How to Prepare for your First Adventure Race

Preparing for your first adventure race requires a three pronged approach:

  1. You must prepare your body.
  2. You must learn key information and prepare your attitude.
  3. You must learn important skills.

Contrary to what most people think, the physical preparation is actually the least important part of adventure race training for a beginner racer. The other two categories will influence how well you do in a race much more than your physical conditioning.

In this page, I'm assuming that you are looking to do a sprint adventure race and have little to no experience. The information here is mainly meant as an outline. Links to other areas of this site will flesh out the information that you will need in order for your race experience to be as fun and fulfilling as possible. Speaking of fun, your goal in your first few adventure races should be just that - to have fun. If you win, then that's just icing on the cake. Otherwise you can try to complete against the top athletes after you learn the ropes if you want. But don't set yourself up for disappointment by going into your first race expecting to place near the top. There's just too much that you'll need to learn from actual race experience.

Preparing Your Body

First thing's first - to complete a sprint adventure race does not require you to be a great athlete, or even a good one. If your goal is to win the race or place very highly then that's another story. You will need to be well conditioned to do so. But to survive a race and even place in the top third does not mean that you must be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. To put it more simply, adventure racing is not primarily a physical sport. Oh sure many adventure racers are great athletes, but many aren't. And the ones that have the skills and knowledge they need are kicking the asses of some damn good athletes out there.

Many of you are probably skeptical of that claim, but think of it this way. If you've read any more on this site, you already know that there are no course markings in an adventure race and that it's up to each team to figure out the best route from checkpoint to checkpoint. Well there are a lot of good navigators out there who don't move real fast, but who can efficiently pick out the best route between points without much wasted effort. On the other hand, there are a lot of really fast bad navigators out there doing adventure races. And one thing bad navigators tend to do is go the wrong direction. They'll figure out what they did eventually and make their way to the checkpoint, but often not without having to double back to the previous checkpoint to reset their bearings and probably stop moving several times just to analyze the map. After a while the "slow" team is already at the next checkpoint and the "fast" team still hasn't made forward progress. We say it all the time in adventure racing and orienteering, but that doesn't make it any less true: the faster you run, the faster you'll run right off the map.

I don't want to underemphasize the physical conditioning aspect of adventure racing as it's important that you don't get right up off the couch and try to do a race without any training. The point I'm trying to make is that it's a lot different from most typical endurance sports like cycling or running. In those sports, the best athlete almost always wins. If you are a middle of the pack runner in a running race, some spectacular athlete is going to come out and beat you pretty much 100% of the time. But adventure racing is not like that. Some of the best adventure racers I've known are middle of the pack runners or cyclists.

But enough of that, I'm sure you're convinced. What DO you actually need to be able to do athletically to complete a sprint adventure race? Well let's look at each of the three major disciplines in a race individually.

Running/Trekking

You really don't need to run at all. You should certainly be able to comfortably hike (we often use the terms hiking and trekking interchangeably in adventure racing) at least 6 or 7 miles at a fast walking pace. You might cover that much ground on foot in a sprint race but not much more. Of course you'll have to bike and paddle as well so if a 6 mile hike leaves you spent, then you are not quite there yet. If you are a runner then even better. You will allow more wiggle room for mistakes the faster you move. If you are a novice navigator then you will need to be a little bit faster. You will cover more ground than a good navigator because you will take less efficient routes, and you will spend more time looking at the map and not moving.

Mountain Biking

You should be able to comfortably ride 20-25 miles without taking many breaks on a mountain bike. You don't need to ride particularly fast. Even an 11 or 12 mph average on the road will cut it. Slower still on trails is fine. Most sprint adventure races will involve a mixture of trail and paved road so you won't need to be an excellent singletrack rider.

Paddling

Most paddling legs in sprint races are fairly short. Occasionally at the high end you will get a flat-water paddling leg that is 5 miles or so or a river segment that is 7+ miles. You should do at least a paddle trip or two of that length before attempting a race. Many adventure racers lack paddling experience simply because they don't have boats. And really that's ok if you aren't an expert paddler at this stage but you should have at least a small amount of experience to make sure you're comfortable in the water and that your upper body can handle the work comfortably.

In addition to training the individual disciplines, you should also think about doing some multi-sport training sessions. Run(or walk)-bike combinations are good to do as these will be the two disciplines you will be spending the most time doing in an adventure race. Ideally before doing your sprint race, you will have undertaken one training session of at least 3 hours of fairly continuous activity. 4 is even better. These are the minimum physical requirements I feel you should have before you will be able to survive a race, but I'm assuming that you also have a good grasp on the skills and attitude aspects.

Preparing your Mind

This is one of the most important parts of your adventure race training. In order to learn all that you need to know about racing before attempting your first sprint race, you'll need to carefully read every bit of information provided by the race organization. And you'll need to study this web site!

You'll also need to go into an adventure race with the right mindset. Part of that will come from simply learning about what adventure racing is. For many new racers who might be used to triathlon, it's a bit of a shock to find out that there's information they will need that might not be available until the race starts. You have to embrace the adventure aspect to have the best experience! So you don't know how far exactly you'll be traveling and what order you'll be doing events in. So what? Think of your team as explorers going out on an expedition into the unknown or a family in the old Oregon Trail video game. You'll take what comes and deal with it and keep moving on. You know there will be challenges along the way, you just don't quite know what they are yet. Someone might get dysentery or you might get attacked by Indians. But above all else, you must remain mentally sharp. If you allow yourself to get frustrated when things don't go perfectly, then you will only compound your mistakes.

Before you do an adventure race, I want you to repeat the following phrase to yourself, "I will get lost, I will make mistakes, I probably won't finish the entire course, and I definitely won't win, but I will have fun!

Preparing your Skills

Training your adventure racing skill set is a lifelong process. There will always be opportunity for improvement for even the best adventure racers. Many beginning adventure racers are just starting to develop their technical skills, which is fine as racing itself is a great way to improve your skills, but there are some minimum requirements you should have before attempting a race. This outline will link to other areas of this site (when finished) where you can find out what exactly you need to learn.

  • Orienteering - The most important skill for adventure racing is also the hardest to learn and master. Keep in mind your team only needs ONE navigator. It's a good idea to go to at least one orienteering meet before doing an adventure race. If not, then make sure you understand the basic concepts of orienteering and topo maps and try to at least take a hike with a map in hand and follow your route on the map. To some extent, most beginner adventure racers are also beginner navigators so don't get too hung up on this. You'll learn a lot in your first adventure race.
  • Trail Biking - Many people who own mountain bikes never actually take them out on a singletrack mountain biking trail. If this is you, you'll want to consider doing so a couple times before your first adventure race. That way if the race does end up having some technical biking, you'll be more prepared. To be fair, most sprint races don't have much if any technical biking. You can take your chances here if you want. Then if the race does end up having some biking that you're uncomfortable with, simply dismount and walk the section which should be fairly small.
  • Bike Repair - Mainly you just want to know how to quickly fix a flat tire. This is something you can easily practice at home so no excuses! It's probably good to know a few other basics like how to quickly get your chain back on the chain ring if it falls off.
  • Paddling - Essentially you'll just want to be able to make the boat go where you want it to go and be able to not fall out or tip the boat!
  • Rope skills - Learn the basic idea of how rappelling works. You don't have to have any experience. Knowing how to put on a standard climbing harness will also help which you can learn by going to a climbing gym if there's one in your area. Otherwise, most race organizations are very beginner friendly in races when it comes to climbing skills. My first rappel was actually done in an adventure race and the ropes course staff was very friendly in quickly teaching me what to do.