Anyone who has spent some time in the outdoors will have had what I call an ‘epic day’.

You know the kind – it’s that day when there was an accident, or your summit time was severely underestimated, or you were caught out by the weather. Whether you prefer running, climbing, ocean kayaking or walking, everyone experiences one of these days from time-to-time.

These are the days we train for. These are the days you want to be robust, the days that you want to have the stamina to go on long after you’d planned.

To live an adventurous life, we must all train for endurance, for stamina, for robustness. To be able to keep going all day long and do the same again tomorrow. We must train to be prepared for all eventualities.

So how do we do that? Training is not just training. We can’t just keep doing the same thing week after week. For us to maximise our performance we must look at our training for what it is – a stimulus to promote improved performance.

Training phases

Training phases for wilderness adventure. Click to enlarge.

Training to Improve

The process of increasing the intensity or length of training over time is called periodisation. We look at what we are planning to do, where we are at currently (i.e. what we have done the previous season? Are we fit and seasoned or de-conditioned or new to the game?), what is involved in our next project or event, and then plan over the year how to build our training so that we peak at just the right time.

In order to be effective, periodisation has to be a very carefully thought out process. Many a dream has been derailed by eager adventurers fired up and raring to go, only to go too hard in the early stages of training and either end up burnt out or injured. Any setback like this can derail an expedition.

I recommend you look at your year as if you were building a wall: start with the foundations, then build layer-upon-layer, never scrimping or hurrying fr risk of negatively impacting the integrity the whole.

These layers can be broken down into the following training ‘phases’.

1. Adaptive or Transition Phase

The adaptive or transition phase is the start of your journey. Here, we are getting ourselves moving, preparing the ligaments, joints and tendons for the work that is to follow. Slowly build during this phase.

We start this phase with mobility work; seeing what isn’t moving the way it should and working out how to release it. We start moving gently: gentle runs, walks, paddles, swims etc., and for strength: one or two sessions per week of bodyweight exercises and basic calisthenics.

Our strength training during this period is based on general functional movements or what we call primal movement patterns that all primates do in some form, naturally.

There are seven basic patterns: 1. Squat 2. Lunge 3. Push 4. Pull 5. Twist 6. Hinge/Bend 7. Gait (walking, running, jumping).

2. Base or Accumulation Phase

This phase is by far the largest part of any training program for those going on a wilderness adventure.

Build up your aerobic base – your cardiovascular capacity (CVC). The stronger an individual’s cardio capacity is, the longer they will keep going under duress. This is not trained by going as hard as we can, but by training the body to be more efficient with its energy sources.

Did you know the leanest marathon runner carries around 100,000 calories in stored fuel in the form of fat, but only 2000 calories in the form of glycogen from carbohydrates? Given that we keep on having to replenish glycogen, we need to become fat burning machines to be efficient, rather than constantly trying to top ourselves up with external fuels in the forms of gels, snacks etc. Yes we will use these external sources when we need to, but let’s train ourselves to work better and more efficiently first.

Building on the primal patterns mentioned in the previous phase, we then add load in the form of weight for some of the exercises. During the base phase we start applying ‘Pareto’s principle’, or the 80/20 rule: 80 per cent of our training is building our CVC and 20 per cent is building strength.

Ther risk here is getting excited and wanting to get to the part where we are pushing the envelope and yes, that may feel satisfying after we’ve done it and give us that endorphin rush of achievement, but has it elicited the training response we want? Is it contributing to our overall improvement in performance? Not if we are doing it at the wrong time or doing it too often.

If we push ourselves to the limit too often we will plateau or de-train.

Training phase structure

Simplified phase structure. Click to enlarge.

3. Intensification or Specific Phase

Now, this is where we get to do the fun stuff.

This part of our training is where we take a close look at the components of our chosen sport itself and how we can ‘overload’ our training with stimulus that will have a similar effect as to whatever adventure or wilderness sport we are throwing ourselves into.

This is where we load heavy packs or mountain bike hard slopes. It is where we do max-effort hill repeats when running.

Our strength training program changes as we start to condition different energy systems. We lift the intensity, markedly. This is the cement that will hold our wall together.

4. The Taper

This is usually two-to-four weeks from departure to our wilderness experience. We start to back off both load and intensity.

Don’t make the mistake of stopping; equally, don’t just keep training at the level that you have for fear of losing fitness.

Take the foot off the accelerator and allow yourself more time to recover, let that amazing body of yours do its thing: catch up on itself, strengthen and fortify. A well-timed taper means you will start your wilderness adventure feeling ready to take on the world. Your body is strong, your energy systems tuned and ready to deliver, your joints and soft tissue flexible and mobile. You are ready to go!

5. Event Phase

This can be a few hours (mountain marathon) or weeks (crossing the Greenland ice shelf) depending on what your adventure is.

Time to deliver – this is the culmination of your exciting journey. You have trained to be the best you can be, just you and the surrounding environment. Focus on your challenge, your surroundings. Being able to be ‘in sync’ with the world and maintain mindfulness will increase your performance, enjoyment and it will also help keep you safe.

6. Recovery phase

Chill! The length of recovery depends on the demands of your experience.

As expected, the more physically challenging your event phase was, the longer the recovery phase should be. This is a time to do more gentle activities and take a break from your given wilderness sport.

Recharge the batteries and cross train. Many can find this challenging and don’t give themselves adequate recovery time, which is a real shame. Not only does it allow the body to recover but also, a break from what we love also helps us remember why we love it in the first place.

Further Reading

Training for The New Alpinism: A Manual for The Climber as Athlete – Steve House and Scott Johnston. This fantastic text is fast becoming a bible for those who wish to train for an alpine ascent. What’s great about this book is that its principles are principles and these can be applied to virtually any wilderness sport. If you want to dig deeper into all the aspects I’ve talked about, definitely buy this book.

Periodisation, Theory and Methodology of Training –  Tudor Bompa, G. Gregory Haff. A classic for the training nerd. Now in its fifth edition. If you want to really geek out as to how and why periodisation works this is the book. Any strength and conditioning coaches worth their salt will have this as a resource.

This article originally appeared in Wild 153, which includes Joe’s sample training schedules. Subscribe today.

Other articles in this series:

Welcome to base camp with Joe Bonington

Six principles of training for wilderness adventure