Physical Fitness Training for Outdoor Adventures

Table of Contents

Fitness, the Foundation of Adventure

Going on an adventure usually involves moving your body over rough and challenging terrain, whether walking, cycling, swimming, etc. Ultimately, adventure involves locomotion – often via single-legged propulsion, such as walking and cycling.

Physical fitness empowers you to take on new challenges and longer adventures. It also helps keep you safe when the unexpected happens (and it certainly will). 

Fitness is more than a training regimen. It’s a lifestyle. While your peak fitness will ebb and flow during the seasons, you should maintain a base level of fitness and health throughout the year.

Thankfully, the fundamentals of fitness and training are well understood.

  • You don’t need to follow a specific diet plan to become physically fit.
  • You don’t need a specific set of machines or a certain magazine subscription (and stay far away from the latest fad!)
  • You don’t need a certain body type. Adventures come in all shapes, all sizes, from all backgrounds.

Expose your body to stress and strain, and it will try to adjust and improve. Give your body the tools and time to do so. That’s how it works. Your body is primed and pumped to become a fitness machine! – you just need to help it along.

You need equal amounts healthy nutrition, adequate rest and rehabilitation, and hard work!

Anybody, any age, can become fit and healthy.

Watch Jason Cohen’s epic story about going from weighing 300 pounds to completing the Leadville 100-mile ultramarathon!

Here at Adventure On the Cheap, we firmly believe adventure is sunshine to the soul. Without it, we wither. With it, we grow, bloom and look forward to every morning. Physical fitness is your ticket to adventure.

And never doubt yourself. Never. Dig deep. Tired? Keep digging.

That’s what adventure is all about, isn’t it?

A disclaimer: This article reviews the basics of fitness adapted for adventurers. It is written by and for experienced adventurers, not by certified kinesthesiologists! Do your own diligence. Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Adventure Fitness Fundamentals

Endurance training deserves special consideration among the cadre of fitness categories.

Most outdoor adventures require significant endurance, both:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Muscular
  • Mental

When you’re moving 6-18 hours a day, you must trust in your body and your mind. You must train your body so it will not fail you in your time of need.

As the saying goes:

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.

Spotlight: Endurance Training

Endurance training deserves special consideration among the cadre of fitness categories.

Most outdoor adventures require significant endurance, both:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Muscular
  • Mental

When you’re moving 6-18 hours a day, endurance is critical. In some cases, endurance can be life-saving (yours or someone else’s).

Endurance Fitness Fundamentals

High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT, the darling of the ‘00s, elevating your heart rate to <85% VO2 max levels while performing full-body explosive movements (e.g. stair runs, burpees) at the lactate acid threshold.

Exercises normally last 30-300 seconds, and rests at a 1:2, 1:1, or 2:1 ratio. The shorter the duration, the more power and ATP system training; the longer the duration, the more stamina/VO2 max progress. In general, choose an intensity that is extremely difficult during the second half but does not lead to failure.

Sweet Spot Training

Exercises lasting 300 seconds or longer, but less than 20 minutes, with shorter rest periods, are considered a type of moderate-intensity interval training. Sometimes, this type of training is called “sweet spot” training or MICT.

Sweet spot training occurs just below your second lactate acid threshold (or FTP) In other words, you don’t enter the “burn zone.” 

While HIIT is optimized to improve the VO2 max, MICT is optimized to improve the lactate threshold.

Sweet spot training intensity is often measured by the Talk Test:

  • Can easily converse, even sing
  • Can converse, but not sing
  • Can converse a few words at a time
  • Cannot speak, breathing heavily
  • Gasping for breath

Steady-State Cardio

“Cardio” is the traditional mainstay of marathoners and long-distance cyclists, characterized by workouts 60-180 minutes at a consistent pace, floating between fatigue and failure.

Steady-state cardio work is usually eschewed by strongmen and bodybuilders because of the risk of entering a catabolic state, where increased levels of cortisol block your body from repair. Adequate carbohydrate and protein intake pre- and -post workout coupled with adequate nutrition, active rest and sleep will prevent the body from entering catabolism.

Steady-state work is also commonly prescribed for mountaineers and other explorers who must carry heavy loads up rugged terrain, sometimes for 15 hours or more! This type of exercise teaches the body how to efficiently burn fat for fuel rather than hitting a “wall” when your body exhausts its immediate energy stores.

Low-Intensity Exercise

Low-intensity exercise includes things like power walking, mowing the lawn, gardening, and walking the dog.

This basic exercise lubricates the joints and prevents problems of a sedentary lifestyle, but confers very little athletic improvements besides active recovery.

The exception to this rule is long-distance low-intensity exercise, often under load (such as mountaineering). This long-distance/long-duration exercise trains the body to efficiently burn fat for energy and has a more global metabolic impact.

Increased resistance/load, as a rule, tends to shift an activity from being a global cardiovascular event to a local muscular stamina event.

Spotlight: Strength Training

Unfortunately, many endurance athletes have eschewed resistance training (aka weightlifting). This is to their detriment. Weightlifting pays dividends for endurance athletes. 

If you’re afraid of turning into a muscle-bound jughead, don’t be! Unless you intentionally aim to become a bodybuilder, you won’t be. Endurance athletes can gain significant strength will appreciable weight gain or loss of flexibility.

Types of Strength Training

Sport Strength Training

Classic strength training includes strategies such as Olympic lifting, Strongman feats, and the 5×5 weightlifting program.

These regimens are based around taxing compound neuromuscular lifts, usually based around prime moving patterns.

Strength training emphasizes neuromuscular recruitment (especially fast-twitch fibers) over hypertrophy. Usually, only the primary movement pattern (not its negative) is targeted.

This type of training is popular among cross-training athletes, as it adds significant strength without unnecessarily increasing muscle mass.

Bodyweight | Plyometric Circuit Training

  • Calisthenics are bodyweight gymnastic exercises designed to develop physical health and vigor, usually performed with little or no special equipment.
  • Plyometrics involves the speed and force of different movements to build muscle power.
  • Circuit training is a combination of six or more exercises performed with short rest periods between them for either a set number of repetitions or fixed time period.

These three are all different but are often closely related in a workout. For instance, calisthenics are typically performed in a circuit pattern.

Both are a type of full-body conditioning, a blend of primal strength, muscular stamina, agility and flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

That’s why these movements are often wrapped up in a dance package and used as the base for weight-loss gym classes.

Classic calisthenics include the push-up, pull-up, plank, crunch, tricep dip, handstand push-up, etc.

Bodyweight exercises and circuit training tend to build lean, hard, strong muscles with excellent muscular stamina and moderate strength gains. Think of a Shaolin monk.

With limited exception, calisthenics tend to build a strong, lean core and tough extremities.

Hypertrophy Training

Hypertrophy training is the mainstay of a bodybuilding regimen emphasizing 3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions, split between compound and isolation exercises, training until failure.

Time Under Tension (TUT) is key. Most bodybuilding regimens have a “Magic Number” of ~25 repetitions to stimulate muscle growth, which normally requires at least 45 seconds of hard effort to break down and cause the body to enter an anabolic state.

Bodybuilders recommend tempos with an eccentric-pause-concentric-pause sequence (e.g. 3010 for bench press: a 3-second lower, no pause, explosive 1-second lift, no pause), where a slow eccentric and explosive concentric lift is preferred.

Nutrition and supplements are key. Bodybuilders recommend a minimum of 50 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and up to 1.0 gram per bodyweight pound.

Competitively, the sport is rife with steroids and doping. Anything is fair game to maximize the anabolic response.

The 12 Compound Lifts

These lifts are called “primary” lifts, as they are natural exercises the human body performs every day.

The Big Six

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Bench Press
  4. Overhead/Military Press
  5. Row
  6. Pull-ups/Pull Downs

The Small Six

  1. Dips
  2. Lunges
  3. Barbell Hip Raises
  4. Farmer’s Carry/Atlas Carry
  5. Captain’s Chair Leg Raises
  6. Sled Drag/Sled Pull

Obviously, there are infinite variations of these primary lifts.

Actually, don’t think of these as lifts. Think of them as movements. These are building block motion patterns that can be tweaked and developed into more formal fitness styles.

  • Perform them against the forces of gravity using bodyweight, and you’ve developed plyometrics.
  • Perform them in paired groups using controlled Time Under Tension techniques, and you’ve got calisthenics.
  • Link them together with difficult dynamic movements, and you’ve got the Olympic lifts.

Note the lack of isolation exercises! Isolation exercises, like bicep curls, have little usefulness outside of bodybuilding and sport-specific exercises. 

Sport-specific isolations, such as hangboard training for rock climbing or calf presses for mountaineering, may be added as supplementary exercises.

Spotlight: Mental Training

There’s an old saying about adventure:

“Adventure is what happens what your plans go wrong.”

Adventures tend to take us to far-away places, places far away from hospitals, cell phone service, fast food, couches, and warmth.

Adventures commonly involves being tired, hungry, sore, and daydreaming above buttered rolls, sweetened with honey (or whatever your craving may be).

Adventure means facing your fears, like swimming over deep, black water, or scaling vertical rock faces, or surviving a night inside a tiny tent lashed by a thunderstorm. It means facing hordes of mosquitoes, a hungry bear, or frigid temperatures. Make no mistake – you will be scared. Scared sh*tless.

Mental fortitude is what holds us through those desperate times.

And this fortitude, this bravery, this long-suffering, can be trained just like any other type of endurance.

The best method to improve your mental fortitude is exposure therapy. Bite of a small chunk of your fear. Chew it, swallow it, and then take a bigger bite.

  • Scared of open water or drowning? Try swimming with a flotation device in a lake. Get used to the sensation of bottomless buoyancy.
  • Scared of bear attacks? Do your research. Learn the real facts about animal attacks and how to protect yourself if you are attacked. Most importantly, learn how to prevent an attack in the first place!

But adventure isn’t just about facing your fears. It’s also about holding on just a little … bit …. longer.

Train until you’re tired – and then train a little bit more. Run 6.2 miles – and then run one more. Become comfortable on the edge of your comfort. You’ll find that your mind tends to give up far before your legs will. 

Research Resources

Strength Training

  • T-Nation: Bodybuilding, powerlifting, strength and fitness