Don’t Just Go Camping, Get An Education!

Declan Connolly, PhD,FACSM, CSCS*D
Posted February 24th, 2010

No one can argue that Vermont is handcrafted for the ultimate camping experience. Beautiful scenery, lakes, mountains, streams, dirt-roads, and quiet back roads all provide a wonderful natural environment to promote the outdoors. Thus, it is not surprising that there are literally hundreds of camps available in Vermont. The choice is infinite in terms of activity, location, cost, and comfort. And so the challenge often lies in what we are looking for in our camping experience.
My line of work has enabled me to be involved and experience a few camps around Vermont, and has also led me to think more about the educational differences in camps as well as where to go and have a good time. What exactly are we looking for in a camp, and if we send our kids, what do we want for them?
Personally, and like many of you, safety is right up there with cost. Assuming all camps can address these components, what is left? Well, there’s location, and then a big one for me is the experience, and more so the educational experience. Now, I haven’t experienced all the camps in Vermont, but two that particularly impress me for children and adolescents are the Catamount Mountain Bike Camps in Williston, and The Green Mountain Running Camp (GMRC) in Lyndonville. I have experienced these camps in different roles. My kids attended the Catamount Bike Camps, and I have been an invited speaker at the GMRC. Let me tell you a little more about them.
The GMRC is a high school cross-country running camp located at Lyndon State College. Run by John Holland and Roy Benson the camp is now in its 35th year. A few years ago John Holland invited me up to speak at the camp on a topic I called Training Smart. I spent a few days and was most impressed, namely because these guys live and breathe running. Roy Benson, some call him the “legendary Roy Benson,” has a coaching resume second to none, and John Holland was a 2:30 marathoner in his hey-day. They have a coaching education and camper education program that surpasses anything I have seen. I was amazed at the level of detail and information presented to the high school students. It ranged from biomechanical analysis to nutrition to race strategy to injury prevention and the list went on. These sessions were presented by some of the finest coaches and clinicians in the country, not to mention the world-class athletes who are routine presenters.
While I was there, Marcus O’Sullivan gave a talk to campers. For those of you who don’t know Marcus, he is a several-time Olympian, former world record holder of the indoor mile, and has ran over 100 sub-four minute miles. He is currently head coach at Villanova. I can’t help but think how impressed I’d be as a kid of 15 or 16 years old watching the slides and listening to the stories. This camp had college coaches talking about what they look for in recruits, how to get into college, what the step up to college is like, and much more.
The food is all catered and transportation to and from running sessions is provided. Oh, and they do some running also. In fact, twice a day is the norm, with a short breakfast run of about three miles and a more structured run in the afternoon. Minimum is about 25 miles to 50 or more miles, depending upon abilities. All groups have two or three coaches who run with the kids and mentor them all week. These coaches also coach some of the finest high school teams in the country. So it’s not for the faint-hearted. The fact that NIKE has sponsored the camp for many years also speaks volumes. But perhaps the best part is that all runs end in a cool Vermont stream, where you get a nice 15- to 20-minute soak. Now what could be better except a nice Vermont micro-brew, but we’ll leave that for when these student athletes grow up and attend an adult camp. Anyway, if you’re looking for a real deal camping experience for your young runner, check out the GMRC.
The Catamount Outdoor Center has been a staple of Chittenden County for many years. For the last few years I have a sent two of my kids to this camp; next year maybe three will go. Like the GMRC I like this camp because of the comprehensive approach to the programming. My seven- and eight-year olds learned bike maintenance, tire repairs, bike cleaning, trail maintenance, forest appreciation, and how to deal with a little inclement weather. They biked for a few hours, got a good sweat going, were tired, and wanted more. The kids were challenged everyday and learned to deal with many different situations.
My kids have been to camps that were just glorified babysitting, with unqualified counselors simply intent in passing the time, or texting, or whatever. This camp has good people who understand the environment, select age-appropriate activities, and don’t baby the campers. As a parent and a sport scientist, I like the mix, and for other parents looking for more of a real learning experience for your kids, think about these matters. The kids learn how to be responsible and independent, while at the same time really getting a taste of some physical exertion. It’s kind of like the good old days.
So, as camp season approaches, think about what you want for your kids, what they will like, and then strike a balance. Look closely at the programming, the counselor skills, the location, food, and, of course, safety. In the age of computer games and cell phones, it’s refreshing to hear your kids still talking about their camp experiences weeks later, and knowing they are already looking forward to next year.
Declan Connolly is a professor of exercise physiology and kinesiology at the University of Vermont, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, past president of the New England American College of Sports Medicine, and consultant to the NHL, NFL, and IOC. For more information, training tips, and articles by Dr. Connolly, go to