Your guide to adventure sports
Adventure sports come in many shapes and forms, including dry land activities such as hiking, trail running, mountain biking, cycling, cross-country skiing and rollerblading; and water-based sports such as surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding waterskiing and canoeing and kayaking.
Triathlons and extreme adventure racing endurance events — some involving teams, and some solo — which started with New Zealand’s Coast to Coast event in 1980, include a combination of outdoor sports and have gained momentum in the past decade. There are now 50 extreme adventure races in Australia, and in New Zealand there is a Secondary School Adventure Racing Championship.
Apart from endurance, these adventure activities require a solid base of balance, agility, co-ordination, and core strength — all important parts of the fitness equation that facilitate a quality lifestyle yet for years have been grossly underplayed.
Seekers of total, holistic fitness need to get beyond the shiny chrome-plated weight machines housed in fitness centres, the swimming pools packed with churning lap swimmers, and the busy city streets we pound on our training runs. For these other valuable fitness benefits, plus fresh air and changing scenery, you need to exercise outdoors.
Kayaking, for example, offers a rare combination of physical and spiritual benefits that few other indoor or city-based sports can: paddling through calm, pristine waters while observing aquatic wildlife and scenic coastline, refreshing the soul of even the most burnt-out city dweller. And later, when you haul the kayak from the water, the feeling of fatigue from the paddling offers a tangible sense of accomplishment that still somehow refreshes you.
Likewise, the glowing memory of the beautiful scenery and the friendly people we meet while hiking on bush trails is something that sees us into our Monday morning work schedule in a more relaxed frame of mind.
Getting fit for adventure sports
Fitness for adventure sports requires balance, co-ordination and agility, a strong core musculature, aerobic fitness and muscular strength. For the extreme endurance adventure sports, a sound practical knowledge of endurance racing nutrition is essential.
|Balance, co-ordination & agility
|Develop these to be efficient and safe in your adventure sport
|Strengthen your core musculature||Maintain your posture and torque when exercising for hours, without fatiguing
|Pre-event and during-event nutrition
|Establishing a correct fuelling protocol is critical for maximum adventure racing performance
|Aerobic fitness||Develop your cardiovascular endurance enough to sustain activity for hours at a time|
|Muscular strength and power||Have enough strength to provide a reserve for dealing with emergencies
Developing balance, co-ordination and agility
Outdoor adventure sports rely heavily on an interesting trio of skills: balance, co-ordination and agility. Whether you surf, hike, kayak, cycle, ski or rollerblade, all these activities require high to advanced levels of these skills to enjoy them to the full.
Without balance, you would fall off the surfboard, trip when hiking, fall over when skiing, cycling or rollerblading, and tip over when paddling. Balance is the ability to maintain equilibrium while in a stationary position or while in motion, and to react quickly to gravity and changes in terrain (such as sloping trails) or sudden large waves that may appear to the kayaker and surfer.
Balance is closely linked to co-ordination, where you need to use multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously and smoothly while performing an action such as hiking over a rocky stream bed or on logs, or careening down a mountain on a bike without losing control.
Without agility, you risk injury while performing your adventure sports. The ability to rapidly change position in space while you are moving, especially in response to unstable surfaces, and being able to recover without falling when you slip, is the third part of the outdoor exercise triad that needs to be developed.
Mechanisms for balance, co-ordination and agility
These three skills rely heavily on nervous system reflexes that we use when we move, and in emergency situations like when we suddenly slip.
Joint kinaesthetic receptors, located on your joints, sense changes in the angles at your joints, and the speed of change in these movements, and send messages to the nervous system telling your muscles how to respond.
Golgi Tendon Organs sense how much a muscle is being stretched by the force on the tendon and, if over-stretched, inhibit the muscle from contracting. Finally, muscle spindles detect how much a muscle is being stretched and determine whether you should relax that muscle or contract it tightly to prevent further damage.
Improving balance, co-ordination and agility
There are myriad exercises to work on these aspects of fitness, which, although challenging, are a lot of fun. Equipment for training balance, co-ordination and agility include the BOSU Balance Trainer, Swiss Ball, Rocker Boards, Body Blades, Balance Beams, Slide Boards, Balance Pads, Balance Steps and several other pieces of equipment.
These devices are commonly found in physiotherapy clinics and widely used in fitness clubs, and you can also order them by mail. There isn’t space here to describe the hundreds of exercises you can perform on these pieces of equipment, so I’ll focus on the popular BOSU Balance Trainer, which offers a nice variety of exercises that are easily learned.
The BOSU will help you stay better balanced and stabilised on rough, uneven surfaces, when changing direction and for emergency movements. In addition to improving balance, co-ordination and agility, the BOSU can be used to strengthen your core muscles, which are very important for outdoor sports activities.
The core consists of the muscles of the abdominal region and lower back, and the muscles that stabilise and support your spine, including the spinal erectors, latissimus dorsi, gluteals and trapezius.
The core is important because it’s the hinge for all movement that takes place in the human body. The core muscles may be the prime movers in an action, such as bending forwards or backwards, or the core may simply support and stabilise your trunk while other muscle groups are working, such as the shoulder muscles or arms.
Weak core muscles cause your trunk to fatigue early, which means your balance, co-ordination and agility will deteriorate rapidly, so you won’t be able to do your hiking, surfing, cycling etc for very long or very efficiently.
The BOSU Balance Trainer is a blue rubber dome-shaped platform like the hemispherical upper third of a Swiss Ball with a flat black rubber base 63.5cm in diameter.
The name BOSU is an acronym standing for “BOth Sides Up”, meaning the platform can be used lying flat on its base in a stable position or turned upside down and used as an unstable platform for other more demanding exercises. When lying on its base it’s more stable and lower to the ground than the Swiss Ball and is thus easier to use by beginners, as it doesn’t require as much balance and skill as the round Swiss Ball.
Here are some fun and challenging BOSU exercises to improve your core strength, balance, agility and co-ordination. It will take you several sessions to become comfortable and efficient with these exercises, but if you persist, they’ll become much smoother. As you adapt to them, hold the position longer (if it’s a static exercise) or perform more repetitions with light handweights. These exercises are best done in bare feet. While they are specific to the BOSU ball as described, they can be adapted to whatever equipment you are using.
Squat (core strength, balance, co-ordination)
Turn the BOSU upside-down with flat side on top. Step carefully onto the centre of the BOSU and get your balance, legs shoulder width apart. Slowly squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then straighten your legs. You should feel your gluteals on your backside contracting if you are doing this properly.
Plank (core strength)
Put BOSU flat side up and lower your forearms onto the base with your body straight. Make your hands into fists, thumbs up, and forearms forming a V with the point facing out. Hold your body straight for 30 seconds, three times.
Bridge (core strength)
Put the BOSU round side up and, with your body facing upwards, lower your bent arms behind you to support yourself. Keep your body straight. Hold your body straight (keep backside up, not sagging). Do three repetitions of 30 seconds each.
Bird dog (core strength, balance, co-ordination)
Lie face down on the BOSU (round side up) on your stomach or centre of gravity so you are evenly balanced. Slowly raise your right arm and left leg and then hold them for 10 seconds in this “bird dog” position. Then change arms and legs. Do three or four repetitions on each side.
Balanced abdominal “bicycle” (core strength, balance)
Lie on your low back on the BOSU, round side up, so you are evenly balanced. Hands beside your ears, elbows facing forwards. Slowly bring your left elbow and right knee together. Then cycle back and bring right elbow and left knee together. This will take some effort to balance properly until you get it right.
Lunge (core strength, balance, co-ordination)
Place the BOSU round side up. Face it and place your right foot on the centre of the BOSU. Slowly lower yourself down by bending your knee to a right angle. Slowly straighten your leg. Repeat 10 times with each leg.
Push-ups (core strength, co-ordination)
Place the BOSU flat side up, with round side on floor. Grip the sides of the BOSU tightly with your hands — you’ll see a hand grip on the sides of the base for this. Slowly lower yourself by bending your arms, and then raise yourself by straightening your arms, doing the traditional push-up exercise. If your upper body is not strong enough to do this, start with bent knees.
Reverse abdominal crunch (core strength, co-ordination)
Kneel in front of the BOSU, base up, round side down on floor. Place your forearms in a V position on the base, with fists together. Straighten your legs and trunk, and then raise your backside upwards to a right angle. Slowly lower your backside back down until your trunk is straight again. Repeat 10 times (if you can).
One-leg balance (core strength, balance, co-ordination)
Place the BOSU round side up. Stand with one leg on the centre of the BOSU, slightly bent at the knee. Lean forward, arms extended out in front of you and the other leg straight out behind you for balance. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
Fuelling during adventure races
Many adventure racers will tell you their success comes as much from making the right nutritional decisions before and on race day as doing the right volume and type of training.
If you’ve trained consistently for your adventure race, there’s nothing else you can do to improve on race day. However, your pre-race diet and during-event eating and drinking habits can make a huge difference to your performance. Sound sports nutrition practices can shave minutes from your time or, if not applied correctly, can cause problems that will cost you valuable minutes or hours, or even cause that dreaded DNF (did not finish).
Establish your adventure fuelling protocol
Maintaining an adequate fluid and food intake during an adventure race is as much an art as a science. Experienced racers will tell you the best way you can prepare your gastrointestinal system for the fuelling challenges of these events is by practising during training.
Every athlete has their own special nutritional requirements that they have to establish through trial and error because human taste and absorption rates are highly individualised. In addition, the racer also needs to establish the volume of each foodstuff and drink he or she can handle without adverse side-effects.
The adventure racer has to establish the following:
- What liquid meals work and what do not work by practising eating and drinking while training. Remember that sports drink are usually high in sugar and while they may give you a short term energy boost they are not necessarily long term fuel. Natural alternatives like coconut water are worth looking into.
- What foods you can stomach and what makes you feel nauseous
- A carbohydrate loading protocol that works best for you
- How much you can drink and tolerate without feeling liquid sloshing around in your stomach.
The pre-race diet
Generally, if you maintain a diet of about 60–70 per cent carbohydrates for at least four days (and follow a tapering program for at least a week) before your adventure racing event, you’ll boost the glycogen stores in your liver and muscle tissue to a level about twice as high as during normal training and normal diet. This prolongs your ability to maintain a steady pace before fatiguing.
You can estimate your desired carbohydrate intake more precisely by calculating 8–10g of carbohydrate/kilogram/day. For example, a 72kg runner should take aboard 576–720g of carbohydrates/day.
The pre-race diet at a glance
Nutrition during adventure races
Seasoned ultra-endurance athletes will tell you to eat before you get hungry and drink before you’re thirsty — you need to start eating and drinking very early in the race. The basic rule is, the longer the race, the slower you go and the more you eat.
Start taking in carbohydrates right from the start, and at regular intervals, to help you conserve the glycogen you have previously stored in your muscles and liver, for as long as possible. Also realise that, no matter how good a job you do of refuelling and drinking during an adventure race, you’ll still burn through your stored glycogen towards the end.
How much food should the athlete take in during an adventure race? Lots! Considering runners burn 840–3360kJ (200–800 calories) per hour (depending on size, gender, temperature, terrain, and intensity of race pace) and that adventure races can last 6–24 hours, that’s a lot of grub. A 68kg runner going at a moderate pace for 10 hours can burn 24 or more kilojoules!
A good goal is to take in 1–1.5g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight per hour. For most athletes this will be between 1176kJ and 1764kJ (280 to 420 calories) for a 70kg person per hour. This should include a mix of solids and liquids.
Recent research has found that sports drinks with combinations of the carbohydrates glucose and fructose, or maltodextrin and fructose, can result in reduced fatigue and faster performance. And you can take in up to 90g per hour of these mixes. If you choose to do so however, be aware that you may as well be consuming sugar water and the long term consequences of regularly consuming high levels of sugar, even if you are exercising at a high level, are not good for your body.
Because adventure races are generally at a slower pace (around 60–70 per cent of VO2 max) and often conducted at fast walking pace, more blood will flow to the gastrointestinal tract, enabling faster absorption of food and fluids. Lab studies show that exercise at less than 65 per cent of VO2 max does not interfere with digestion, so the adventure athlete should be able to enjoy more solid, higher-protein and fat-containing foods such as peanut butter sandwiches, biscuits etc.
Most ultra-endurance athletes will stock standard carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruit, watermelon, lightweight fried fruit, bagels, fig bars, energy bars, chocolate bars, cakes, biscuits, jelly beans, pretzels, boiled potatoes, pies and even sandwiches (cheese sandwiches seem to be favourites).
Ideally, you should match your fluid and electrolyte needs with your losses on an hour-by-hour basis. Drinking 16–20 ounces of fluid in the hour before start time can begin this process. After that, you will need to drink between 120ml and 250ml of fluid every 15 minutes. Why the large range in recommended fluid intake? Sweating varies with ambient temperature, humidity and race-pace intensity, gender and individual sweat rates. Generally, men will need more fluid than women because they tend to be larger and lose more sweat over a larger surface area.
Fluid stops at drink stations must be carefully planned and you must ensure that you carry enough fluid between checkpoints. Most people are able to absorb and process one litre of fluid per hour. An easy guide to whether you are hydrating adequately is to check the colour of your urine. If it’s clear, you’re doing well. If it is dark-coloured, start drinking more.
Beware of sports drinks or soft drinks with high concentrations of carbohydrate (sugar), above 10 per cent. They take longer to empty from the stomach. Remember, you want quick clearance.
To gel or not to gel?
Research has not yet shown that gels are absorbed better than standard sports drinks, which have the advantage of already having carbohydrates dissolved in them in the right concentration.
If you prefer sports gels, avoid washing them down with sports drinks, as the overall concentration will be too hypertonic and will draw fluid from your gut, further dehydrating you, lowering your blood volume and making your blood volume more viscous (which makes your heart work harder). Dilute gels with water.
If your adventure race lasts longer than six hours, attention must be paid to electrolyte intake, especially sodium through sports drinks or food, to prevent hyponatremia. This is the third golden nutrition rule for ultra running. Hyponatremia occurs in athletes who take in too much low-sodium fluid (water) or are excessive sweaters.
If your event takes longer than six hours, you’re well advised to experiment with sodium tablets or foods high in sodium, such as potato chips or pretzels. There are as yet no clear-cut guidelines for sodium intake during ultra events, but 200–500mgs/hour is enough to prevent hyponatremia. It is important that you know the sodium content of your drinks, gels, bars and other foods.
An interesting nutritional phenomenon often happens under the stress of ultra-endurance competition: many athletes find they cannot continue to stomach their favourite drink (or foods) throughout the event. Nutritionists refer to this as “flavour fatigue”, meaning you can no longer tolerate your favourite foods or beverages.
To avoid flavour fatigue, prepare and pack several different flavours of your favourite drinks, gels, bars and other foods that have proven tolerable in the past. Different-flavoured drinks should be alternated at checkpoints right through the event so you do not get tired of the same flavour.
Aerobic training and adventure
Extreme-endurance adventure sports and triathlons require the development of balance, co-ordination and agility plus a healthy dose of organic, cardiovascular and aerobic fitness and strong muscles. Poorly conditioned outdoor exercisers fatigue early and are unable to do their activity for very long or get as much enjoyment from it. Maximising your aerobic conditioning is covered elsewhere in this guide.
When it comes to adventure sport, the old dictum remains true: preparation is everything. Getting your body into the right space by improving balance, co-ordination, agility and core strength will allow your body to support you while you engage in the emotional and spiritual gifts that adventure exercise has to offer.
Roy Stevenson has a Masters degree in exercise physiology from Ohio University. He has taught exercise science and nutrition at Seattle University, University of Puget Sound, Highline Community College and Lake Washington Technical College.
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