Willing and able: How to train for outdoor adventures

By Joe Bonington Photos Richard McGibbon 4 July 2023
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Adventure fitness expert Joe Bonington explains the importance – and the hows and whys – of the correct training needed to ensure you’re fit for your next challenge.

We are going to explore fitness for adventure. Looking at the main adventure activities and working out the basic physical qualities we need to survive in the wilderness, i.e. how do you need to train to be harder to kill in the wild!

So what actually is being ‘fit for adventure’ and what does it mean? Does it require a different type of fitness? How does adventure-based fitness differ from training for field sports or a fun run?

First things first

First of all, what is adventure? That’s about as subjective a question as you can get, isn’t it?

So this leads to the dictionary definition: 1. an unusual and exciting or daring experience; and 2. to engage in daring or risky activities.

So by that definition adventure covers a wide variety of pastimes ranging from the traditional healthy outdoor activities any self-respecting reader of Aus Geo Adventure would be interested in, to urban adventures, flying adventures, to motorised travel – hell, it can be signing up as a mercenary in Georgia or joining the French Foreign Legion.

But for the purpose of this article we are going to look in particular at adventures that have some form of physical aspect, possibly some risk, mental challenges, and are undertaken in the great outdoors and wilderness settings.

For the novice and the inexperienced the adventure in a wilderness scenario conjures up a romantic view; the freedom of the hills, hiking, climbing and sailing through wild places in wilder conditions to successfully plant your flag and cast your eyes to the next horizon.

For the experienced, it’s all of the above backed up with years of accumulated knowledge, skills acquisition, discomfort (and a grim pleasure in that). It’s being able to suffer and struggle, proving that you deserve the good days and the views, that feeling of the last crest, a sun breaking over a horizon from high camp, or pitching a tent in dying sunlight as you’ve got past the crux of an extended journey.

We are focusing on wilderness based adventure activities: i.e., mountaineering, self-powered off road journeys by ski, mountain biking (MTB), running, paddling or hiking over land, river, ice or sea… If I missed off your favourite adventure activity please forgive me and feel free to let me know.

The common denominator amongst all of these adventures is they are primarily powered by humans. The other is that they all are primarily endurance based.

They also all require what I call “the magic five of an exciting escapade”.

Five of the best

Any adventure comprises of the following five pillars:

Vision: what is your exciting escapade; your adventure, large or small.

Preparation: planning and physical preparation.

Resources: available prior and during adventure. People, places, finances, equipment, knowledge

Skills: available and needed. What relevant skills are required? What do you currently have? Need improving? New skills needed?

Ability (and durability) – physical and mental: Being physically and mentally up to the task at hand

It’s the Ability (and durability) pillar that is my area of expertise and the area I’d like to get stuck into here.

Hannah Gibson, an exercise physiologist and high-level runner, has recently incorporated a strength program from Joe’s into her training schedule. Richard McGibbon

Ready and able to dig deep

So what is being fit for an adventure? In simple terms it’s being physically and mentally capable for the task at hand.

As mentioned earlier, wilderness-based adventure activities are predominantly endurance based but there are other factors involved that traditional endurance based activities, such as running a road marathon, don’t have.

For example, in multi-day adventure activities, as well as being able to keep going day after day for extended periods of time, we may have to cope with the elements, with environmental concerns, such as tree roots, avalanche and rock fall, getting rolled in rapids, taking falls, sleeping in cold, wet, places then facing it all again tomorrow and the day after that. We have to be ready for the “big” days; maybe a summit push or what is known as “an epic” – when it’s all gone south and a normal day has turned into a mammoth 22-hour descent in the dark with a fractured rib and broken head-torch. Or you’ve rolled out of your pack-raft and are wet and cold and portaging your craft while trying to seek shelter and get dry before hypothermia sets in. Or it may be being able to get over that high pass in white- out conditions.

So let’s break down the fitness we need to cope with the challenges above.

Be robust: Your body and your mind need to be able to take punishment. If you are strong, stable and enduring you will be in a better position to handle the shit that invariably comes your way.

For example, if you are deconditioned and slower reactively, or you take a tumble, you may not have the agility to recover. If you do go down, a strong muscle structure and the right level of mobility, general joint strength and healthy connective tissue may mean the difference between a graze and bruised ego or a badly sprained ankle, which in the wrong environment can quickly become life threatening.

To top it off, when you think you’re done, you must be able to pull more out of the tank. We call it a Deep Reserve.

You don’t want to be lacking in fitness when tackling adventures in remote and potentially dangerous locations. Justin Walker

Standing by principles

Let’s get a bit deeper into these areas: This is a model I’ve developed called the SMERF* principle. It’s the foundational principles we use for working with all our people, whether recreational wanderers, or adventure sport athletes:

Be Strong – we need to have a strong foundation. If the muscle structure and connective tissue are weak, we are prone to tears, soreness, pulls, muscle fatigue. People get confused between strength and muscle size. What is important is our strength to body-weight ratio, and that strength is determined by the ability of the nervous system to contract our muscles efficiently – NOT the size of our muscles. This is NOT hours in the gym “working out” for the sake of “working out”; this is focused training using the developments of the last 50 years in exercise and sports science to help us do what we love, better!

And if you are one those “I hate the gym, it’s not for me” people – get over it. I do understand; your view is an air conditioned environment of grunting, heaving Neanderthals with their shirts off lifting impossibly heavy loads. However, we’ve moved on; we are now training for a purpose. Depending on the goals it can be as little as a couple of hours per week. The gym is a tool, nothing more. It’s the best tool for certain jobs. NOT all jobs, but certain ones, such as the mechanics of a loaded barbell squat – something you can’t replicate at home with dumbbells, or outside in a park with bodyweight. It’s not the same stimulus.

You may then say: but my sport requires me to move functionally NOT fixed. And I agree. But if we look at physiology and shear forces and the science of loading principles, there are only so many ways to skin a cat, only so many ways to move a muscle and only so many ways to measure the result. And I’m afraid in the case of say, using the squat, with the millions of dollars of research and history and science to back it up as a great general physical preparation tool (GPP) at the right time in your program, it wins. But also be aware, at other times, such as closer to your adventure when specificity is required, specificity, which in this case may be single-leg exercises, weighted hill sprints or tyre drags and sled work, will trump the squat.

Be Mobile yet stable. Your joints need to be stable, and your limbs mobile. Virtually all our sports are repetitive. How many times do hips move in a 40km approach march to our peak, how many times does the shoulder rotate during a five-day paddle? Can those joints sustain that kind of movement? Can they move through the full range of motion fluidly and without putting excess pressure on the muscles working to stabilise the joint through that movement.

Due to modern lifestyles stability is something we’ve sacrificed – both stability and mobility and the body being balanced due to being hunched over desks, staring at screens. When we are working on stability and joint mobility we are trying to get the body back into balance. The stabilising muscles are the smaller ones that switch on to assist a movement. Weak or overactive stabilisers combined with a lack of a range of motion (mobility and flexibility) tend to lead to most of our general performance injuries.

To Endure – build our aerobic capacity – aka the engine room. Train to be able to keep going all day. Don’t be seduced by CrossFit or F45; this is not about short brain-melting workouts; this is time outside, running, rucking (training with a pack), cycling, swimming, etc.

Have a Reserve – train to be able to pull it out of the back when the chips are down. Can you pull yourself out of a crevasse when tired? Can you hike an extra 15km when you went down the wrong trail? Can you tread water for hours after you’ve capsized? Be prepared for the unknown.

Mind Frame – one of my favourite areas – and one that can cause the fittest, most able and skillful would-be adventurer to crumble. I’ve seen this happen to others – and I’ll be honest, I’ve seen myself come unstuck on a mountaineering trip in New Zealand.  I went into the trip in the wrong head-space, made a series of poor decisions and only succeeded because of the encouragement of a good mate.

Having not only a big reserve of physical fitness, but also plenty of mental strength enables everyday adventurers to undertake serious challenges. Justin Walker

The five Cs of a good mind frame

1. Control: Involves the extent to which you feel in control of your life and circumstance, as well as how you control your emotions.

2. Commitment: How committed are you to succeeding in the current situation/adventure/event?

3. Challenge: To what extent are you prepared to push the boundaries, embrace change, and accept risk?

4. Connectedness: How connected are you to your surroundings, the environmental situation you find yourself in, those around you, your team, others.

5. Confidence: The extent to which you believe in yourself, your abilities and your capabilities. Are you “I can”, “I will”, “I’ve got this”, or are you not sure?

Mind Frame or “Mental Toughness” can be taught but in many ways is harder to train than the body. If you put a body under load you will get a physiological response. Whereas you will only respond to training the mind if you are open to it, if you approach it with a growth mindset. This is why two people can see exactly the same situation with completely different viewpoints, depending on their behavioural dexterity and flexibility.

Something to think about

So in wrapping up, being “adventure fit” is very different from being “road fit”.

1. General strength and stability and having a strong engine, i.e. cardiovascular capacity, are the foundations of good adventure fitness.

2. Don’t neglect your strength training. But don’t train like a bodybuilder or a CrossFit-er.

3. Train to be physically robust, resilient and enduring.

4. Being mobile, flexible and stable is as important as being strong, fit and fast.

5. The mind is the most important muscle to train for big days in the wilderness.

One last thing: patience is everything in training. This is NOT about the individual workout; it’s about progression over time. Build a strong house, lay solid foundations. Spend time on your foundations and the walls will be stronger and the roof more stable. Don’t rush for the fancy stuff. Work on the basics first. Any physical activity, where you are pushing yourself, runs the risk of injury. To say that people shouldn’t or don’t get hurt in training is unrealistic. However, just like when you are in the wild, it’s about calculated risk and we don’t expose ourselves to the risk of injury needlessly.

Enjoy, and see you in the wild… on the trails or in the gym!

See Joe’s Basecamp for more info.