Ready to take your adventure racing to the next level? Or tired of not getting onto the winner’s podium? Me too. So that’s why I’ve started the Better Adventure Racing series, where I’m documenting the system I’ve created to methodically and incrementally improve my capabilities as an adventure racer. I’m tired of just completing, I want to compete! The Better Adventure Racing system is how I plan to do just that.
Remember how everybody went totally nuts for Sriracha for a while? And then we went nuts for everything with bacon on it? Or the whole artisan donuts phase? I freaking love Sriracha and bacon and donuts. But we humans have the tendency to take great things and overdo it, ending up ruining the thing we once loved by overdosing on it. We forget that Sriracha, bacon, and donuts are great because they are so uniquely satisfying and by using them too much, they lose their uniqueness. Observe some monstrosities born of our hubris:
To quote Dr. Ian Malcom from the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Just where on earth am I going with this? I’m reminding all of us of the dangers of going too far with something we love because that’s exactly what we’ve done with the trend of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
HIIT came onto the scene with the rise of Crossfit. While Crossfit popularized their “metcons”, which were intense circuits of weight training, gymnastics, and conditioning, and one of their most popular workouts was “Tabata Something Else”. Named after Dr. Tabata, the Japanese research scientist who invented the precise training method used in the workout, Tabata Something Else was the application of the Tabata Method through a couple bodyweight exercises. The Tabata Method is 20 seconds of an exercise at the highest possible intensity, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and then repeated 5-7 more times. The Tabata Method spread like wildfire, with strength coaches throwing Tabata Method programming into everything. I remember one particularly gruesome workout was the Tabata Method with barbell front squats. The experience was…devastating. The Tabata workouts weren’t just impressive in their brutality, they were also impressive in their ability to elicit improvement. The Tabata Method was hailed as the cure-all for just about everything an athlete might want. Need to shed those stubborn last 5 lbs? Tabata kettlebell swings! Need to improve your top-end speed? Tabata sprints! Hate yourself and want to die? Tabata burpees! The Tabata Method was supposed to be the end game, no new discoveries in sports science needed. And then we went overboard. Tabata for everything, all the time. And we broke ourselves.
HIIT carries with it a heavy price tag. The Tabata method calls for every round of 20 seconds to be conducted at maximal effort. That means “pedal-to-the-floor, turn it up to 11” type of exertion. The kind of output that human beings simply cannot reproduce. And as readers know from my previous articles, that requires writing a very big check with the hopes that your body can cash it. If you do HIIT frequently, you won’t be able to pay up. HIIT is extremely taxing on the body’s musculature and energy systems. We simply aren’t designed to go at 100 mph day after day. We’re endurance athletes by nature, which means our bodies are built for cruise control. Even the best anaerobic athletes spend only a limited amount of their training efforts in the max anaerobic zone because they know that a little goes a long way and a lot takes you out of the game. Exhausted muscles are more easily injured, take longer to recover, and spike your body’s hormonal response. These are in direct opposition to what we need to do as adventure racers. We need to train frequently at low intensity, pushing ourselves only moderately so that workouts are 1-4% more challenging than the last time. HIIT workouts demand a lot of us, and to make gains through HIIT workouts, you have to spend a LOT of time recovering, which is time spent NOT training.
To keep with our analogy of bacon, Sriracha, and donuts (is anyone else starting to drool?), HIIT can get addictive. There’s a powerful rush of endorphins released after a strenuous workout, that great feeling you get when you’re dripping with sweat and can barely catch your breath, but man, you feel so ALIVE. That rush is so sweet because all your senses are screaming at you, telling you that you just accomplished something significant. Contrast that to yet another long, slow run at your MAF threshold, and HIIT starts to look like not just a cure-all for your physical efforts, but a cure-all for the mind too.
Now, you may think at this point that I’m totally opposed to HIIT. Not at all, I think there are a number of great benefits that HIIT brings to a well thought out AR training program.
It trains your body to have gears. Plodding along at the same speed week in and week out can be detrimental and is one of the pitfalls found in the base endurance training if you aren’t diligent and tracking your progress. But if a set of high-intensity hill sprints are mixed into the program every now and then, you not only break the monotony, you also shock your body a bit and prevent it from settling on a single, default speed. Forcing yourself to run as fast a possible for 10-20 seconds up a hill sends a very powerful signal to the cardiovascular and muscular systems that they can’t get complacent and it teaches them how to rapidly recruit additional motor units when necessary. Sometimes during a race, you’ll find yourself in need of a quick, hard push, whether is the final sprint to the finish line, a neck-and-neck race to a CP or you’re pushing 2 bikes up a hill because your teammate is about to collapse. HIIT serves as a useful method to prepare for those “known unknowns” that always appear in adventure racing.
The psychological benefit of “maxing out”. HIIT exposes you to the pain cave, no doubt about it. Normally, that’s something you want to avoid, but as any seasoned adventure racer will tell you, the pain cave is where you’ll end up sooner or later. It’s best to know what you’re capable of doing so that when it comes time to give everything thing you got, your body and mind aren’t screaming in rebellion. HIIT helps you find out what you’re made of in a short period of time. A workout that consists of 100 burpees for time is a quick way to measure your grit.
Great physiological benefits. HIIT, when properly conducted, can trigger a number of excellent physiological responses from the body. HIIT workouts are great fat burners, as the high intensity of the exercise sends signals to your body to burn tons of calories as you’re 100% in fight or flight mode. It sends a cascading set of signals to the thyroid and other hormone-producing organs, raising testosterone and dopamine. To be frank, it’s a GREAT workout.
It’s short. When you have only 20 minutes to spare, you can spend 10 minutes warming up to make sure you’re limber, your muscles are warmed up and your heart rate is elevated, then launch into a 5-10 minute HIIT workout that will clean your clock. And then boom, you’re done. Training effect achieved, wrap it up and hit the showers.
So at this point, you’re probably totally confused as to whether or not HIIT belongs in your adventure racing training program. I’m here to emphatically say that it does belong. For the reasons listed above, a nice sprinkling of HIIT workouts across your program will accelerate growth and provide much-needed variety. The trick is making the inclusion of HIIT actually benefit your overall training goals. Here’s how I do it:
Respect HIIT: If a HIIT workout is in your program, treat it with the respect it deserves. You don’t just make it up what you’re going to
do the morning of. You don’t place it the day after a strenuous resistance or endurance workout. Recognize the amount of stress you’re going to introduce on your body and make sure you’re prepared for the task.
Do it Right: A correctly executed HIIT workout should provide a massive stimulus to the body to grow, so long as it’s done correctly. That means you go into the workout ready (fully warmed up, not nursing any lingering injuries). You make sure the workout is going to actually benefit your training goals. Hill sprints are always great. Assault Bike for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. Ski or Rowing erg Tabata. Kettlebell circuits. 10 minutes of sandbag getups. These are examples of HIIT workouts that directly support making you a better adventure racer. 30 barbell power snatches for time does not, unless you’ve got evidence that your local RD is planning some REALLY weird mystery events at the next race. Phil Maffetone, endurance coach and exercise physiologist extraordinaire, states that high-intensity efforts don’t give any benefit once they exceed 90% off max heart rate. While he may be correct from a purely physiological perspective, I think the added benefit of pushing to 100% comes in the form of the psychological training. Whether to hit 90% or 100%, the point is you need to hit the red line, and then immediately back off.
Do it Hard: A real HIIT workout turns it up to 11. If you go out to do 6 hill sprints and only turn it up to 7, you not only failed to achieve the maximal training effect you could have, you actually hurt your overall effort by just mucking about in the gray zone of mildly anaerobic. Always remember – Minimum Effective Dose. Just because you’re going hard as you can don’t mean that you keep going until you throw up or pass out. That doesn’t train you for anything and just teaches your body to shut down. HIIT workouts are brutal, which means by their nature, they HAVE to be short. If you’re on your 10th hill sprint, there’s absolutely no way you did the last 9 sprints as hard as you should have.
Recover: The day after a HIIT workout should be a total rest/recovery day. And no, not a “recovery day” where you go out on a 10-mile “recovery run”. A recovery like restorative yoga (the nice and easy stuff), a leisurely walk with the dogs and kids, or lazy swim. If you truly turned it up to 11, you’ll want this day to be off. If you’re itching to train the day after a HIIT day, you didn’t achieve the training effect you should have.
We need to bring HIIT back to correct balance in our programs. What does this look like? For the first 5 months of the AR season (generally October through February), there’s no reason for HIIT. Your focus is 1) Base Endurance and 2) Maximal Strength. Once you make the transition to relative strength training around February, you can start to sprinkle in some HIIT. This takes the form of some hill sprints or similar workout every other week. Make certain you re-position your other training efforts around the HIIT day. The preceding day should be an easy day, usually in the form of a base endurance, “slow ‘n steady” workout, and the day afterward should be total rest. Make absolutely sure you aren’t doing anything hard the day before a HIIT workout or you’ll never reach the intensity of the training you want, and be sure to rest the day afterward so you actual absorb all the training you just went through. Don’t do a HIIT workout the week of a race either, it’s too draining.
Like Sriracha, artisan donuts, and bacon, HIIT is a wonderful enhancer to an already well-rounded endurance training protocol. Just don’t go overboard, programming in HIIT because you can’t think of anything else or have gotten addicted to the rush it provides. Remember the pitfalls of too much of a good thing. We don’t want HIIT to be like Sriracha lip balm or bacon-flavored Diet Coke.
Now, without failure, as soon as you start talking about resistance training for endurance athletes, people’s hackles go up. “OMG, you can’t weight lift, you’ll get all big and bulky!!!” or “If you want to get better at a sport, you should only do that sport and nothing else!!!”. I’m not sure if it’s because some folks are scared of being forced out of their comfort zone, but introducing weighted exercises to an endurance training program just sets some folks off.
As we discussed in the first entry to the Better Adventure Racing series, there simply isn’t enough time in the week for most of us to spend getting in a lot of training volume. I have to fit in all my training to about 10 hours a week, give or take, so this means I’m not always hitting the single track and almost never getting out onto the water for some paddling. I do, however, have access to the gym in my garage every day. Spending 45 minutes getting in a smartly programmed resistance training workout twice a week helps bridge the gap between what I wish I could do (3 hours of single track biking) and what I actually can do. And because AR has so many different types of demands on the body when compared to a single-mode sport like ultrarunning or enduro mountain biking, resistance training allows you to directly incorporate the demands you’d see out in the woods and bring them into the gym. I don’t have the time to go kayak for a few hours (and why would I want to when I could run or bike instead), but I do have the time for 4 sets of 12 TRX rows. Not the same, of course, but it’s a worthwhile substitute and for all the reasons listed above, far more practical.
Overwhelmingly, resistance training isn’t about making you a faster adventure racer or substituting weight lifting for sport-specific training. That’s what base endurance is for. Resistance training is about making you a more resilient adventure racer. Muscle keeps you in the game past when you otherwise would have tapped out or gotten hurt. And as any veteran racer will tell you, it’s often not the fastest racer who wins, but the one who can keep going despite it all. It also helps to know how to read a map…
Random note – Go watch the Expedition Alaska film to see exactly what I’m talking about. That brutal course tore racers apart. Tecnu pulled off the win in large part by just willing to continue when others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
The reasons adventure racers should be doing resistance training are legion:
Armor Plating. Adventure racing involves (sorry, MANDATES) falls, slips, and other injuries causing risk to the body. The stronger you are, the less likely you will get injured, and if you do, the less severe the injury will be. Muscle is what encases all that soft, mushy stuff inside you and keeps it safe. On top of that, your recovery is quicker thanks to the higher metabolic rate of muscle tissue. You WILL get knocked down. Muscle is what gets you back up.
Variety. Because adventure racing typically involves 3 sports, and some races up to 6, the ability of your body to accommodate the different types of demand placed on it from multiple sports is a strong determinate of who wins. Resistance training teaches your body to get uncomfortable by forcing it to struggle through manipulating external loads. Furthermore, resistance training helps add a bit of spice to your programming, breaking up the inevitable long slogs we have to do when working on our base endurance. This keeps you excited and prevents overtraining.
Improved Performance. Muscle tissue readily stores glycogen, the primary fuel for the body and brain during anaerobic efforts. More muscle mass gives your not just a stronger athlete, but an athlete with a larger gas tank. Additional muscle mass help ensures continue proper mechanics for extended periods of time, helping fight the battle against fatigue. On top of that, the venous return of blood to your heart is helped along by on muscle. So more muscle means more help pumping blood through the body.
Exposed Weaknesses. Resistance training, when done correctly, quickly place athletes into positions that when combined with an external load, reveals their imbalances. Tight calves, a common attribute in endurance athletes, are easy to spot when doing 225 lbs barbell back squats. Far better to spot these weaknesses in the gym and adjust programming to compensate and correct (like some slow eccentric calf raises) then to find yourself wondering why your legs are on fire a couple hours into the race.
Strength is King. The ability to exert force is the dominant fitness attribute. Endurance is a subset of strength, as it is that same exerted force, just spread across a large period of time and space. A stronger athlete is recruiting a higher number of motor units, extracting more muscle fiber contractions in the same period of time as a weaker athlete. The more motor units recruited, the more force exerted, and the more force exerted, the faster you go. Strength begets speed.
One of the biggest benefits to resistance training (and weight training in particular) is that it helps expose, and then subsequently shore up, weaknesses. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct omnidirectional and contra-lateral exercises. What are those fancy words? They mean you should move in more than 1 direction and in more than 1 method, something the vast majority of endurance athletes fail to do.
Endurance athletes are horribly biased towards forward movement (sagittal plane). We like to see where we’re going, so we participate in activities that are all about going forward where our eyes can best observe. We pay more attention to how the front of our body looks (gotta have those sick abzzz) than our back. All this attention to a specific direction and side leaves us exposed to injuries from the other side. You may be great at running forward, but when you suddenly have to leap sideways, snap!, there goes the ACL. When compared to our road-running compatriots, trail racers are naturally exposed to more lateral movement (frontal plane) from all the twists, turns, roots, and rocks, but are nevertheless still biased towards forward movement. Obviously, it’s good to be good at moving forward (I’ve yet to see an AR that requires everyone to run/bike/paddle backward), but while we need to focus on forward movement, we can’t allow that focus to be all-consuming. This is where resistance training can help. Here’s an example:
The X-band walk, a wonderful resistance exercise for building strength in muscles that typically don’t get much focus, like the glute medius.
Smart programming can address these biases and counteract a lot of the imbalances we see in endurance athletes. Bounds, lateral squats, balance work, and connective tissues focused exercises provide the much-needed attention to the other parts of the body that get ignored and under-trained. An under-appreciated fact of the body is that most connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, bands, etc.) have 1/10th the metabolic rate of muscle tissues. Meaning that a crucial ligament like the ACL only goes through the same GAS cycle as the muscles around in the time those muscles go through 10 times. So all our favorite season-ending injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tears, ACL/MCL tears, etc. are often the result of strong muscles working beside weak connective tissue. Yet another reason that the 1-4% increase in difficulty/stress is the road to success, as it limits the growth of musculature so that they don’t outpace the surrounding connective tissues. The fact is that as an adventure racer, you will inevitably be going sideways or backward during a race. Hopefully by choice (side-stepping down a steep incline, quickly leaping over logs, etc) but also inevitably not by choice (head over heals over the bike handle bar). The amount of armor plating you’ve built on your body is the difference between a bruise and a race-ending injury. Strength coach Dan John says it best – “strong people are harder to kill”. Higher density of muscle directly corresponds to the ability to absorb more damage. And in adventure racing, there’s ALWAYS plenty of damage to go around.
Complementary vs. Competitive. One of the major traps that endurance athletes can get snared in is making the mistake in their resistance training programming that they try to replace and/or replicate their base endurance training inside the gym with weighted exercises. This normally takes the place of the “high rep, low weight” workouts where athletes do tons of repetitions of light weight exercises. The reason this is so dangerous is that if you’re actively training your base endurance (which you pretty much ALWAYS are), then trying to plug in additional endurance workouts in your schedule is going to take your body well outside the 1-4% additional stress per week that you should be accumulating. If you’re training Type I muscle fibers during your resistance training instead of Type IIa and IIb, you’ll never be able to recover in time. It’s equivalent to the “junk miles/gray zone/black hole training” we discussed in Base Endurance post. You’re not actually getting better at anything, you’re just piling on more stress that can’t be accommodated. Now, there may be a time and place, like if you’re nursing an injury and can’t go for a run/ride, but by and large, resistance training should be kept to complementary style programming. It should be reinforcing your endurance workouts, which will always remain the cornerstone of the overall training program.
Okay, got it, resistance training makes sense. What should I do? Well, there is extremely dependant on a number of variables like current fitness, schedule, access to facilities, etc. So I’ll ignore the question and instead answer by telling you how I do it. I break up my resistance training into three distinct training blocks over the course of the year. This allows me to program in blocks that have a narrower focus than just “get better” and instead lets me target specific goals.
Phase 1 – Base: The base phase occurs at the beginning of the offseason from adventure racing (typically October/November time frame). The focus of the base phase is maximal strength, aka get as strong as possible. The reason for this is two-fold. First, you’ve just finished the race season. You’re probably pretty burnt out of long endurance events. Physiologically, your type I muscle fibers are extremely developed, while your type IIa and IIb are underdeveloped. Because of the busy competitive schedule of the summer and early fall seasons, you’ve become physically weak in exchange for stamina. Focusing on maximal strength gives your central nervous system a nice break while training your body at an aspect of fitness that has been recently neglected. Secondly, maximal strength sets the stage for a successful season. By getting STRONG early, training efforts later in the year that focus on relative strength and muscular endurance will be far more successful. The stronger you get in the offseason, the better training you’ll experience as we enter later training phases. Remember at the beginning of the article where I said strength is king? I meant it.
Let me now quote from Alex Viadra, strength coach extraordinaire, of Complete Human Performance and author of The Hybrid Athlete, who has written far more at length than I on the subject of resistance training for endurance events: “By training with higher loads for lower repetitions (singles, doubles, or triples), the body is forced to recruit more muscle fibers (through enhanced neuromuscular adaptation) in order to move the heavier load. By training the body to fire more muscle fibers at one time, the net result is increased power and force production each time the neurons in the brain send a signal to the neurons in the muscles. Perhaps most importantly, however, training muscles to fire maximally, and fire quickly, improves efficiency- there is less energy wasted as the muscle fibers respond to nerve activation. This means that when you need to kick it into high gear, your body will be able to call upon more muscle fibers to contribute to power production to get you up that hill or to that finish line, and can do so with less wasted energy.”
Boom. Mic Drop.
What’s this look like? For me, I lift twice a week. Each lifting season includes a compound, multi-join movement under heavy load, like a barbell deadlift, front squat, weighted lunge, back squat, etc. I’ll do 4-5 sets of 2-3 repetitions. The focus is to accrue incremental improvement (remember that 1-4% improvement I spoke about in the first article?) that stress the body to repair muscle fibers and nail that sweet spot in the super compensation cycle. On top of that, I’ll add in some upper body specific exercises that are more muscular endurance focused, some core exercises, and a few mobility exercises. The base phase is intentionally simple because with the focus being maximal strength, doing excessive work distracts from the primary effort, which is moving a heavy weight twice then resting so I can do it again.
Here’s a standard workout:
Circuit 1 (4 sets)
Barbell Deadlift x 2 (start at 225 lbs, work up to 285-315, depending on how I feel)
Pullups x 7
Russian Twist x 10 (with 35 lbs plate)
Circuit 2 (3 sets)
Pistols x 8 (each leg) – Because the deadlift is hamstring dominate, I use the second circuit to offset the muscle demands by using an exercise that hits the other side, like Pistols, since they are quadricep dominate
TRX Rows x 8
Hanging Leg Raises x 8
I’ll continue the base phase for 4-5 months, typically into February. You may notice that the base phase for endurance training and resistance training are the same. This is intentional. They are meant to be mutually beneficial, as the volume-focused, low intensity (MAF threshold) training of the base endurance training is done beside the maximal strength focused base resistance training. In essence, you’re training the opposite ends of the spectrum – low intensity, high volume cardiovascular fitness and high intensity, low volume maximal strength.
Phase 2 – Build: In the build phase of resistance training, I’m feeling very strong, but my muscular endurance is crap. Basically, I can lift a heavy thing a few times, but my body quickly loses out after an extended period at higher intensities. I’ve intentionally avoided efforts that push the threshold of my comfort zone, neglecting things like lactic acid threshold training or high-intensity training. Now we start to sprinkle that into training.
The build phase is meant to last about 3 months, from February-ish to May-ish. I divide this phase into 3-week training cycles, which allows me to follow a semi-organized pattern, accruing gains in fitness at a specific training demand then rotating them in order to maintain the challenge. The first two months focuses on relative strength, which is simply maximal strength but at a lower weight for a few more repetitions. So instead of 2-3 reps, I’ll do 5-6 reps. This necessitates lowering the weight on the bar so I can successfully lift correctly. So my deadlifts drop from around 300 lbs to maybe 250 or 225. This shift may seem small, but the changes that occur in your muscle is significant, as the adjustment in volume sends signals that your type 1 fibers now need to start helping out with the lifting.
For the third month, I’ll shift to lactic acid threshold training, which is the same lifting routine (5-6 reps), but going very slowly. I’ll typically do 4-5 seconds lifting the weight up, and 4-5 seconds lifting the weight down. I’ll cover lactic acid threshold training more in depth in the next article, but it’s a game changer. The short reason is that the slow lifting speed teaches your body to remove the lactic acid that accumulates in the muscles in order to more readily convert it to additional glucose.
So a typical workout looks like this:
Circuit 1 (4-5 sets)
Deadlift x 5-6 reps (185-250 lbs)
Immediately followed by 8 jumping lunges
Pushups x 20 reps
Weighted situps x 10 reps
Circuit 2 (3-4 sets)
Overhead Squat x 8 reps (95 lbs)
Chinups x 6 reps
Pallof Press x 8 reps
Finally, I’ll start to introduce “grinders” once every 2-3 weeks. Grinders are done on a third lifting day, only when I’m feeling like my body is capable of absorbing a bit more stress. They are 10-20 minute work capacity training events, focusing on teaching my body to adapt and get comfort with discomfort. Grinders involve exercises that aren’t strength focused, but rather are a blend of cardio and strength. Exercises include weighted step ups, tire drags, hill sprints, farmers walks, sandbag getups, etc. They aren’t as crazy intense as a Crossfit workout, but rather a sustained output at a moderately high intensity for a short period of time. Their purpose is to simulate the really crappy times that can occur in a race, like a hike a bike up a mountain side or towing a teammate. Just be sure to not go all out, otherwise, you’ll end up wrecking the rest of the week’s workouts.
The sandbag getup. Courtesy Rob Shaul and Strong Swift Durable. Do this for 10 minutes. Then enjoy the profoundly new outlook on life you now have.
Phase 3 – Perform: The perform phase lasts three to four months, typically June through September. This is peak race season, so now it’s time to show off all the awesome benefits you’ve received from resistance training. This phase is noticeably volatile, as the density of competitions can cause the training efforts to slacken or completely halt in order to allow for recovery. When you’re racing three weekends in a row across multiple sports, it’s far more important to go for a recovery walk then it is to try and get a few more squats in. Nevertheless, we build a model for this phase in the instances where you have a 2 week or longer break between races, or if some of your races are just for fun and not for serious competition, we just regard them as long workouts.
The perform phase focuses on maintaining the gains achieved in the base and build phases to the best of our ability, training at only a moderate intensity. To be clear, you won’t be getting stronger in the phase, at either the maximal or relative phase. At best, you won’t get weaker. Primarily, the resistance training will be to introduce just enough stress in the body to make the body respond by repairing muscle tissue in an effort to fight against the inevitable wasting of muscle tissue that occurs from frequent endurance efforts. On top of this, we add a good amount of athlete drills and dynamic efforts to promote power, speed, and explosiveness. These drills help stave off the shrinking of Type IIa and IIb muscle fibers, helping preserve your ability to perform sudden bursts of effort like jumping over roots, avoiding bike crashes, etc.
A typical workout in Phase 3 looks much like Phase 2, but without the strain for 1-4% improvement. You’re looking for 0% improvement. If you haven’t achieved your resistance training goals in the past 9 months, it ain’t coming now. Now is the time to taper, So do the workouts with a bit more rest than last month, a bit less weight, and a few less reps. I’m intentionally vague because it needs to be very situationally dependent and not strictly scheduled. You’re harvesting nourishing movement, helping recover from last weekend’s brutal race or feel loose and ready for next weekend’s. If you have a decent break in the schedule, or you only have “B” and “C” races and are looking to ramp up for an “A” race, then conduct a 3-week long cycle from Phase 2.
Base Endurance. The key input to success as an adventure racer. No other effort requires as much time, no other effort generates as much benefit. Adventure racing is an endurance sport and as such, excelling at it requires that you be a great endurance athlete. Let’s define what I’m talking about when I say “base endurance”.
Base – Cornerstone, fundamental, elemental. Upon which all other things are built. Think of the Biblical parable of the house built on sand and the house built on stone – one washing away, the other remains indefinitely. We want to be made of stone, unbreakable and everlasting. To achieve such a strong foundation, we’ll have to put in a lot of work in order to achieve an effortless level of high aerobic function.
Endurance – The capacity to continue. Keep going. Persist. Try and try again. Not quit. Many people hear “endurance athlete” and in their minds, equate that to being something who excels in aerobic physical exertion. Having excellent aerobic fitness is certainly a large part of endurance, but it isn’t synonymous. There’s more to endurance that just having the ability to shuttle oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. There’s a skill part and a mental part as well. The skill part of endurance is the application of your excellent aerobic fitness to the sport in question. You can have good aerobic fitness by Jazzercise (but…why would you ever want that??) but when you smack dab in the middle of a 72-hour AR, it makes a whole lot more sense to be able to comfortably mountain bike for hours on end. The mental aspect is the psychological capability to keep going, to not slow down or throw in the towel.
That probably sounds a bit intimidating. But let me ask you this one question: Are you a human?
Fantastic, you’re already pre-disposed to be a fabulous endurance athlete. We are tailor-made to move long distances at a steady pace. Our feet, with their high quantity of bones and high density of muscles, are designed to accommodate tremendous levels of shock from striking the ground repeatedly (i.e., running). Our (mostly) hairless bodies work like a giant cooling system, letting us shed excess heat generated from exertion in the form of sweat. Our cardiovascular system is built to pump enormous amounts of oxygen-enriched blood to farthest reaches of our musculature. And we carry tens of thousands of spare calories on our bodies in the form of fat cells. So trust me when I say that we’re all born for endurance excellence. The trick is just getting out of your own way so that your body is maximized at it.
Let’s talk about some of the critical factors that differentiate the pros from those of us who are…um…not quite at the pro level (cough..me…cough). To better understand what makes me not as good as someone like Ian Adamson or Nathan Fa’avae, we need to take a look a what makes someone at endurance, which means we need to understand energy systems.
Speaking broadly, there 3 three systems through which the body converts stored energy and uses it to power effort. These 3 systems, or pathways, are ATP-phosphocreatine, glycolytic, and aerobic/oxidative. The body utilizes all 3 systems all the time but shifts the degree to which a system is dominate based on the type of demand placed upon the body. ATP/PC is for high-intensity efforts, typically 10 seconds or less. Glycolytic is the middle road, covering efforts that last from 10 seconds to at most 2 minutes. Oxidative covers everything longer than 2 minutes. Let’s use a few popular Olympic sports as examples to better illustrate.
Glycolytic = 800 meter sprint, 100-meter swim. Sports that demand a very high output longer than you can hold your breath, but over in 2 minutes or less.
Oxidative = Marathon, soccer, hockey, handball, cycling, literally just about everything. Sports that aren’t over in a few minutes, long duration, repetitive efforts.
So you can easily see that when a sport like Adventure Racing requires its athletes to race for days on end, we’re definitely in the aerobic/oxidative pathway. Our versions of a “sprint” is a race that only last 6 hours. But there are some important caveats to know before you get all excited and ignore sprinting for the rest of your endurance career.
All 3 energy systems are always playing a part. It just varies in the percentage that the system dominates. So if you’re doing something like a power clean or 100m sprint, you may be 80% ATP, 10% glycolytic, and 10% oxidative. But if you’re hiking up a steep hill for an hour, it may be more like 70% oxidative, 20% glycolytic, and 10% ATP. The important thing here is to remember that you cannot exclusively train oxidative despite it being the dominant energy system for adventure racing. You’d be leaving 30% of potential energy on the table.
You’ll often find yourself having to switch from oxidative to the other 2 systems as dominate when the time calls for it. Ever found yourself pulling your teammate up a hill because they’re too weak to continue? Or hauling ass away from a particularly nasty wildlife encounter? Or just going hard as possible in an all-out sprint because it’s neck and neck with another team? We’ve all been there, and in order to get better at adventure racing, you’ll need to fully optimize ALL 3 energy systems.
Endurance athletes must endure. To do so, we spend the large majority of our time in the aerobic/oxidative phase, both in racing and in training.
Becoming as effective and efficient as possible in this energy system is the holy grail of Better Adventure Racing.
Races aren’t won by the best sprinters, no matter how fast the leaders go at the start of the race. A navigation error can easily surpass the total amount of time you spend in a race with ATP/Creatine as the dominate energy pathway. Making yourself the most effective and efficient athlete in the oxidative metabolic pathway is the core input for improved performance. Mic drop.
A good analogy that I’ve heard in various versions is that of an engine. If you think of your body as a car and your body’s energy conversion capability as the engine (aka your metabolism), then you can imagine that the 3 metabolic pathways each representing a portion of the 8 cylinders. ATP is worth 2 cylinders, glycogen is 3 cylinders, and oxidative is 5 cylinders. When you put the pedal to the floor to accelerate as fast as possible, you’re telling your engine to use all 8 cylinders, maximizing the energy expended in exchange for top speed and acceleration. But when you’re just cruising, you’re just using 4-5 cylinders, as maintaining a constant speed and not needing to accelerate your mass, so you don’t have to burn a ton of energy. Here’s the critical thing – whether you’re cruising and only using 4 cylinders or hauling ass and firing on all 8 cylinders, those 4-5 oxidative cylinders are always being used. They are your workhorses, and therefore, the quality of those cylinders have a tremendous impact on the ability of the vehicle (that’s you), far more than those 2 ATP cylinders that only get used on occasion. So where are you going to spend your time training? Pretty obvious that the best return on investment is the ol’ slow and steady oxidative.
How do we get better then, now knowing what it is that we want to get better at? By following the principles laid out in the first article (AR-specific training, Minimum Effective Dose, Healthy Until You Can’t, and Stay on Target) while we go out and train. Luckily, there’s already a popular training methodology that dovetails quite nicely with our BAR principles. Enter the Maffetone Method.
The Maffetone Method, named after Phil Maffetone, endurance physiologist extraordinaire, can be boiled down to a simple equation that allows you to calculate what’s called the “Maximum Aerobic Function”, or MAF. It is 180 – Your Age. Then add 5 if you’re in great shape without injuries in the past 2 years, subtract 5 if you’re coming back from an injury, and subtract 10 if you’re on prescription drugs.
Me as an example: 180 – 32 = 148 +5 (good shape, injury free for 2 years) = 153.
That number is my MAF threshold. Now whenever I train, I don’t (or at least try my best) let my heartbeat exceed that number. It’s that simple. Perfect? No, but it’s a great general guideline that enables everyone to draw a line in the sand and say “no further”. For me, 153 represents that absolute maximum my heart rate can go before I’m crossing over into destructive quasi-anaerobic training that only hinders future progress known as the “Grey Zone”, “Black Hole Training”, or “Junk miles”.
Grey zone training is when you’re pushing too hard to recover adequately in the normal time frame (24-48 hours) but not hard enough to spike the body’s cortisol and create a cascading effect of super compensation. It’s like a luke warm workout, and it’s a total waste of time. Avoid at all cost.
I measure how good my aerobic function is by conducting a “MAF Test” every month or two. The MAF Test is a 2-mile run for time while at my MAF threshold. In my last MAF Test, I averaged a 8:10 mile over the 2 miles, which is respectable, but not nearly as good as I want it to be. The goal is to get faster and faster all the while staying at or below my MAF. This is the clearest measurement that my body is adapting and becoming better at aerobic efforts.
By setting an upper limit to my exertion during a workout, I prevent unnecessary stress from entering my body. MAF lets me continuously get into the “zone of discomfort” I discussed previously while not going too far into the pain cave (aka junk miles). I’m able to accumulate slight amounts of stress to my body to encourage it to continue to adapt and improve its aerobic function, without going too far and hurting myself. And to be sure, it can often be tough to force myself to stick this program, especially when I’m feeling great and just want to rip up the trail. But achieving the goals I’ve set for myself requires a long-term approach and a lot of discipline. If I want to stay in the game and continue to improve, I have to do so in a methodical, incremental way that my body can absorb.
Trust me, I fully appreciate how hard it is to give up the “full throttle” style of training. In my 20s, I was a die-hard Crossfitter, doing 3 workouts a day. Even as I got older and mellowed out a bit, it was hard for me to admit that not needing my workouts collapsed in a pool of my sweat wasn’t the best path to adventure racing greatness. But letting yourself to get sucked in by the siren call of “more” is the start down the road to ruin.
As we’ve discussed, getting good at adventure racing is a multi-year effort, as it truly takes that long to accumulate the training effects necessary to make you a high-performance ultra endurance athlete. There are no shortcuts to the top, but there are plenty of false trails that will lead you back down to the bottom. You need to grind. You must stick to the plan.
There is a perpetual battle that must be waged by those of us who are active and training, and that is the battle of sticking with the plan. We are always bombarded by attacks on our attention, with “new” whiz-bang exercises and programs (cough… pot calling the kettle black…cough). The risk posed by this constant influx is that it distracts us from what really matters. Let’s face it, we humans are not particularly good at eliminating distractions or sticking with plans once we start, if we ever get around to actually starting…. With so many articles and advertisements urging us to “try these 10 exercises to burn more fat” or “this minor change to your workout with LITERALLY CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!!!”, it’s near impossible to stay the course. It’s made worse for adventure racers, because we LIKE shortcuts by nature, and always trying to do too much, to begin with (like being world-class at multiple sports).
I get it, I click on those advertisements too. But it’s always a letdown. Even if they actually have content of substantive value (and that’s a BIG if), I almost never implement them. Maybe I’ll do it once or twice, but then quickly forget them and revert to my old methods. It’s human instinct to choose what’s new and shining and for the purposes of becoming a good adventure racer, it’s not what we need to do. Even if it’s what we want to do.
Need vs. Want. It’s sometimes tough to tell the difference. I WANT to do the 10 exercises that will burn more fat. I NEED to be better at adventure racing to achieve my goal of a national championship. To do that I NEED to stick to the plan. Allow me to better illustrate with a recent conversation between me and my 3-year-old daughter Avery.
Avery: I need goldfish
Me: No, you want goldfish. You need to eat your broccoli
Avery: No, I need goldfish
Me: Why do you NEED goldfish?
Avery: Because I WANT it
We want to quickly gain fitness so we can be competitive, but also not have to spend much time gaining it. Hence the popularity of Crossfit Endurance and other programs that emphasize quick gains through training in power and intensity. And frankly, if your goal is to make it through an AR, then you could be well served by them. But for those of us who have an endurance season with multiple races, often close together, “hacking” your way to be fit enough to survive an AR isn’t going to cut it. Remember, we’re looking to COMPETE, not just complete. We know from studies of marathoners and Ironman triathletes that at least 95% of a race is conducted in the aerobic zone. AR is much the same. Training in the anaerobic zone is to train for 5% of your race. There’s merit there, for sure, which is discussed in length in the BAR-HIIT article, but this is about the 95%. You WANT to gain fitness by doing a few hill sprints or a Tabata squat session because it only takes a few minutes and you feel exhilarated afterward from the hormone rush. But you NEED to be an endurance athlete and that means spending time out on the trails.
Mark Allen, the greatest triathlete of all time (fact), says it plainly – smart endurance training is maximizing the accumulation of stress needed to exhibit improvement while minimizing extraneous damage. Sounds a lot like our principle for the Minimum Effective Dose, doesn’t it?
Or as world-famous strength coach Dan John puts it, “the plan is to keep the plan the plan”.
Okay, convinced now? Ready to talk details? Sweet.
Here’s how I’m getting better at base endurance in the coming year:
Phase 1 (Oct-Feb): Base
Phase 1 focuses on developing my aerobic capacity, slowly increasing the metabolic function of my body to maximize its ability to get faster and faster at the same maximum heart rate. Achieving this requires dedication and discipline as disruptions in the training schedule (namely, going above MAF threshold) will degrade my recovery. So every time I feel like I should “push it” just a little bit, because hey, why not, that moves me into the grey zone, wasting precious training time on exercise that is too much for my body to recover from within 24 hours but not enough to push me to a level that truly stresses the body to new levels.
I do this by spending 3-4 of my workouts during the week either running or biking below MAF threshold. Because of my commute to work, my workouts are limited to 1 hour, so either I run with my dogs on the roads near my house, or I bike in the early evenings if I leave work early (if my boss ever reads this, I’m joking). On Saturdays, I’m usually able to get in a 2-3 hour trail run or mountain bike, which allows me to train at an extended duration, testing nutrition plans, and tiring out my dogs. It can be a challenge to keep myself below my MAF threshold (trying to hike up a mountain tends to spike the heart rate…), but it’s crucial so that the long run doesn’t utter destroy me. On occasion, my long Saturday training will be replaced by a race, which obviously takes my heart rate well past MAF threshold, but hey, I’m not perfect, and I consider the races (trail runs, duathlons, biathlons, winter ARs) as great opportunities to measure my improvement.
Phase 2 (Mar-May): Build
Phase 2 focuses on sprinkling in some intense training sessions where I exceed MAF, sometimes going all the way up 90% of my max heart rate. These typically take the form of hill sprints, Tabata sprints on a treadmill, assault bike intervals, or intervals out on the trail. The important thing to remember in phase 2 is that the high-intensity workouts only occur sporadically (maybe 1 every 2 weeks or so) and otherwise I continue to incrementally improve my base endurance. I only substitute 1 base endurance workout for a high-intensity workout and only do so once I’ve proven (via repeated MAF tests) that my body is successfully adapting and improving its aerobic function. The higher intensity workouts are always followed by a rest day, but thankfully provide a wonderful break from the sometimes monotonous aerobic workouts that form the majority of my training time.
Phase 3 (Jun-Sep): Perform
Finally, Phase 3 occurs during the primary “adventure racing season”, between May and September. Because the adventure races (as well as the many other sports) come fast and furious, my otherwise disciplined training program is often disrupted by having to perform at race speed 2-4 times a month. This makes training less about trying to get better and more about ensuring that I’m ready to rock on race day. When a break does occur, I create microprograms, a 2-3 week training cycle focused on improving the metabolic zone that I’ve observed is weakest in past races (surprise! It’s going to be oxidative!). But I’m often going easy on my morning runs with the dogs and out on the trails only to work on technique instead of logging miles.
Well, that about wraps up Base Endurance. Hopefully, I’m impressed upon you the reader the importance of
Training a lot in the oxidative metabolic pathway
Using the MAF method to ensure you are staying at a level of intensity that will cause slow and steady improvement and not harm your overall efforts
Convinced you that sticking to the plan is the crucial
I’m sure there are plenty of follow-up questions, especially about when it’s okay to add a little top-end speed, but have no fear, those articles are still coming up!
Wait, hold up. Did you answer no to the “are you human?” question at the top of the article?
Warning – This is an in-depth, lengthy post about the system I’m building to make myself a better adventure racer. Want the short version? Scroll to the bottom for my cliff notes.
Hi fellow adventure racers! My name is Cy, and I freely admit that while I am an avid adventure racer, I am by no means a good one. It’s my intention to fix that. I’m tired of just completing adventure races. I want to COMPETE in adventure races. I like to win, and frankly, I’m tired of nipping at the heels of racers that are faster, stronger, and straight up better than I am. It’s time to get on the podium. And in my journey to get to the top, I want to share the experiments I’ve run on myself with the rest of the adventure racing community in order to spread awareness of what works (and what doesn’t), solicit advice from the racers who are better than me (pretty much everyone), and hopefully, help advance the sport. You see, this blog post focuses on my journey, but really, it’s a lens onto the sport of Adventure Racing. Too many of the keys to success in adventure racing are hidden in the minds of the elite racers.
This isn’t an accusation that people are hoarding the secrets of their trade, merely a statement that we as a sport haven’t been diligent at documentation. There are some good books out there and a couple training camps, but I’ve to find a platform that provides instruction for racers in all facets of the sport. If the AR community wants to not just survive, but thrive, a ‘democratization’ of the sport must occur.
I started AdventureRaceHub.com because I saw a gap in the sport that wasn’t being served – there wasn’t a single destination for accurate information about upcoming races. ARHub raises the visibility of ARs so racers can easily find their next race. This series of entries represents the next stage in my plan to help grow the sport by providing a blueprint for the regular athlete to become a better racer, so they will in turn race more. It’s a virtuous cycle: Better, more confident racers will sign up for more races, which will let race directors put on more races, which will bring in more racers, some of whom will inevitably want to become better racers. Simple, right?
Just remember I said simple, not easy.
The Better Adventure Racing (BAR) series of posts and the corresponding training system I’ve built represent my own opinions. I’m no sports scientist nor an accomplished coach, but I am a voracious learner and spend most of my free time soaking up the teachings of the best and brightest in the endurance performance world. And I see no reason to do all the work of figuring out how to improve myself and not share it with everyone else. This is my effort to switch from just improving myself to helping improve others too.
I hope you enjoy this journey and it inspires you. Now get the hell out there and race!
Part 1 – There is a Way
Adventure Racers, by the nature of their sport, are not really great at anything. Good? Oh yeah. But not great in the sense of world-class. You don’t see a great adventure racer on the winner’s podium at a UTMB, Leadville 100, or the Yukon 100 kayak race (Travis Macy being an exception to just about all of these races). Why? Because excellence in a specific sport demands specificity in the training of that sport. A great kayaker doesn’t bother training on their ability to bomb technical downhills on their mountain bike. Why would they? Their competitive kayaking skills pay the bills, so if it doesn’t directly benefit their ability to kayak, it’s not just irrelevant, it’s flat out detrimental. A kayaker is best served by either 1) kayaking more or 2) resting so they can go out and kayak more.
Now, before anyone gets out their pitchforks and torches, I fully acknowledge that there are some spectacular adventure racers that DO get on the podium at other sports. World-class mountain athletes can easily transfer from one endurance sport to another. That’s bloody fantastic, I’m immensely jealous. But for us mere mortals, we must contend with the genes we were born with. True, some racers are single-sport athletes who converted to AR or just dabble recreationally, and if the race course is biased towards their strengths, they can dominate. But the typical racer is a generalist by nature, someone who doesn’t focus solely on one sport (or at least, SHOULDN’T focus solely on one sport).
The necessity of avoiding specificity is because to be a good adventure racer, you must be adept at many things. Not just the 3 primary sports within adventuring racing (mountain biking, trail running, paddling), but also know how to navigate the whole time, sometimes rappel, mountaineer, swim, cross glaciers, and all sorts of nonsense race directors like to cook up. Oh, and know how to maintain their bodies and gear throughout the whole thing.
While there is overlap between these sports in terms of transferable capabilities, the fact remains that in order to achieve even a moderate amount of skill in any of the sports in adventure racing requires deliberate practice, which in turn requires time, equipment, money, and adequate training locations. You can’t just walk into a sport as complex as adventure racing on a whim and win the gold medal. Except if you’re one of those genetic freaks, in which case, I hate you (not you Travis, you’re my hero).
So we’re caught in a conundrum: How do you get better at a sport (which requires specificity in training) when the sport itself is so complex that specific training is so hard to achieve?
Unless someone has figured out to how to fit more than 24 hours within a day, or you live the life of carefree luxury in some outdoor sports mecca (cough…Yogaslackers…cough) then you’ve got to regularly decide what activity you’ll dedicate your precious training time too. Using myself as an example: 2 kids, 2 dogs, a self-employed wife with irregular hours, my own job at a demanding corporation, church, National Guard, and the necessity to just take a break from time to time all contribute to filtering my time to training down to less than 10 hours a week. Oh yeah, I might start my graduate degree too. I imagine many of you readers are in similar situations.
So what’s an eager racer to do when they want to get better? How do you improve at so many sports with only a limited amount of resources and you don’t happen to live in Jackson Hole or Boulder? This problem forms the nucleus of these series of blog posts: Charting a path to becoming a better adventure racer despite less than ideal circumstances and a sport with a bewildering number of requirements.
The recent summer Olympics provided a phenomenal example of an athlete who excelled at a tremendous number of sports. Ashton Eaton, the 2-time Gold Medalist in the decathlon, dominated his sport and is rightly crowned “Fittest Athlete in the World”. If you’re not familiar with the decathlon, it’s actually 10 sports in 1: athletes must compete in the 100m run, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m run, 110m hurdle, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1500m run across 2 days. Keep in mind that every one of these 10 sports is its own unique Olympic sport.
So by necessity, Ashton and his peers have to find a way to training for 10 sports, some of which are closely related (100m sprint and 400m sprint) and others that are extremely distinct from the rest (pole vault, 1500m run). They are a jack of all trades and master of none. When you compare the results of decathletes in one of the above 10 sports against Olympic athletes from the same specific sport, the decathletes look like amateurs. How could they not, when they have to split their efforts across 9 additional sports?
Decathletes absolutely cannot afford to waste any time on nonsense that doesn’t directly support them becoming better at multiple sports simultaneously. That’s not just a waste of time, it’s a waste of precious other resources like energy, cognition, and recovery. When you examine the training programs of decathletes, what you don’t see is as striking as what you do see. These athletes don’t just rotate through all 10 sports, trying to be equally proficient across the board. Instead, they focus heavily on the aspects of their fitness that best translates across multiple events. Ashton is known to practice running hurdles only once a month. Not because he’s already great at the hurdles, but because that’s a technical component of just 1 of his 10 sports.
He and his coaches have to make smart decisions on what parts of his sport they can (or have to) assume risk on and which parts must be emphasized and trained routinely. Decathletes know that trying to be good at everything makes you end up bad at everything. This translates across to our programming principles for adventure race training, as our limited time and resources must be carefully dispensed so it’s not wasted.
Let’s accept that a good adventure racer, like a decathlete, must be at least moderately good at the 3 core sports of AR, but will likely get their butt kicked when facing against an athlete who is exclusive to one of the 3 core sports. Each of the sports has its own unique demands on the body’s musculature, energy systems, and nervous system, so I don’t think I’m making a revolutionary claim. To get better, we must improve across all those sports as efficiently and effectively as possible. What defines better? A higher place
To get better, we must improve across all those sports as efficiently and effectively as possible. What defines better? A higher place finish, for sure. How about improved performance across all domains of the sport? Improved recovery capabilities, so I can train more frequently at a higher threshold? Yes, please. More resiliency, so when I inevitably hurt myself, it’s just a bruise, not a broken bone. Definitely going to need more resiliency. Now we know our end goal (#winning), our major constraints stopping us from achieving it (resources, time, and energy), and the key performance indicators that should be focused on in order to get to the end goal. I believe I’ve found, through a combination of trial and error and immersive study, a path to achieve this desired end state.
Now we know our end goal (#winning), our major constraints stopping us from achieving it (resources, time, and energy), and the key performance indicators that should be focused on in order to get to the end goal. I believe I’ve found, through a combination of trial and error and immersive study, a path to achieve this desired end state. Excellence in adventure racing is, in fact, achievable for us mortals through a disciplined and intelligent approach to training.
Before I go into greater depths of what precisely should be done to get better at adventure racing, let me upset a few more folks (sorry!) In my initial efforts to improve at the sport I love, I scoured the interwebs for any program or guidance I could find. As I said before, there are a couple resources out there for learning about the sport, but I couldn’t find any that were about getting better at the sport. Training programs were either just rip-offs of triathlon training programs (you could actually see examples where the program wrote “instead of swimming, just substitute with kayaking). As if triathlon and adventure racing were the same sport (they most certainly are NOT). This approach struck me as lazy. Other training programs were hyper-specified, not providing any flexibility or adjustments to the program for the individual’s needs, resources, or physical ability. These plans are typically reflections of the coaches who put them together and whatever biases that coach brings to the table, typically the single sport they excel at. Finally, other plans were grossly over-biased, prescribing only endurance workouts, or only high-intensity workouts, or only weight training. These plans seem to think that a sport as complex as AR has a “quick fix” button, or you can “hack” your way to the top. Sorry, doesn’t work like that. Bottom line:
Other training programs were hyper-specified, not providing any flexibility or adjustments to the program for the individual’s needs, resources, or physical ability. These plans are typically reflections of the coaches who put them together and whatever biases that coach brings to the table, typically the single sport they excel at. Finally, other plans were grossly over-biased, prescribing only endurance workouts, or only high-intensity workouts, or only weight training. These plans seem to think that a sport as complex as AR has a “quick fix” button, or you can “hack” your way to the top. Sorry, doesn’t work like that. Bottom line:
Finally, other plans were grossly over-biased, prescribing only endurance workouts, or only high-intensity workouts, or only weight training. These plans seem to think that a sport as complex as AR has a “quick fix” button, or you can “hack” your way to the top. Sorry, doesn’t work like that. Bottom line: There isn’t any scale-able, holistic program that deconstructs the complex sport of Adventure Racing and provides a blueprint of how to do it well.
Unsatisfied with what I found, and given my strong interest in the area of physical training, I set out to build my own program that tears apart adventure racing block by block, deconstructing the demands the sport places on the body and mind in order to maximize efforts to improve at it. I’m certain that a smarter approach is possible by leveraging the knowledge provided by leaders in the sports science, strength and conditioning, and endurance sports industries. I’ve compiled a couple key principles that are derived from my studies. These serve as my north star, keeping me on track for achieving the performance I need to fulfill my goals. If you read nothing else, read these and I reckon you’ll do just fine.
Principle #1: Adventure Racing Specific Training
We are not triathletes that just happen to race on unpaved roads. Excellence in adventure racing requires extensive training in all components of the sport and in the manner the sport is conducted. At a surface level, it would appear that a racer would only need to rotate between the ‘Big 3’ AR sports: 1-hour trail run, the next day 1-hour mountain bike, the day after 1 hour of paddling. Rinse, lather, repeat. Now you’re a varsity level adventure racer! This is markedly wrong for a number of reasons:
Adventure Racing disciplines are not evenly weighted. On average*, a racer will be on their mountain bike 40-50% of the race, on their feet trail running 30-40% of the time, and 10-20% of the time paddling. From the 6 hour sprint ARs to the monster week-long expeditions, racers just aren’t spending as much time paddling as on their feet, and usually spending more time in the saddle then running. Therefore, training efforts should reflect racing efforts (makes sense, right?) In the Army, we have a saying, “train as you fight”. Same goes for adventure racing. Racers should safely assume risk by limiting their paddling training while emphasizing their biking and running. Controversial? Maybe to some folks, but every time I hear about an adventure race that spent more than 1/3 of the race in the water, it inevitably is a horror story involving equipment failures, unexpected changes in water conditions, and/or poor navigation. The 2016 Cowboy Tough 5-day adventure race featured a massive 72-mile paddle section, which while very daunting, still pales in comparison to the 100s of miles the teams moved over foot and tire. Paddling is the runt of the litter when it comes to the ‘Big 3’, and smart training for adventure racing should reflect its diminished status. Not eliminate, mind you, but rather assume calculated risk by minimizing.
It doesn’t make necessary accommodations for an individual’s requirements, both skill wise and from a greater lifestyle perspective. Races are won by the ability to emphasize strengths and shore up weaknesses. Just as training equally across all AR disciplines is incorrect, so is training without accommodation. A good training program addresses your strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it must fit into your life. Whether you work the swing shift, have to coach the kids’ soccer game on Saturdays, or live 1 hour from the nearest decent single track, a training program must provide the ability to flex and adapt to your needs. We’re not machines.
In order to achieve our goal, we need to do a lot of work. Seriously, we need to execute a significant amount of force across a lot of distance (because Work = Force * Distance). Adventure Racing is a complex sport that is not easily mastered. As pop star and sage advice-giver Britney Spears says, “you better work, b*tch”.
We must subject ourselves regularly to the stresses of our sport so that our body adapts and positively responds to it. Hans Selye’s General Adaptation System posits that a system’s capability to adapt to an external stress is a function of its exposure to a stress and the recovery from said stress in order to enter a phase of compensation. In plain English, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
But as anyone who has made it through a day of brutal squat workouts know, “recovery” can be a very long period of time. For a racer, we can’t sit around for a week waiting for our legs to stop aching. That’s the result of foolish programming (or failure to follow reasonable programming…)
We need to recover quickly so that we can train across multiple modalities regularly. Which brings us to the 2nd major training principle, Minimum Effective Dose.
Principle #2: Do Less, Better
Minimum Effective Dose (MED) is the smallest amount of training necessary to elicit the desired improvement. In layman’s terms, its the amount of necessary medicine to treat the disease, and not a drop more. In all our training, we aspire to achieve the MED, and no more. Why?
The body can only handle so much. If getting biceps the size of Arnold (excuse me, Ahh-nuld) only required that you keep stressing them, then we could all just do bicep curls until our arms fell off and we’d be jacked.
But sadly, it’s a tad more complicated than that. As we previously discussed with the GAS theorem, the body must recover in order to grow. In practical terms, the stress introduced to the body should be around 1-4% more than the body’s current capability. This is the ideal “zone of sustainable discomfort” that activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, causes muscle fiber damage, and subsequently causes hormonal activation to fight inflammation, repair damaged tissue, and improve performance for the next time it experiences the same stress.
To go deeper than this into the zone of discomfort is to write a check the body can’t cash. Chronic overtraining forces your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight part) to stay on, never letting the parasympathetic (rest and digest) part get its turn. This is a perpetual problem for many endurance athletes, as the idea of “no pain, no gain” is engraved in many of our minds and 1-4% improvement is small enough to be almost unnoticeable at times. This requires a significant mindset change for some and can be the most difficult adjustment, both physically and mentally, in the entire BAR program (speaking from experience…).
Efficiency. Time is one of the most precious resources, so if we’ve already hit the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of the training stress accumulated, why keep training past that point? Besides potentially hurting your efforts by overtraining, you’re wasting time that would be better used elsewhere. Reading my awesome blog would be a great example of time well spent outside of training 🙂
It lets us get to the high volume of work we need. Wait a minute, didn’t I just say we’re trying to as little work as possible? Yes, but with the important caveat of as little work as necessary to elicit improvement. If only 20 minutes of weight lifting gets me enough training stress that I’ll be 1-4% stronger the next time I lift, it also doesn’t degrade my overall fitness so that the very next day, I can bike, and the day after that run, and so on and so on. You’ve got to be good at a lot of stuff in to be good at adventure racing, so adhering to MED allows you to keep training continuously without breaking yourself. That’s why it’s critical to lift for only 20 minutes, not 30 minutes (or whatever that MED is for you).
Principle #3: Stay Healthy, Until You Can’t
Look, let’s call a spade a spade. Adventure Racing is ridiculous. You gotta have a little bit (or a lotta bit) of crazy to do this sport. Racing for 12, 24, 36 hours or a week straight just isn’t something human beings are made to do. Nothing is made to do this. We are intentionally pushing ourselves well past the realms of standard, expected behavior. And that’s unhealthy. Our bodies are natural endurance machines, but even machines break down when in extremely demanding environments.
So it’s absolutely critical that we keep ourselves as healthy as long as possible, so that when the times comes to do something that’s very unhealthy, we’re doing so from a position of strength, allowing us to absorb the damage with minimal long-term impact. On top of that, getting good enough to be in that position of strength requires a large amount of training, which can only be accomplished if training is smart (see the two principles above).
There are plenty of training programs that will get you “race-ready” in 3 months, but if continued to 6 or 12 months, will likely get you in front of a surgeon, physical therapist, or looking for a new sport that doesn’t hurt as much. I want to get better at adventure racing. I want you to get better at adventure racing too, and in order to do that, we’re going to have to train a lot. And to train in a way that maximizes our efforts while minimizes our stresses (again, see two principles above).
I’ve been in the position where I lurch from a period of intense training, followed by injury, followed by long, uneven recovery, then repeated all over again. Don’t do this. Train easy, getting just 1-4% increase in intensity, accumulating improvements over time, sometimes to such a small degree that it’s undetectable. Yes, this isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.
Generally, being “fit” and being “healthy” coincide. There’s no question that regular, moderate exercise directly contributes to quality and quantity of life. But as one approaches elite levels, fitness and health start to separate and even start to be in opposition to each.
Exhibit A: Ryan Hall. Ryan Hall, the current American half marathon record holder and only American to run a sub-2:05 marathon is a fantastic example of when health is sacrificed for the sake of fitness. In his efforts to become the first marathon runner to break the 2-hour threshold, Ryan had to give up a lot. His eating was closely monitored so that he maintained the maximum power-to-weight ratio. His training volume was enormous. His race schedule ferocious. And his social life next to nil. In 2016, Ryan announced his retirement from competitive racing, citing the damage he had suffered, to include troubles with weight and low testosterone. And you know what? I would have done the same if I was him and had his capabilities. But let’s acknowledge up front the costs that come from being singularly focused.
Luckily for us adventure racers, because the sport doesn’t contain many pros (by which I mean people who actively earn the bulk of their income from the sport), but is almost entirely amateur (by which I mean people who may earn some of their income from AR, but certainly not all of it, plus the remainder of us schlubs who’ve never made a dime), the sport is naturally dispositioned to be healthier. Because most of us are doing this for fun, and the remainder of us are doing it on top of a number of additional sports and events, that means that adventure racers typically don’t obsessively dedicate their entire lives to achieving excellence in the sport.
Like the example above with Ryan Hall, there are significant gains to be made when you strip away everything that isn’t crucial to achieving excellence at a specific event, but that are also huge drawbacks. Adventure racers don’t have to make these choices because of by-and-large, there’s no way to financially support that level of obsession.
But the day (or days) will come when you must depart from the path of healthy. Don’t expect to toe the line at Primal Quest and think you’ll just be doing an extra-long workout. To perform competitively at ARs, you’ll have to push yourself deep into the pain cave, sacrificing sleep, good diet, and recovery for extreme bouts of staying awake, shoveling junk food just to get more calories, and pushing through injuries.
Make no mistake about it, the actual racing part of adventure racing takes a toll. That’s why it is so crucial that up until race day, you’re as healthy as possible so that your body is fully charged and capable of absorbing the level of abuse that’s about to hit it. If you’re at the start line and you’re already nursing injuries, haven’t been eating right, and are under-recovered because you tried to jam in a ton of training in right before the race, your chances won’t be good to make the podium.
Principle #4: Stay On Target
I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed by the daunting amount of possible challenges you may face in an adventure race. And if you let yourself fall victim to the “what if” monster, the next thing you know, you’ll be practicing how to white water kayak blindfolded while towing a burro (challenge to race directors – make this event happen!)
But that’s ridiculous. To achieve excellence, you must focus on the core inputs. Bike well, run well, orient well, paddle decently, and when the occasion happens that you need to open water swim or climb a 5.8 wall or whatever to get a checkpoint, you’ll manage. And even if you do poorly, you’ve got the whole rest of the race to make up for that mistake, which you will, because you kick ass at what’s critical in adventure racing. And that’s what wins races, not white water rafting with a donkey.
Core inputs, core inputs, core inputs. Keeping focused on the elements of the race that truly matter drives what how you train and keeps you from distractions. As Gold Leader said, “Stay on target”.
Exercise A.D.D. is a real thing, I know because I suffer from it. There was a time in my mid-20s where my workout program probably changed every month or so. Gymnastics to Powerlifting to Strength-focused High Intensity to Parkour to whatever else was shiny. And of course, since I couldn’t decide, I ended up trying to do it all at the same time, with a 6 am lift session, a lunchtime CrossFit workout, and an evening gymnastics and Parkour workout. I wonder why I’ve had 2 knee surgeries… I had the discipline and attention span of Dory from Finding Nemo.
This made me mediocre at many things and good at nothing. Not a recipe for success when you’ve got a sport that has specific demands that it places on the body. While the complexity of AR does require more variation in training than most sports (think more Ashton Eaton than Ryan Hall), that doesn’t give us carte blanche to do whatever the hell seems like it might be helpful. Gymnastics is a fantastic sport. So is Crossfit. Powerlifting is cool, those dudes are super strong. And I’m envious of the sweet beards that all the ultra-endurance trail runners have these days. All these sports are cool, but they aren’t AR. Stay on target – train for AR.
So what are these key inputs that are critical to success? Allow me to introduce the Pyramid of Excellence for Adventure Racing, aka PEAR (I’m working on a cooler name. Suggestions?)
Have no fear, I’m not going to leave you with just broad training principles, I’m going to break down the core inputs that if done in accordance with the principles above, will lead to victory (hopefully. I’m a work in progress). Here they are, in order of importance:
Stay tuned as I reveal the details behind each of these core inputs. Now, if you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering why this matters to me so much. Sure, who doesn’t like winning, but what’s with this guy’s obsession with getting good at an obscure sport? Well, here’s why this is so important to me:
Because I’m going to win the Adventure Racing US Championship by the time I’m 40 years old.
There it is. It’s public, there’s no taking it back or hiding it. I’m putting my pride on the line because I want the kind of pressure that comes from when a no-name, mediocre racer making bold-as-brass claims to the entire sports community. The good news? That gives me 8 more years. The bad news? I haven’t won an adventure race before. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, I’ve made it onto the podium at many races, but never on the top of the podium. To be the US Champion, I’ve got to get WAYYY better at racing, which means no more messing around.
I ran my first AR when I was 21 years old at Bear Mountain, NY. I remember briefly meeting Robyn Bennecasa at the race, having no idea who she was, but knowing the amount of attention that was being given to her, she was somebody important. I also remember having an absolute blast at the race, enough that I caught the “AR bug” and kept finding more races. I’ve raced in the swamps of Georgia, hills of Tennessee, Cascade mountains, and lakes in the Ozarks. When I turned 30, I decided that I wanted to get serious about the sport. In order to become a good racer, I knew that I’d have to play to my strengths.
Having served in the US Army for 10 years, I didn’t lack in grit or general fitness but had relatively little sport specific fitness. I could always just sort of power through most races, relying on my general fitness to overcome a serious deficiency in biking and paddling skills. I would look at the good racers and think to myself “man, they are fast! I wish I could bike like they do”, but it never really occurred to me that these people were human too, they were just doing something different than I was. Relying on my general fitness worked. Until it didn’t. I got older and life happened. Marriage. Kids. Dogs. A job with a well-known technology company that is famous for its demanding environment. If I was serious about getting serious, I could no longer play around, expecting that lifting in the gym 5 days a week doing things like barbell snatches would somehow prepare me well for ARs. Time was already a valuable commodity, so wasting it on an activity that didn’t directly improve wasn’t acceptable. So I really started diving deep to educate myself on what made the winners so much better than the rest of us. Then working backward to break apart their expert performance into basic building blocks that I could follow. BAR is the result.
And if you’re all the way down here, I hope I’ve done a decent job of inspiring you to join me on this trip. Thanks for your time, and stay tuned!
Cliff Notes – I’m not very good at AR, but want to get better. I’ve studied a lot of great athletes and coaches and built a system for methodical, incremental improvement in order to achieve my goal of winning the US Championship by the time I’m 40. I’m still writing the up the specifics, but the principles of achieving this success are: 1) Adventure Racing Specific Training, 2) Minimum Effective Dose, 3) Stay Healthy Until I Can’t, and 4) Stay on Target. The core inputs to be conducted in accordance with these principles are 1) Base Endurance, 2) Resistance Training, 3) High-Intensity Interval Training, and 4) Skills & Drills.