Outdoor and adventure sports by nature are both endurance based and require more, shall we say, resilience or robustness than non-adventure equivalents.
Yes, you need to be fit at your given activity, but in wilderness adventure you also need to have a robustness and resilience that can cope with inclement weather, unforeseen difficulties or even an epic rescue situation. Last time I checked, nobody had to bivvy for the night after rolling an ankle during a snowstorm while doing the City to Surf.
We may see ourselves as specialists in our given fields, but we also have to have a really solid foundation that is very broad (and not just in the physical sense). If you achieve this, the feeling that results from being out there in the wilderness, confident in your ability to tackle whatever it is you planned is unparalleled.
From my own experience, I’ve come to believe that there are six overriding principles that govern a well-balanced training program for the outdoors and these principles are inexorably linked. Just missing out or overlooking one part can completely weaken the effect of the whole chain.
The following are the six principles we follow at the Basecamp when training anybody for any adventure or wilderness sport. If you nail all six of these, the journey becomes a joy.
You must have your head in the right place. If your head isn’t in the right place in training for or going on an adventure, you really are not going to enjoy the process. Practice mindfulness (the art of focusing on one thing at a time) during training or participating in your sport to become fully present. Your performance (and enjoyment) will go through the roof whether you are a climber, trekker, kayaker or just about anyone. A great place to start is the app Headspace. If you have bitten off a big and challenging goal, you might want to listen to some podcasts on Positive and Performance psychology, or read about the mindset of people you admire or are top performers in your favourite area of adventure. Love him or hate him, Bear Grylls has written an excellent book about mindset for any would-be adventurer titled: A Survival Guide for Life.
Hydration, hydration, hydration
It only takes a two per cent drop in fluid levels to cause a 10-20 per cent drop in performance – but at the same time don’t over hydrate. Hyponatremia can be dangerous. Know your sweat rate. Weigh yourself before one hour of intense exercise and weigh yourself after (preferably in your birthday suit) deduct your post exercise weight from your pre. Once you have your sweat rate, you know how much you need to hydrate when training. A lot of things influence fluid loss so make sure you make the calculations a few times to get a more accurate result.
- Pre-exercise weight = 55 kg, Post-exercise weight = 53.5 kg. Volume of fluid consumed during exercise (1 L) = 1 kg. Estimated urine losses = 500ml. Exercise duration = 2 hrs.
- Calculations: Fluid deficit (L) = 55 kg – 53.5 kg = 1.5 kg, Total sweat loss (L) = 1.5 kg + 1 kg – 500ml = 2 kg, Sweat rate (L/h) = 2 kg/2 h = 1 L/h.
Focus on your breathing during training; it grounds and centres you, bringing you back to the now (see the first point). During sub-maximal bouts of exercise such as trail running, focus on nasal breathing. Nasal breathing, while under pressure, strengthens the respiratory muscles that draw down the diaphragm and expand the lungs, helping to make your breathing more efficient and respiratory system generally stronger.
Get it right! How you eat correlates directly to how well you perform, how well you recover and how much you avoid illness (which takes us away from both adventures and training). Eat whole foods – as many unprocessed foods as possible. Eat carbohydrates in relation to how much energy you are expending and no more (we will be going deep down the nutritional rabbit hole in a future installment, as it’s too big to handle here). As a rule of thumb, eat good quality grass-fed meats, eat plenty of leafy green vegetables, eat high quality fats such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds and some fruit. Eat your biggest carbohydrate-based meals before and just after you train; limit your carbohydrate intake at other times. Avoid quick-hit, sugar-based snacks during long training sessions – despite giving you a boost, these will have a detrimental effect on your overall performance.
Use the 80/20 rule: spend 80 per cent of your time doing what you do and 20 per cent on your strength and conditioning program. For example, if you are training for your first hard multi-day walk, you need to be spending most of the time with a pack on your back getting kilometres under your belt. The other 20 per cent of the time needs to be given over to a well-structured strength and conditioning program that addresses your sport – in this case hiking. So for this example the program should include: mobility work for lower limbs, hips, lumbar and thoracic spine; strengthening of the core – the centre of support for all movement – the quads, hamstrings and glutes, with a focus in single leg patterns (as walking is a single leg exercise); and the shoulders must be conditioned for supporting a loaded pack. (Again we will be going deeper into training for specific wilderness adventures and sports further down the track).
Recovery is the most overlooked training tool. We live busy lives and so people have a tendency to either under train or over train. For us to get results and perform at our best we need to manage and plan recovery time to allow the body to adapt and improve – ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’ as far as exercise is concerned. The amount of rest depends on a lot of things: age, gender, goals, the intensity of exercise, and the intensity of the rest of your life. I am currently training three people for summit attempts of Everest; for two of them, the first thing we have done is cut the amount of training and the intensity of their training in order to build a solid base and work on flexibility and mobility first, so we can have them really strong and fit for when the real work begins. Think of your whole program as being like a house – mobility and recovery protocols are how we build solid, strong foundations. Build upon weak foundations at your own risk.
I’d love to receive feedback on these protocols and any others. I’d also love to hear about what you do for training, nutrition, recovery and mindset. Please check with your doctor or qualified dietician before applying any exercise or nutritional protocols.
Joe Bonington is a strength and conditioning expert, specialising in wilderness adventure activities and expeditions. As the owner of Joe’s Basecamp Gym on Sydney’s northern beaches, he’s able to share his expertise with new generations of outdoor enthusiasts and invites you to contact him with suggestions for future topics for his columns, or any specific questions you may have.