A Guide To AR Training

Article by planetFear
Monday 1st June 2009

This is an introduction to training for your first adventure race and should help you to develop your training for a successful season, by considering how these specific sessions can be related to the core activities:

  • Long sessions
  • Tempo sessions
  • Strength training
  • Stretching
  • Skills

Effective training is a key part of high performance and achievement in adventure racing. Here, a Chilean Team puts it all together in Patagonia. Photo: copyright Nathan Ward (www.nathanward.com

Training for your first adventure race will be enjoyable and satisfying, but it will also be demanding and hard work. The way to succeed in a race is to replicate it in your training, and often to train faster and longer. A strong approach is to ’never experience something for the first time in a race’. This includes the duration of the exercise, the speed in the section and the disciplines encountered. Ask yourself if you can run for the time specified in the race (which could be 4-5 hours and then ride for the same if not longer). If the answer is no then there is a need to build on your endurance.

This rule obviously doesn’t apply to the non-stop expedition length races since people can never mimic the distances involved in normal life. For this reason, your first long race will be more a test to see how you go over those distances than a real ‘race’.

So, for those of you heading towards your first UK race, firstly increase your existing training times week by week, aiming always to complete your sessions even if you have to slow down. You can develop speed later. After you are happy with an increased volume, structure your week and begin to add in speed and skill work.

Long Sustained Sessions

Incorporate at least one long run (minimum 90 minutes) and one long cycle (minimum 180 minutes) into your weekly training schedule. Always incorporate hills into your rides and runs, work hard on them, hills benefit the muscles and heart in every way. After three to four weeks of these times, you should be able to lengthen your session time, and complete without stopping. Remember you are aiming at events of 6-14 hours or more, possibly continuous.

You can build strength within these sessions by carrying your race pack, giving you an idea of how this feels. Also take a map and practice reading it. When you are on foot, follow your route with your thumb in place, and stop and pinpoint your position. You can time yourself to help estimate times over distance and terrain.

Tempo Sessions

If you work your body harder in training than it needs to do racing then it will be better prepared for when you race. This is where speed training will help. For this, you need to do what are usually called tempo sessions. This is a continuous effort faster than race pace. It should feel less comfortable than your steady long sessions, but attainable for the allocated time.

You could start by incorporating two tempo run sessions and two tempo bikes sessions into your weekly training schedule. Or you might prefer to do a run and bike session back to back. Aim for 40-50minutes running and 60-90 minutes bike. Try not to favour one activity over another. It is likely that you are stronger in one or two disciplines than the others; always concentrate more on your weaker disciplines. It may be that it is hard for you to find somewhere to paddle and that this requires extra effort. If so, it is worth considering e.g. paddle-specific training camps and really working on technique and strength for that particular discipline for a specific block of time. Keep motivated. Make sure weaknesses become strengths, but that strengths do not become weaknesses.

Strength Training

You now have two free days left in your week. One of these should be a rest day or skill training day, and the other could be spent strength training and stretching. It is not essential to be a member of a gym, but it would be useful. During gym training you can develop muscular endurance, core body strength, flexibility and your all round conditioning.

Weight training exercises for muscular endurance are structured differently from those designed to build bulk in muscle fibres. Use light weights but complete many repetitions in multiple sets, and slowly.

For instance using a reasonably weight on a lat pull down machine can develop the shoulders and back for kayaking, use a. Do 3 sets with at least 20 repetitions in each set, maintaining control throughout. If you do not have the use of a gym then any exercise with your arms using your own body weight will have the same effect, for example pull-ups and press-ups.

NB: The most beneficial way of strength training for specialized activities is to simulate the specific action. Some weight machines will be more suitable than others. For instance, a leg press machine will simulate the braking action on a running decent, as well as strengthening the quads. To improve your core stability and muscular strength and balance for kayaking, try sitting balanced on a stability ball and use either a broom handle or weight bar to mimic the action of a paddle. (Make it harder by sitting on a large stability ball and raising your feet onto a small one. You will be amazed how difficult it is at first and how good a work out your stomach gets).

Other good exercises are squats and lunges. These work both the fronts and the backs of your legs and increase your running and cycling power. These can be done at home whilst holding weights. Rowing and kayaking machines provide a great aerobic workout for all over body conditioning, and will also aid flexibility. The same is true when it comes to swimming and e.g. cross country skiing. The great thing about adventure racing is that you can pretty much justify any cross training.


Stretching can be thought of a nice rest after a hard work out. It is important to cover the whole body as the likely hood is you have worked almost every muscle. Muscular imbalance can lead to injury as easily as overuse can. Always warm up before stretching, hold the stretch for over 10 seconds, release the stretch and increase the stretch. Rushed stretching will have little or no benefit. If you want to get supple relatively quickly or indeed if you find stretching boring, try power (astanga) yoga. It is enjoyable but very hard going – it may even leave you feeling more sore for the first few weeks than your days in the gym. Many of the top AR athletes worldwide use stretching as a regular part of their training routine: don’t dismiss it without giving it a fair try!

The great thing about stretching is that it can be done anywhere, anytime.

Skill Development

The required skills depend on the race you have entered so firstly concentrate on the specific ones you will need. One of the most important skills to develop is obviously navigation. The easiest way to develop this is to attend a course or join a local orienteering club and go out on their evening training sessions. The biggest no-no in racing is stopping to look at the map, so get that out of your system on your training sessions!

Even excellent navigators have to work on their skills to stay on winning form

If you find running and reading a map at the same time almost impossible, a good starting tip is to take a cartoon magazine with you and practise reading that on the move. Many people actually find bike navigation more difficult since decisions have to be made more quickly. The key is to own a good map board although you can improvise at first with the lid from e.g. a large ice cream tub attached to the bike with some zip ties!

Although there will generally be a key navigator or two within each team, it is worth learning the basics since you may have to take over if they are sick or tired. Off-road running and mountain biking are skills within themselves; a little time needs to be set aside to work on these, as well as practicing them whilst out training.

Your ‘day off’ could involve a visit to a local climbing wall or crag, some technique training with your canoe club, an ice skating rink (in preparation for in-line skating), or simply a day out on the hill with a big rucksack, map and compass (and for those techies a GPS). Any experience is good and you can never have too much. Never enter a race without having practiced each discipline.

Anna McCormack ‘abseil training’ in the Verdon

Training Structures

You should start to feel the benefits from this schedule after only a couple of weeks, so then you must increase your volume slowly but surely. After that you can increase the intensity and decrease the volume – but make sure you look after yourself and listen to your body or injuries will soon follow. Be careful with speed as there is no use in getting half way fast! In summary, therefore, make sure you include the following:

Long Training Sessions  - one for each key discipline (initially running and riding) per week

  • Run (or paddle or both) 90 minutes
  • Ride 180 minutes

Tempo Sessions (two of each per week)

  • Run (paddle or both) 40 minutes
  • Ride (60 minutes)

Strength Training (once or twice per week)

  • Low weight
  • Many repetitions (20-30)
  • Moderate sets (3-4)
  • Short recovery between sets (30 seconds)

Example Training Plan (full week)

  • Monday: Strength training and stretching (90 – 120 minutes)
  • Tuesday: Tempo run and bike (50 minutes and 80 minutes)
  • Wednesday: SKILLS  
  • Thursday: Tempo run (60 minutes)
  • Friday: Long ride (3-5 hours)
  • Saturday: Tempo ride (90 minutes)
  • Sunday: Long run (120 minutes)
NB: it is important to alternate tempo days but it might not be appropriate to put a long training day in the middle of the week. Adapt your personal plan to your circumstances and think about training on the way to and from work since this is often an easy way of putting the miles in, especially given that you normally need to carry a backpack.

Initial Changes to the base programme

  • Increase long ride time by half an hour
  • Increase long run time by 20 minutes
  • Increase weight during strength training exercises as it becomes easier
  • Slightly increase the distance of the tempo run and ride and aim for the same time

Further changes once you have attained a relatively high state of fitness

Take away one tempo run and replace with a speed session (fartleks or intervals). Then think about some weekend training sessions and plan for an ‘adventure’. Try including one day of non-stop activity incorporating each discipline. You might want to sample a spot of sleep deprivation too before your first weekend race but this isn’t something that you should try to put into a regular training routine.

If you have a set team, you might also want to consider some warm weather training in places like Spain or Lanzarote working on transitions, towing, bike fixing and other team skills, since this aspect of training is also key to ultimate success.

The speed at which you can change an inner tube could make a huge difference in a race.

Finally, it is definitely worth spending some time in the mountains and working on fundamental skills like scree running. As the races you are entering become more technical, it is important to ensure that you have a good (and well practised) understanding of survival and safety. You cannot always rely on race organisers to rescue you!

Top trick: Make sure you practise safety systems using basic kit since you aren’t likely to have much with you when racing. 


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