Credit: Graham Chadwick/Allsport
Two hundred fifty thousand people have participated in adventure races during the last five years, estimates the United States Adventure Race Association (USARA), which sanctions 90 percent of United States adventure races.
"That number should double or triple in the next year or two," says USARA president and founder Troy Farrar, "Half the states haven't had a race yet."
Adventure racing is often described as the sport that shows you "what you're made of." The phrase doesn't make its full impact until you've been out there, cold, hungry, hurting and exhausted, yet somehow push through.
Participants want that extra challenge, something more to show for their commitment to fitness than another middle-of-the-pack finish.
A sport in which the fittest individuals don't necessarily win, adventure racing requires outdoor savvy and incredible mental perseverance. Since speed isn't the most important factor, adventure racing needs a fitness program tailored to its mores.
Before starting to train, athletes should have a solid aerobic base. The general rule of thumb is three to six months of consistent training.
Choosing a race. There are three types of races: sprint (lasting a few hours to eight), adventure (lasting eight to 48 hours) and expedition (lasting two days or longer).
Sprint-style races are a good introduction to racing. Since they're short, racers are less likely to put themselves in risky situations due to a lack of wilderness survival preparation. However, don't be fooled into thinking they're less than a major feat.
A typical race includes four disciplines mountain biking, trekking, kayaking and climbing for a total of 12 to 30 miles over inhospitable terrain. Races often have mystery challenges, such as archery, orienteering, Cauldron Crawl, Tyrolean Traverse, swimming, knot tying, rock wall climbing and puzzles.
Adventure-style races require nocturnal travel and navigational skills. Dealing with injury, meals, sleep, inclement weather and extreme endurance comes into play. Since a slower biker/runner/paddler/climber with good wilderness and navigational skills will do better in this race than a sprint, racers sometimes start here.
Expedition-style races are strictly for the experienced adventure racer. They last multiple days and take place in some of the most formidable mountain or jungle areas in the world. They include the Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises races, which pride themselves as the equivalent of climbing two Mount Everests and in which a single misstep equals death.
Not only do they require nearly full-time training, they're also extremely expensive. The entry fee for the EcoChallenge alone is $12,000. Smaller races are becoming more accessible, so make expedition-style races a goal after three or four years of dedicated adventure racing, definitely not a first step.
Learn about the specific race. What gear is needed? Are certifications mandatory? Longer races often require some certifications, while shorter races sometimes do not. Nevertheless, certifications certainly give you a distinct advantage.
Speak with people who have participated in the particular race. If possible, volunteer at it the year beforehand.
Establish goals. In such a challenging sport, finishing is a victory in and of itself. Highly competitive and experienced teams might shoot for a top-five finish.
Choose teammates based on common goals, fitness and skill levels. Your team won't work if someone expects to win and others just want to finish and have fun. Nor will it succeed if someone moves two minutes slower per mile than everyone else.
Train in a team. Training with potential teammates will reveal workable and unworkable differences. This will also provide the opportunity to practice team strategy and decision-making.
Appoint a navigator and leader. In order to keep moving, successful teams have a pre-selected leader and navigator. Among other things, the leader ensures time is used effectively in places it is often wasted, such as checkpoints, where unplanned breaks often occur.
The navigator is responsible for knowing where the team is, has been and is going. Other team members should keep tabs on this as well since racing demands, like physical exertion and sleep deprivation, may cause the navigator to make a mistake.
Train the disciplines. Most races involve running/hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and climbing. Therefore, spend as much time as possible practicing these activities. In-line skating, rappelling, swimming and horseback riding may also be included in training. Lessons are recommended for activities you are unfamiliar with.
Train wearing a pack, since a pack creates unique fatigue and balance issues. During a race, all your gear, food and water is on your back that's about 20 pounds. Sometimes you carry your pack throughout the entire race, sometimes through one discipline.
Plan multi-discipline, multi-hour outings. Do a brick workout a session of one discipline immediately followed by another (e.g., one hour of biking followed by two hours of hiking) once a week. Once a month, go on a weekend outing for a multi-discipline team practice of six to 10 continuous hours.
Plan your route and navigate on a topographical map. These outings will help determine your team's pace in each discipline and emulate race conditions, from sleep deprivation to nocturnal navigation. Pack and use gear and food as you would while racing.
Train at night. Since most races require some nocturnal mountain biking and hiking, nocturnal training should be part of your monthly multi-discipline, multi-hour outing.
Simulate race conditions by hiking, then biking, for a two- to six-hour session. To practice navigational skills, plan a route that splits off the initial trail. However, if you're not experienced with nocturnal travel, start by doing one of your weekly workouts at night.
Learn how to pack. Ten extra pounds is a big deal after 48 hours. Ask yourself: What gear do I really need? What extras should I take? Make sure you have everything on the required equipment list, duct tape wrapped around your trekking poles (to tape your feet if necessary and for other surprises), a watch, water, food, extra flashlight batteries and skin lube for chafing. Resist much else.
Learn how to eat. "During a race," says Tucson-based Robert Miner, who races every six weeks, "sometimes how fast you process food [is important]. You're burning 600 to 1,000 calories an hour but can only process 300."
Try different things, such as having a hydration bladder full of water and one of a sports drink. Sip throughout the race and strive for a 3:1 water to sports drink ratio in order to maintain electrolyte balance. PowerBars are good, but bring other solid foods for variety. Anything compact, nutritionally and calorically dense is good.
Train navigational skills. Your team's navigational skills will enable or disable your ability to finish the race. You can be the fastest team, but if you don't know where you are and need to go, you won't have a successful race.
Joining an orienteering club can help you learn navigational skills. Participate in all their meets and a 24-hour rogaine a long-distance foot race in which you use a map and compass to find as many checkpoints as possible. You can never know too much about navigation.
Build strength, power, speed and endurance. Strength-training exercises should closely replicate actual movements. Dips, step-ups, standing hip extensions, push-ups and pull-ups are excellent examples. Do an interval and tempo session each week to build speed and power. Aerobic and brick workouts build endurance.
Recover. Immediately after the race, eat protein and carbohydrates in a ratio of 1:4 for best glycogen refueling, similar to how you would after a long, arduous workout. Two hours later, eat again.
Feeling overwhelmed? Consider a sprint-style race and stick to Troy Farrar's guidelines. According to Farrar, someone who runs or hikes two or three times a week (with a pack), bikes once or twice each week and gets in some paddling should be able to finish.
Search Active and register online for an adventure race in your area! Also, check out Active's Adventure racing section!