How to Train for Outdoor Sports and Adventures [Training Plan]

Periodically people ask me about how to train for outdoor activities like hiking, trail running, or backcountry snowboarding, specifically how to use kettlebells and strength training to improve performance. Those who asked me during the six to seven year period where I only trained with kettlebells and barbells got a completely different answer than those who asked me in the past five years while my training philosophy shifted.

For those who ask me today, my answer is this: To train for the outdoors, you need to spend a lot of time OUTDOORS. It’s as simple as that. The look of bewilderment on some people’s faces still makes me smile. I’m not sure whether they hoped for a magic pill or super exercise to make outdoor pursuits easier, but I do know they expected my answer to be a gym-based workout. In the past, I reinforced that expectation when I was drunk on prescribing kettlebells and HIIT. I’m not saying gym-based training won’t enhance outdoor performance, but lasting improvement and enjoyment can only be found by training outdoors doing the activity itself.

When I think about the great outdoors, I conjure visions of hiking, trail running, mountain biking, snowboarding, kayaking, surfing, and paddle boarding. These are all outdoor activities I love doing. So, whatever it is you love doing outdoors, picture that, because the principles I’m going to share apply to them all. This article focuses on hiking and trail running, two of the most accessible activities for everyday athletes in terms of equipment needs and climate requirements.

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Be a Part of the Crazy 1%

 

I’m a big believer in seeking out what the world’s best do and reverse engineering it for the average person. The important word there is average. Some of the things elite athletes do are unfathomable for most people. We have full-time jobs, families, commitments, and obligations. Our priorities lie elsewhere.

Let’s put that into perspective for hiking and trail running: No top performing endurance athlete has ever achieved their results on a diet of intervals and circuit training in the gym. Instead, they build hours and hours of baseline fitness with a small percentage of strength and high-intensity training. The average elite endurance athlete has an average annual training volume of 1,000 hours. That’s 19 hours a week, or three hours a day. On average! Can you imagine doing three hours of HIIT a day? No, neither can I. That’s why most of their training is simple aerobic work. Understanding this concept is key to success in the great outdoors.

Getting Drunk on HIIT

Now I’m not suggesting you should train for 1,000 hours a year. Far from it. It takes years and years of dedication to build up to that level. Most everyday athletes won’t reach half of that. I’m highlighting the fact that volume trumps intensity when it comes to endurance training and that this concept applies to training to improve hiking and trail running.

Let’s talk about the gym environment and workouts for a moment and how they differ from outdoor pursuits. Using CrossFit as an example, the average workout of the day (WOD) lasts between eight and 21 minutes. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the average hike for me seems to be in the region of two to four hours. Most popular hiking trails in Wales take roughly two hours to complete at a sustainable pace but some popular trails in Australia or the United States take days to complete. This is considerably longer than the average WOD.

Everyone feels great at the start of a race, a hike, or a day out in the mountains. However, most people who train strictly in the gym start out with a gas tank that’s only quarter full and no gauge, meaning they have no idea that their tank will be empty in less than an hour. They train themselves to recover from efforts of specific intensity, duration, and movements, namely those 21-minute WODs, expecting a direct correlation to their outdoor pursuits. Unfortunately, the body just doesn’t work like that. HIIT, WODs, and these types of workouts absolutely have a place in the world of fitness. They can be fun and, as part of a well-developed plan, they can help improve your overall capacity to endure.

Training intensly in those short time frames does one thing very well: It makes you better at those 21-minute pieces. People get addicted to the high-intensity endorphins and the post-workout high they get from an all out effort. This high tricks people into thinking the same work will yield performance results across the board. But that random WOD means nothing outside of the Crossfit box. Once they leave the facility, everything changes.

How to Approach Outdoor Training

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For athletic training, roughly 20% of the exercises and habits have 80% of the impact.

You can apply the Pareto principle to training for the great outdoors by doing your chosen outdoor activity 80% of the time and working out in the gym the remaining 20% of the time. Let’s assume you enjoy hiking and want to improve your speed up a particular hill. If you have 10 hours a week to train, eight hours should be spent hiking and the other two hours will be gym-based workouts.

The point is, if you love being outdoors and hiking, do more of it!! It’s the fastest, easiest, and most enjoyable way to get better at it. Sounds crazy simple, but it’s true. What you do and how you do it inside those 10 hours of training depends entirely on your own personal circumstances and weaknesses, and could focus more on health, movement, strength, or cardio. Until we assess, we won’t really know; for now, let’s assume you’re fit, healthy, and have no underlying injuries that I need to worry about.

Strength Training for the Great Outdoors

Beyond honing their sport-specific skills, athletes also strength train in order to do their sport better. Strength helps them become faster, more powerful, and have better endurance for their sport; it also protects them against injury. Therefore, strength training must be part of the 20%. It’s non-negotiable.

If you’ve already read this issue’s other article about General Strength and Specific Strength, you should have some idea of where you fit in the strength training equation. Outdoor activities require a high-level of General Strength for you to perform at your best. If you struggle with any of the standards listed in those charts, those are your starting points. Knowing that we have two hours of strength training available to us (based on the 10-hour example above), let’s look at a two day per week General Strength training plan for hikers and trail runners. Note: While 10 training hours is an easy way to demonstrate the Pareto principle, I understand this duration isn’t achievable for a lot of people; adjust accordingly to fit your schedule.

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Gym-Based Training Plan

Day 1 – Deadlift Focus

Warm-Up
**Nasal Breathe Throughout. Keep Mouth Closed.

  1. Foam Roll: Glutes, Hamstrings, Adductors, Lats, 30 Seconds Per Area.
  2. Lizard Lunge O/H Hip Opener: 1 Minute Each Side
  3. Hip Flexor to Hamstring: 1 Minute Each Side
  4. Deep Squat Shoulder Wall Circles: 1 Minute Each Side
  5. T-Spine Extensions Foam Roller: 2 Minutes

Activation—Two Rounds:

  1. Single Kettlebell Deadlift, 8/8
  2. Reverse Salamanders, 4/4
  3. Standing Cross Crawl, 30 Seconds

Workout

  1. Trapbar Deadlift, 8 Reps, 3 – 5 Sets
  2. Turkish Get Up, 8/8 Reps
  3. Half-Kneeling Bottoms Up Press, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  4. Renegade Row, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  5. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  6. Wall Squat Hold, 2 Sets, 30 Second Hold
  7. Ab Wheel Roll Out, 3 Sets, 5 – 12 Reps

Stretch
**Nasal Breathe Throughout. Keep Mouth Closed.

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing: 1 Minute
  2. Kneeling 90° Hip Stretch on Box: 2 Minutes Each Side
  3. Seated Single Leg Hamstring: 2 Minutes Each Side
Day 2 – Squat Focus

Warm-Up
**Nasal Breathe Throughout. Keep Mouth Closed.

  1. Foam Roll: Glutes, Quads, Adductors, Upper Back, Lower Back, Lats, 30 Seconds Per Area.
  2. Psoas Smash: 30 Seconds Each Side
  3. Active Frog: 2 Minutes
  4. 90:90: 2 Minutes
  5. Zenith Twist: 1 Minute Each Side

Activation—Two Rounds:

  1. Goblet Squats, 8 Reps
  2. Side Bridge, 30 Seconds Each Side
  3. Leopard Crawl, 1 Minute

Workout

  1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, 8/8 Reps, 3 – 5 Sets
  2. Pull Ups, 5-8 Reps, 3–5Sets
  3. Weighted Box Step Ups, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  4. Half Turkish Get Ups, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  5. Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press, 2 Sets, 12/12 Reps
  6. Cook Drill, 1 Min Second Each Side
  7. Deadbugs, 3 Sets, 12/12 Reps

Stretch
**Nasal Breathe Throughout. Keep Mouth Closed.

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing: 1 Minute
  2. Pigeon: 2 Minutes Each Side
  3. Lat Stretch: 2 Minutes Each Side

Both training days were designed to try and build the overall strength reserve of the outdoor enthusiast without leading them too fatigued to participate in their beloved outdoor passion, the other 80% of the training coin here. Hikers and trail runners tend to lack in single leg strength, glute strength, and core strength, so these are the focus areas on both days. Max power work is not included in these General Strength workouts. If you remember our Hierarchy of Athletic Development, that’s a Layer 3 quality in our system, and you must earn the right to do that.

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Outdoor-Based Training Plan.

When it comes to the great outdoors, elite levels of strength are not important for elite athletes. However, a strength-like quality called muscular endurance is. The other 80% is your chance to build volume into your system, just like those elite athletes, have fun doing so, and build muscular endurance for your chosen activity. Using our example of 10 training hours per week, we now have 8 hours to play with.

Sample Training Week:

Day 1 – 1 Hour Easy Work
Day 2 – 1 Hour Strength Work
Day 3 – Rest
Day 4 – 1 Hour Strength Work
Day 5 – 2 Hour Easy Work
Day 6 – 2 Hour Moderate Intensity Day 7 – 3 Hour Recovery Work (Walk)

The above sample is a rough guide to how you can map out your whole week to focus on improving your performance. Note how very little high-intensity training is included. ZERO. Let’s adapt it to a plan specific to trail running: Day 1 and Day 5 would be a warm-up then running for the prescribed time at no harder than MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function, or a target heart rate of 180 minus your age). Day 2 and Day 4 would be the two gym-based strength workouts shared earlier. Day 6 would be a muscular endurance-style outdoor workout using a steep hill, ideally with a gradient of between 20% and 50%. Finally, Day 7 would be a gentle outdoor walk to log some recovery miles on your legs in the fresh air. Never underestimate the healing power of a walk!

Day 6 Trail Running Template:
  • Warm-up: Run 30 Minutes at MAF (Heart Rate 180 Minus Age)
  • Main Workout: 15 x 10 Seconds, Steep Uphill Bounding, Full Recovery Between Each
  • Cool-down: Run 30 Minutes at MAF (Heart Rate 180 Minus Age)

The goal of the main workout is to make your legs tired before your breathing shuts you down. Your legs need to be the limitation of your ability to sustain the work, not your lungs. The main workout is flanked by MAF runs to promote volume building and recovery in your legs. This is not about train to exhaustion. It’s moderate intensity that will build strength over time.

The hardest part of this workout is finding a hill that’s steep enough. Several methods exist to increase the muscular load on your legs, including steepness, stride length, and added weight. Without a hill, I’m a big fan of bounding (exaggerating your strides) as it forces you to generate power as you push off the ground. If you were training for another type of activity, say hiking, you’d follow the same principles but, on your Day 6 moderate intensity day, you’d simply add a small amount of weight (two to five kilograms) to your walk, using a weighted vest or rucksack.

Final Thoughts

I love the great outdoors; it’s something I’m extremely passionate about. Training for success outdoors requires an alternative mindset, irrespective of which activity it is. Remembering the 80/20 rule will keep you on the right track. If you train appropriately, you can go out with a full gas tank and a working gauge. The trails will be so much more enjoyable!

-James.

P.S. Leave a comment down below if you have any questions!

Credits

This article first appeared in Issue 2 of Fit Over Thirty Magazine. If you’d like to get our very best content, delivered to your door every month, and be at the forefront of high-performance living, we recommend you upgrade your membership today.

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How to Train for Outdoor Sports and Adventures?

You can apply the Pareto principle to training for the great outdoors by doing your chosen outdoor activity 80% of the time and working out in the gym the remaining 20% of the time. Let’s assume you enjoy hiking and want to improve your speed up a particular hill. If you have 10 hours a week to train, eight hours should be spent hiking and the other two hours will be gym-based workouts.

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How to Train for Outdoor Sports and Adventures [Training Plan]
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How to Train for Outdoor Sports and Adventures [Training Plan]
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Everything you need to do to prepare and train for great outdoor sports and adventures.
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Strength Matters
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