How to Prepare for an Adventure Race

This article discusses aspects of preparation required for different legs of an adventure race, as well as the importance of nutrition and hydration. The physical demands in adventure racing are extremely high, so a balance of general and specific training will help athletes enter the race in top physical and mental condition.
Created: July 2011
Revised: September 2012
Latest Feedback: September 2012

Key Aspects of AR Preparation

Adventure racing is a sport that demands much more than individual strength and determination. It is one of those rare sports where completing a race provides almost equal satisfaction as victory. For teams, the focus is on teamwork rather than individual achievement. Training is the key to success the more time you dedicate to training, the better the chances of success. It is important to focus on your weakest skills and improve on them. Adventure races range from shorter events that require fewer resources, training time and technical skills to extreme sports that demand plenty of preparation, individually and as a team as well.

Physical Preparation

Like all sports training, there are two elements to preparation, namely general and specific preparation. General preparation is to establish a solid level of general physical fitness in all the major areas including cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, agility, flexibility, strength and power.

Specific preparation involves focusing on the specific physiological demands of a race. Newbie racers would need to prepare over a six-month period with the first three months targeted at general preparation. Resistance training with an emphasis on whole body structural movements such as squats, lunges, dead lifts, rowing, and overhead pressing is essential. However, advanced racers who have encountered several hours of walking, running, or cycling on rough terrain can include anaerobic training, dynamic balance work and plenty of outdoor cardiovascular training with the Fartlek approach.

Your body needs to be conditioned to enhance your lactate threshold. Intermittent hill training is also essential for overall conditioning. It is advisable to perform as much training as possible, on the same type of terrain that you will encounter during a race. Apart from individual training, it is important to combine conditioning with team building. The focus should be on endurance training with fewer sessions of resistance training. Holding mock races during training sessions will help determine how team members react under pressure.

Weekly Training Program

Your overall training program should normally include:
  • 2 hours of running and hill repeats
  • 2 x 10 km paddles
  • 2 mountain bike sessions (2 hours)
  • 1 hour of rope skills
  • 1 longer session of any discipline (approximately 3 to 5 hours)

Preparations for hiking / trail running

Many adventure races begin with running where you would end up hiking as well. Different sets of muscles are used for hiking and running, which is why training sessions need to include exercises to train you for as many different types of terrain as possible. This will help you gain a competitive advantage during a race.

For shorter races of up to 12 hours, a half marathon training plan is recommended. Sessions should be conducted on trails as far as possible. For longer races, a full marathon training plan will get you in top condition for the race.

Training sessions can start with hill repeats. Choose a hill that takes three to four minutes to run and do six sets during every training session. Interval training twice a week is important with periods of sprint intervals and recovery. Use a 5 kg pack during some sessions, so you are well acquainted with carrying supplies during the race. It is important to use trail running shoes for better grip and stability. Use them throughout your training, so you will be comfortable during the race. Make sure your feet do not have any calluses before the race. They can cause painful blisters that will hamper your progress during training or the race.

Preparation for paddling events

Many adventure races include some form of paddling event like kayaking, canoeing, rafting, or tubing. Often, this discipline is a team’s weakest link, which is why you have every reason to become a good paddler and give your team a head start in a race. Paddling events may be on a lake, river or ocean, so you will need to practice in as many conditions as possible. Practising as a team will help you and your team gain a competitive edge. One paddle training session of around 90 minutes and one session of interval training per week is advisable.
Focus on your technique, so you get the maximum speed with a fewer number of strokes. Remember to use your midsection and torso for power. Practice without a rudder on your boat, so you gain a steering advantage during a race. Many adventure races supply boats without a rudder. Paddling in choppy water will improve your skills and confidence. It may also give you a crucial 10 to 15 minute lead if your team excels at this leg!

Preparation for MTB

Mountain bike riding will test your leg muscles to the limit so make sure they are in top condition. Your regular strength and interval sessions will keep you prepared for the slopes.

Most trails feature gravel roads, paved roads, logging roads and intermediate single track. Practice techniques such as bunny hops, advanced jumps as well as speed. Brush up on your mechanical skills. Practice changing flat tyres and determine the best way to keep your bike and gear as light as possible. Use different tyres. Test your lights since you may need to do a lot of night riding.
Experiment with towing and have all the riders in your team practice so that they can help a weak rider progress during a race, if required. Determine the best system for easy access to food and water, so that you don’t stop to eat during a ride. Carry one toolkit that can handle bike repairs including bent wheels. Teammates should use the same pedal system so they are comfortable swapping bikes, if necessary.

Rope skills

Rope sections involve ascending, descending, and traversing skills. Rock climbing should be a part of your training as it will improve hand strength and develop balance and coordination.

Practice different ascending techniques to determine what is best for you. In the process, learn to transfer from one rope to another, a common feature in adventure racing. Also practice ascent to rappel transitions. Remember, to keep your equipment light and push up with your legs rather than pulling up with your hands.

Weaker teammates should place themselves in the middle of the group for ascending or rappelling so they can be guided by the team members who are above or below.

Improve your navigation skills

Navigation and orienteering is an integral part of most adventure races. For some, navigation may seem a bit intimidating. However, it is important to learn the basics and have one member in the team who is an expert navigator. Often, good navigation can be the decisive factor between success and failure in a race. You may be the fastest team but the lack of navigation skills will dampen all your hard work.

This sort of navigation is done without GPS and requires traditional map reading and compass skills. For a map, check for the scale, date of publication, adjoining maps, contour lines and declination. On a compass, you should be very familiar with taking a bearing, triangulation, navigating with no landmarks and night navigation. Do occasional runs and identify your terrain based on the map. The more you learn to convert the lines on a map to the topography, the easier it will be to get through the race.

Lean to calculate distances between two points. You will find this very valuable during the race to determine the distance between checkpoints and transition areas. Use a topographic map each time you are on a hike or biking trail, so you have as much practice as possible. Keep your maps handy during all the legs of the race. While paddling use a waterproof map case and a marine type compass that you can attach to the hull. You can position a map across the handlebars during the mountain bike leg.

Adventure races are about finding the best route. With proper navigational skills you will be able to compare routes and save time. It is important to practice navigating at night and under low visibility conditions.

Mental Preparation and Pain Management

Extreme competition can cause any racer to crumble under the pressure on a physical, emotional, or mental level. In multi-day events, sleep deprivation and fatigue can take a great toll a racer’s weakest links. Therefore, it is important to focus training on your weakest links. This requires an evaluation of your current condition, so you can tune your training program accordingly. You can only be physically fit when you are mentally fit too. The mind can affect the functioning of the body, in many ways.

Practice sleep management. This does not require that you deprive yourself of sleep and hamper your training sessions. The key is to know what it feels like and how your body reacts so you can identify ways to deal with the discomfort and emotions.

Adventure racing can bring on injuries and pain. You need to focus on pain management, which means understanding pain and how you can push through it. Holding your pace when you feel pain increases your tolerance level for future races. Visualize crossing the finish line. That is what most experienced athletes do when they experience pain.

Nutrition and Hydration

What food you eat can have an impact on your training and racing prospects as well. The key is to include food rich in proteins and fats, but focus on carbohydrates. During practice sessions determine what foods work best and at what times. Determine your hydration levels and carry enough water accordingly. Half to one litre of water per hour during a race is the norm. Choose an electrolyte replacement that works best for you.

Adventure racing is about overcoming all odds. Being prepared will make that task much easier, as you learn to cope with different elements including the harsh elements of nature. For the most part, preparing as a team will help fulfil your goal of crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else.

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