One of the biggest draws of an adventure race is the element of surprise: you often don’t know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, or what sort of obstacles and tasks you may encounter during a race until the moment they happen.
Will the course be paddle heavy? Is the race director going to make you swim? Is your fear of heights going to be tested? There’s often no knowing until race day arrives…which is half of the “adventure”.
But, this great unknown can leave beginners confused about how to train for an adventure race. If you don’t know what skills you are going to need during your first race …how can you possibly train for it?
Have no fear, future adventure racer! This guide breaks down the basics of training for anyone looking to have a successful first adventure race.
How Do You Train for an Adventure Race?
Much like other multi-sport races, the best way to train for an adventure race is to build both endurance and strength across all known disciplines, both separately and together.
For adventure racing, that means learning to combine the physical demands of trekking, mountain biking, and paddling with the strategy and mental skills needed for orienteering.
But even more unique to the sport of adventure racing is having the physical and mental strength to tackle the unknown challenges and obstacles you may face on race day.
Train Individual Disciplines
You’ll want to increase your fitness and skills individually across all known adventure racing disciplines, by occasionally training these skills separately.. By isolating and training individual disciplines, you’ll be able to truly maximize physical adaptations to each individual workout.
Many adventure racers will train for the trekking portion of events by incorporating running specific training. Others may choose to focus specifically on hiking or walking. Either way, we recommend you get comfortable spending long periods of time on your feet.
More specifically, spend time on trails or in other off-road situations. Treadmill or pavement training is great for building base fitness. But trail specific workouts will help increase balance, proprioception, and lower leg/foot strength. These are all things that can help you from tripping over roots and face planting in the middle of a trail run.
Mountain biking is another one of the major disciplines of adventure racing. While beginner adventure racers competing in sprint races certainly don’t need to have advanced mountain biking technical skills, a general level of fitness and ability to ride a bike is integral.
While you can absolutely improve your endurance and strength on an indoor/stationary bike, or in a Peloton or spin class, make sure that you get at least some of your bike training done outdoors, on the same or similar type of terrain you'll be riding on during the race (if possible)
Fitness aside, spending time on your bike will ensure your bike fit (saddle height, reach length, handlebar width, etc.) and associated gear (bike shorts, shoes, helmet) fits comfortably and works well.
And you'll also learn what to do when things go wrong (because eventually, they will.)
In our short time in adventure racing, we’ve quickly learned that a running joke among the community is that “no one actually trains for the paddle”.
Jokes aside, if you have the ability to train for the paddle portion of an AR, we highly recommended it. While paddling a kayak or a canoe seems pretty straight forward, there is a learning curve to paddling effectively and efficiently.
And, practicing your paddle skills will make that “surprise” 15 mile paddle section down a river with a shoreline unconducive to taking breaks much more enjoyable (ask me how I know).
Of course, the reality is that many racers either don’t own paddling equipment, or don’t live in an area conducive to paddle training. In that case, strength training can be a great substitute for paddle training when actual paddling isn’t an option.
Brick Training for Adventure Racing
Brick training is a concept often used in triathlon training, and refers to transitioning between two disciplines back-to-back without rest in between, during one single training session.
The purpose behind brick training is just as much mental as it is physical: it teaches your body and brain how to quickly transition from one movement pattern to another.
Brick training is also a great way to train to become more efficient at transitioning from one discipline to another, making sure you aren't wasting valuable race time in transition areas.
Because there is no designated sport wide order of disciplines in adventure racing, deciding what disciplines to pair in brick workouts can get interesting. But, there is no right or wrong. We like to:
- Ride our bikes deep into the forest, chain them to a tree, run a few miles out and back down the trail, hop back on our bikes and ride home.
- Paddle for an hour, then hop on our bikes with wet feet, and more than likely, wet bike chamois from sitting in a wet kayak.
- Head to a permanent orienteering course that you’ve never been to before. Try to navigate and clear the course as quickly as possible, while wearing your AR pack and gear, simulating race day.
Strength Training for Adventure Racing:
As an exercise physiologist, I truly believe all athletes can benefit from incorporating strength training into their sport specific training routine. However, in the case of adventure racing, strength training can bridge the gap between the known and the unknown.
For example, you may have had no idea you were going to encounter a rope climb mid race. But, because you’ve built your lats, biceps, and other upper body muscles, as well as improved grip strength through strength training, you’re likely going to get up the rope without a problem.
Having well rounded strength and fitness will help you prepare for the various disciplines of the race, including the new challenges you'll face that you don't even know about yet!
Coach's Tip: Following a structured training program will help you make the most of your adventure race training. An appropriately designed training plan will help you safely build a strong endurance base, while incorporating adequate recovery time, in order to maximize physical adaptations to your training.
Plus, having a training schedule can help keep you motivated and focused, so you show up to the race start line feeling strong and confident.
Navigating is arguably the #1 major element of adventure racing. Even if you aren’t the navigator for your adventure racing team, having basic orienteering skills is recommended, so you can provide assistance when necessary.
Suggested basic navigation skills include:
- Knowing how to read a map (understanding topography lines, symbols, etc..)
- Knowing how to use a compass
- Shooting a bearing
- How to triangulate
Ultimately, it doesn't matter how fit you are if you can't find the check points. Navigation skills are one of the most critical things to practice when it comes to training for an adventure race.
Practice Race Day Nutrition
If you're new to longer distance endurance racing, it's a good idea to start practicing your adventure race day nutrition from the get-go. The longer the race length , the more critical proper fueling becomes, to help you avoid "bonking", and help you make it to the finish line.
Learn what foods are easy for you to eat on the go. Practice eating at various intervals to determine how many calories your digestive system can tolerate, and the best source of calories for you. What one athlete may consider the "best foods" for adventure racing, might not be the best for you.
As an endurance athlete with nearly 15 years of distance racing experience, I can assure you that nutrition is an ongoing learning process. You cannot practice this aspect of racing often enough.
Train with Mandatory Gear
Make sure you occasionally train with mandatory gear and safety equipment required by the particular race you are training for. This will ensure you are comfortable carrying the equipment during the race, and that you know how to use the equipment, if necessary.
Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
One of the most important elements of adventure racing is the ability to stay calm and focused when you have no idea what’s going to happen next.
You may find yourself knee deep in swamp water, moving at a pace much slower than anticipated, and unsure if you’re even on the correct path.
You may find yourself climbing a never ending mountain road on a bicycle that didn’t look this steep on the map, and you’re not exactly sure how much longer you’ve got to go.
So, don’t be afraid to throw yourself into uncomfortable (but safe!) training scenarios.
How Long Does it Take to Train for An Adventure Race?
The amount of time it takes to train for an adventure race will depend on your current fitness level and experience going into a training cycle. Our Beginner Sprint Adventure Race training plan is 15 weeks long. Some athletes may need less time to prepare for a 3-8 hour adventure race, while others might need more.
Longer adventure races, such as 24 hour, multi day, or expedition races, may take multiple months to a year or more to train for.
What Gear Do I Need to Train for an Adventure Race?
Most adventure races will have a list of mandatory gear required for each race. However, many of the items are larger things that a first time racer or team may borrow or rent on race day, and may not have access to train with before hand. Therefore the minimum gear we suggest to train for an adventure race includes:
- Properly fitted running shoes (even if you are walking/hiking)
- A bike - as mentioned, this can be a road bike, mountain bike, or stationary bike.
- Strength training equipment. This can vary from a full gym to a couple of dumbbells or resistance bands
It also wouldn't hurt to train with the following items:
- A compass (we like the Silva Explorer Pro)
- Map case
- They hydration pack/backpack you plan to race with
Speaking of gear, be sure to check out the post Adventure Racing Gear List for Beginners to learn more about what you might need to buy, what you can probably borrow, and what you may have at home already!
Should You Adventure Race Train With Your Teammates?
While it’s unrealistic to expect your entire adventure racing team to train together for every workout, it’s absolutely recommended that you train together some of the time. Teamwork is a critical part of adventure racing (unless you are a solo-racer). The success of a team is going to depend greatly on how well you can all work-and race-together.
Important team dynamic factors in adventure racing include things like:
- Communication skills. How well do you and your teammates communicate and listen to each other, especially in stressful situations?
- Conflict resolution. You may already be great friends, but how do you interact when everyone is cold, wet, tired, and hungry?
- How well do you all adapt and compensate for a teammate that may be falling behind?
- How to deal with that one teammate who always gets “hangry” if he/she doesn’t eat enough (it's me, I'm that teammate.)
Occasional team training sessions will also allow you to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your team members, allowing you to better prepare for race day.
Related post: How to Find an Adventure Racing Team
Don't Overthink Your Training
Our best advice when it comes to training for your first adventure race is to not overthink it. Simply make sure that you:
- Are physically able to continue moving for the length of the race
- Have spent some time practicing all known disciplines
- Have familiarized yourself with all of the mandatory gear (i.e. you know how to ride your bike!)
- Familiarized yourself with basic orientation skills
- Are aware of the rules of your race.
- Are ready to have some fun!
Adventure Race Training Plans:
Need an adventure race training plan to follow? We've got you covered with the following training plans designed. Written by Geoff Hart, experienced endurance athlete and coach with certifications ranging from USATF, RRCA, UESCA in running, triathlon, and ultrarunning, and Heather Hart, ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, UESCA ultrarunning & RRCA running coach.