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Training for an Adventure Race

Training for an Adventure Race

by Jason Heflin

There are two words you need to remember when training for an adventure race – “Multi Sport”. Over the years I’ve hashed out a simple training plan for the adventure races I run. Below are the basics of that plan that will get you in shape to compete if you want to run your first adventure race.

This article focuses on the training you will need to compete in a 4-12 hour adventure race. Races that are 24 hours to one week can be much more grueling, require more training, and require a higher skill level. Knock the sprint and 12 hour races out first and you’ll be ready for the next level.

Which Sports should I focus on in my training?

Typical sports you’ll find in an adventure race will be: orienteering, running, rappelling, mountain biking, paddling, and swimming. The true beauty of an adventure race though is that it is likely you won’t know what every sport or event is going to be. You might end up throwing a discus, pitching a tent, riding scooters, or doing a crossword puzzle. So how do you train for something so unpredictable?

In order to determine the events you should train for, I always use a little bit of Sherlock Holmes deduction.

  • Is your race crossing through the backcountry, or is it urban? If it’s off-road, or in the wilderness, you will most likely be mountain biking, trail running, and paddling whitewater or flat water. In the city you might be on paved surfaces and have a swimming option.
  • Read your gear list thoroughly. If they ask you to bring a bike… guess what, you’re biking.  But look closer, what’s that, a bike headlight. That means you’ll be biking at night. Dig even deeper into the list and you may find items that only have a few uses. These things can help you figure out which sports you’ll be cranking out on race day.
  • Talk to someone who raced last year. It’s difficult to be completely original. Race directors will often recycle events they used the previous year or two. Look at last years race and be prepared to do any and all of the sports included.
  • Talk to a previous racer. They can fill you in on the previous courses and the sports they participated in. Racers are often more than happy to talk about their experiences… Usual cost – 1 beer.
  • Study the course. If you know you’re starting in a particular place, and ending in another place, you may see geographic features that stand out as obvious checkpoints. Is there a river on the map between the start and finish? Go check it out and see if it’s swimable. If not you may likely be paddling, or even hitching a ferry ride.
  • Ask the race director. Is it cheating to ask? Nope, just ask if they can tell you anything else about the race. All they can say is no.

How much time should I train, and how frequently?

Now that you and Watson have a decent idea of what sports you’ll be participating in its time to train for those.When it comes to training for an adventure race, you can’t be too prepared. “Early and Often” are my motto. I typically start 2-3 months before the race. Start off with one sport, then start to mix in other sports until you are getting comfortable with your fitness level. Then kick it up a notch and start multi-sport training in the same sessions. See this sample adventure race training schedule below.

Adventure Race Training Schedule


Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Week 1 Bike 20 Run 20 Walk 45 Run 20 Bike 20 Run 30 Rest
Week 2 Bike 30 Run 30 Walk 45 Run 30 Bike 30 Run 30 Orienteering
Week 3 Bike 45 Run 30 Walk 60 Run 30 Bike 45 Paddle 30 Rest
Week 4 Bike 45 Run 45 Walk 60 Run 45 Bike 45 Run 45 Rest
Week 5 Bike 20/Run 20 Run 45 Walk 75 Bike 20/Run 20 Bike 45 Bike 20/Run 20 Rest
Week 6 Bike 20/Run 20 Run 45 Walk 75 Bike 20/Run 20 Bike 45 Paddle 60 Rest
Week 7 Bike 30/Run 30 Run 45 Walk 90 Bike 30/Run 30 Bike 45 Bike 30/Run 30 Rest
Week 8 Bike 45/Run 45 Run 60 Walk90 Bike 45/Run 45 Bike 60 Paddle 90 Orienteering
Week 9 Bike 45/Run 45 Run 60 Walk90 Bike 45/Run 45 Bike 60 Bike 45/Run 45 Rest
Week 10 Bike 45/Run 45 Run60 Walk90 Bike 45/Run 45 Bike 60 Bike 45/Run 45/Paddle 45 Rest
Week 11 Bike 60/Run 60 Run 45 Paddle 60 Bike 60/Run 60 Bike 45 Bike 20/Run 20 Rest
Week 12 Rest Walk 60 Rest Rest Rest Race Day

Something will always come up during your training that will kick you off your schedule for a few days. There will also be days that you just don’t fee like training. But those things won’t kill a training regimen. Just be diligent and get back to work as soon as you can. Eating well during this training is key too. You’ll need more calories for sure, but don’t overindulge on junk.

How much time should I dedicate to map reading skills – orienteering?

For adventure racers, you always need one navigator. But everyone needs to know how to use a map and compass. Each team will operate differently, but my team always uses a democratic method that tends to work for us. If our navigator thinks we should go one way, but the rest of the team disagrees, we go with the majority. Normally though if there is a disagreement it causes us to really hash through why we feel the way we do about a direction and it leads us to a better decision.

Take an orienteering course if one is offered locally. If not, get with a friend or your team navigator and do some basic orienteering exercises in a wooded area nearby. Pick an object or formation off the trail to find and then do your best to find it, then find your way back. Always go with someone who knows land navigation.

For an urban adventure race, familiarize yourself with the city layout. This can be done by simply walking the areas you know the race will take place in. But for a faster approach, take a car, or better yet a bike. On a bike you can cover quite a bit of ground, yet be going slow enough you notice landmarks you may miss in a car.

What about rope work, rappelling, climbing?

Many adventure races have a ropes course. You could end up climbing, rappelling, or zip lining. Talk to the race organizers well in advance to make sure you have the skills needed for these events. Often though the rope portion of a shorter race will be set up to accommodate beginners. Before you start a rappel, climb, or zip line however, be 100% sure you are securely in your harness, and that you have a belay or course worker monitoring all ropes and gear.

If you don’t feel comfortable, take a mountaineering course. Many university recreation departments offer classes on this. You could also check with your local outdoor retailer to see if they have any connections to a training resource. Many outdoor shops will sponsor classes on their own.

Now that you know what you need to do. Find a local adventure race and start training. It will be an experience you’ll talk about for years to come.

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