From an inconspicuous gym in a north Carbondale commercial zone, Danny Blake is quietly changing lives. Amidst the extreme range of outdoor recreation opportunities in the Roaring Fork Valley—from fourteeners to extensive single track and the river itself—he specializes in helping clients achieve the level of fitness they need to pursue their active mountain lifestyles.
“The local population have hobbies that require elite to near-elite physical expression,” says Blake, a strength and conditioning coach. “Their identity hinges on the ability to continue to [perform].”
As a lifelong competitive athlete himself, Blake understands that all-consuming pursuit of excellence. He began skiing at four years old, ski racing by the time he was six, and exploring Olympic aspirations by his senior year at a Lake Placid, NY boarding school specific to his ambitions.
Despite the rigorous training environment he experienced in high school, Blake recognized his skill level with regard to the Olympics, and redirected his sights on collegiate skiing by way of Vail’s PG (post-graduate) competitive ski team. He trained year round, twice a day, “sometimes two to three sessions on the hill a day,” he explains. “I got to see a lot of the world.”
Shoulder surgery two years in had Blake realigning his sights on a university in New Hampshire, studying exercise and sports physiology. With his own life a living study, Blake gravitated toward biochemistry and molecular exercise physiology for his master’s in kinesiology at California State University. Blake remains connected to the ski community, and is the director of human performance with the Rocky Mountain Consortium for Sports Research.
As a strength conditioning coach in his private practice, Blake emphasizes neuromuscular training to improve the quality of an athlete’s movements—which enhances performance while reducing the likelihood of injury. But injuries happen. And an injury can cascade into a multitude of negative outcomes—dysfunctional mobility, further injury, self recrimination, depression, anxiety, or leaving a sport altogether. Athletes seeking personal bests in rugged terrain can lead to blown knees or shoulders, shattered bones, concussions. Complete recovery can be an elusive, moving target, with the ghosts of physical trauma plaguing mobility, coordination, perception, or system function. For many athletes, something might feel “off”— but what is it?
The science of athletic movement led Blake to further studies into the relationships between vision, balance, proprioception, and neurology.
“If your sensory hierarchy is good to go, I don’t focus [on that] as much as I would for someone who has severe deficits. These areas [can be] major limitations to performance, so we spend a greater proportion of time building those competencies.”
And this is where it gets interesting, training with Blake.
His assessments use tools as simple as a pencil or colored balls on a string. Between various tests, Blake will have a client stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, pointing clasped hands like a pistol at a target. He’ll have them rotate at the hips as far as they can in each direction. Range of motion will increase or decrease based on the sensory input of the preceding test, indicating which systems are or aren’t communicating, and whether it’s muscular or neurological.
“[Danny] helped me not only overcome my chronic pain,” says Lindsay Plant, a two-time World Championship skimo athlete, “but helped me become structurally balanced and strong so I feel solid when in the mountains.”
For Zachary Vachal of the Princeton HeavyWeight Crew, “If I hadn’t met Danny this year, I would have likely been pushing myself through grueling workouts, hoping to improve marginally…I was surprised to find that the road to improvement does not have to be so difficult or scary.”
Blake is continually pushing to advance his knowledge and training in service of his clients.
“I still have a lot to learn when it comes to neurobiology,” he admits. “However, in most cases, complex issues can be resolved with simple fixes.”