Trekking is the decider in adventure racing

Trekking in adventure racingTrekking is one of adventure racing’s foundation disciplines and arguably is the one that should be given the highest respect. Strengthening your feet, doing the endurance training for the demands of trekking and developing strong navigation skills are key to successful trekking – whether the stage takes two or 36 hours.

All three elements should be trained and trained again.

As adventure racing legend Ian Adamson says in his book, Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing, “Your foot-travel skills may be the most important in your arsenal of talents.”

Why you should build strong feet

Feet adapt to regular punishment by spending time on them in training. There’s no need to hobble through any race, regardless of distance, on fatigued and blistered feet. Conditioning strengthens the muscles of your feet. Regularly spend time on your feet by doing low-intensity social hikes; steadily increase your training distances, as you would with running; and include more intense sessions where you vary (and increase) these parameters. And load the weight in your backpack, which has a profound effect on your feet and biomechanics.

Trekking secret #1

“The best preparation for trekking is trekking,” says Mark Collins, arguably South Africa’s most experienced adventure racer, and in April 2015 is still going strong, preparing logistics and sponsors to race at World Champs with Team Painted Wolf. He competed with McCain Adventure Addicts at Bimbache Extrem in Spain in 2010. “Tatum Prins climbed Platteklip Gorge eight times in one day in the build-up to Bimbache. There could hardly have been better preparation than that for a race in the mountains, and it showed.”

shutterstock trekking decider adventure racing sunset hiker

You gotta do the time to reap the rewards. But who thinks about the time in places like this?! photo Shutterstock

In training we tend to focus on running, which is probably the smallest component of this foot discipline. True to the term ‘trekking’, teams actually walk fast more than they run. “Train walking,” advises experienced adventure racer,  Christo Horn. “Compared to running, different muscles are used and different pressures are exerted on your feet, legs and hips when you walk.”

Ilio-tibial band (ITB) and shin inflammation are common adventure racing injuries. Tommy Booth, a regular road runner, is new to adventure racing and orienteering. “Road running is very different to off-road running,” he says. “I think it is the trickiness of the up-down-left-right-dodge that is more tiring. It requires a lot more concentration and your legs work harder.”

Collins recommends that racers train at moving efficiently through thick bush. “In a lot of races many teams are able to keep pace with the world’s best teams over open ground, even when ascending and descending, but as soon as the terrain becomes technical or overgrown the best teams just open devastating gaps.”

Make or break factor: Navigation

On mountain bikes, roads and paths are obvious route choices, so it’s more difficult for teams to get badly lost. On foot, you can take a race course almost anywhere. So it’s no surprise that it’s usually on hiking stages, especially at night, that navigators make serious mistakes that cost hours, race positions, morale and, possibly, races. For teams chasing podium positions, their trekking performances are crucial. “It is possible to lose races on the bike or paddle; but most races are won on foot,” agrees Collins.

Where the physical disciplines can be trained fairly easily, how can navigators hone their navigational skills? “Adventure racing navigation is different from orienteering but it uses exactly the same interpretation and decision-making processes,” explains Collins. “Just as you prepare for a maths exam by doing maths problems over and over again, I would suggest preparing for the navigational exam of an adventure race by doing as many orienteering races as possible.”

Orienteering events are accessible to beginners and inexpensive to enter, and are held regularly in Cape Town and Gauteng. When night descends, though, everything looks very surreal and it’s easy to miss major topography. Darron Raw, race director of Swazi Xtreme, highlights the perils of navigating at night: “Unlike biking, on foot you have more time to spot visual markers but at night when you can’t see a thing it is a serious challenge to keep track of time and distance.” Good headlamps are as important to trekking as they are to mountain biking. They’re one of several items of kit that can make life a lot easier.

Trekking is arguably more demanding on your body than any of the other disciplines. It is only right that we focus on foot-travel skills – not just running – in training. During races you’ll feel more comfortable physically; you’ll suffer fewer injuries; and you’ll be able to approach long trekking stages with confidence.

Originally published in Go Multi July/August 2009 issue

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About Lisa de Speville

Adventure racing author, athlete and founder of FEAT (Fascinating Expedition ad Adventure Talks) and ar.co.za, Lisa is keenly interested in anything related to outdoor adventure, especially orienteering and trail running.

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