ways.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Search the NASM blog for additional articles on topics related to outdoor exercise, such as Countering the Challenges of Cold Weather Exercise and Monitoring Hydration Levels (particularly during hot weather).
- Darryl Cross, MBA, NASM-CPT, PES, GPT, CES, is one of 60 Master Trainers worldwide who are certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. For over 30 years, he has coached over 10,000 athletes and business executives from over 100 countries on how to enhance performance and continuously improve results in business, sport, and personal fitness. Darryl is CEO of HighPer Coaching, which serves members of the legal community, and owner of Rainmaker Fitness, which serves the general public as well as sports teams and coaches.
- Gladwell, Valerie F., Daniel K. Brown, Carly Wood, Gavin R. Sandercock, and Jo L. Barton. “The Great Outdoors: How a Green Exercise Environment Can Benefit All.” Extreme Physiology & Medicine. BioMed Central, 3 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 Aug. 2016.
- Thompson, Walter R., FACSM. “Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2016: 10th Anniversary Edition.” ACSM Health & Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine, Nov.-Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Aug. 2016.