Training for the Outdoors, Simplified
Updated: May 21
We all want to be in better shape and be able to excel at the outdoor sports we love. Plus no one complains if they look better in their underpants. If you are an experienced athlete then this article may have some tips for you but for those who are relatively new to fitness, it can act as a framework to build your fitness routine.
But what does this mean as far as what to actually do?
There are so many people out there promoting different approaches to fitness that it can get confusing. Most people who are marketing themselves as trainers or fitness influencers have a vested interest in making you believe they have a secret formula. If it was simple, which it is for the most part, then why would you spend your money on their secret program?
And when I say simple, I don't mean easy. It is called "working out" for a reason. You need to treat your fitness like it is a job. You get back what you put into it. If you showed up for your job only once a week and half-assed it when you were there, you wouldn't get very far. Consistent hard work will get you most of the way there.
Don't get me wrong, a coach or trainer can be helpful in planning out your year or keeping you on track but there are no secret formulas or programs. Sound programming is appropriate loads, volume and frequency cycled with adequate rest. If anything sounds too good to be true then it is.
When it comes to fitness improvement there are many ways to skin a cat. Just think about the actual tools: just a few include barbells and dumbells, calisthenics, kettlebells, weighted clubs or maces, resistance bands, med balls, and sandbags. All of these are useful training tools but you can attain a high level of fitness using any or all of these. None are magic.
What to Be Cautious Of?
Anyone who says they have secret or ancient information
Anyone who says that their tool of choice is the best or only way to fitness success
Anyone making claims that sound too good to be true
There are no hidden secrets that successful fitness people are keeping from you.
Other than the performance-enhancing drugs. They really work and very few people come out and say they take them. If you see someone who looks like a superhero or does a mind-blowing transformation in 8 weeks then special supplements may be involved. You can make a lot of progress naturally but it is a slow process so don't expect you will go from couch potato to Thor in just a few months.
Fitness needs to become a lifestyle, not a quick fix when you are unhappy with what you see in the mirror. Your fitness journey is like moving a mountain of sand with a shovel and wheelbarrow. Each day doesn't seem to be making a dent but over the course of a year, the mountain of sand will get smaller.
What is Fitness?
This is a nebulous term because fitness means different things to different people. Athletically, I define it as being physically prepared to perform your sport at the highest level you are capable of at that time. Fitness can always improve. This is why you will find athletes get better year after year. Of course, as we age our maximum potential decreases after 30 but since so few of us have ever been at our full genetic potential we can often keep improving into our 40s and 50s.
Crossfit defines the attributes of fitness as cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
As a hiker, your endurance and stamina would be at the top with strength coming in next. You need only adequate balance, accuracy, agility, and coordination to not trip over your feet and fall over. Your peak speed, power, and flexibility won't make much difference.
A rock climber, on the other hand, would benefit from more strength, power, and flexibility with enough stamina to complete the route.
Beyond having a base level of endurance and strength for health and longevity reasons, how far you go with any facet will be dictated by your sport and your goals.
While I don't disagree with the breakdown, it is more complicated than necessary for most people.
That's why I've streamlined the qualities of fitness down to 4 umbrella qualities.
Key Qualities Of Fitness
You need both the maximum strength and power required for your sport plus the muscular endurance to be able to complete a task without physically falling apart. This is best trained with a combination of strength training and doing your sport.
Being stronger also reduces the risk of injury. Strength training makes both the muscles and joints stronger. Just be aware that muscles progress much faster than connective tissue so you need to be slow and steady with your training to avoid overuse injuries.
There are a lot of ways to program for strength. There isn't only one way but there are underlying principles that need to present to get stronger. At its foundation, you need to create enough stress to elicit a response. This will usually mean increasing load and pushing the reps until you are close to failure. Light loads done for high reps (over 20) will do a good job of improving muscular endurance but won't increase maximal strength by the same degree.
The strength potential has two main components, muscular and neurological. You can either build bigger muscles or get the muscles you have to fire more efficiently. Depending on the activity you want to improve then it may be a case of trying to improve your power to weight ratio. For rock climbing a bit of extra muscle can make you stronger but too much means you will be too heavy to maximize your performance.
Anything that has you moving your body through space will benefit from being as strong as a possible per pound of body weight. An extreme example would be strong man competitors that can deadlift 1000 lbs but weighs 400 lbs. They are optimized for their sport but aren't going to do well running long distances or climbing mountains due to having to move such a larger body.
When creating a training program it should include the following movement patterns. While I have been using exercises from these categories for a long time in my programming, I stole the list from Dr. John Rusin as he summarizes the main human movement patterns in an easy-to-understand way.
Breakdown of the Movement Patterns
This is using your upper body to push weights or yourself from a bent arm position to a straight arm.
Prime movers: Chest, shoulders, triceps,
Secondary muscles: Abdominals, obliques, traps
Effective Pushing Exercises
Push-ups - from flat to handstand. It can be done on gymnastic rings from different angles.
Dips - parallel bars or gymnastic rings
Horizontal Press - Barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell. It can be done at different angles.
Overhead Press - Barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, odd objects like medicine balls
This is using the upper body to pull weights or yourself from a straight arm to bent.
Prime movers: Lats, upper back muscles, biceps, forearms, rear deltoids
Secondary muscles: Lower back, rotator cuff, core
Effective Pulling Exercises
Rows - Barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance bands, bodyweight on bar or rings.
Pull-ups/Chin-ups - Straight bar, gymnastic rings, hangboard, assisted on a machine or with bands.
Pull-downs - Can be done with a pull-down machine or using resistance bands attached to a high point.
Face-pulls - Cable machines or bands.
Lower body movement involves squatting down to parallel or below and standing back up using both legs at the same time. Movement involves bending both the knees and hips but knee flexion is dominant. The best real-world example is getting off the toilet.
Prime movers: Quads, glutes, groin muscles
Secondary muscles: Hamstrings, lower back, calves,
Effective squatting Exercises
Back Squat - Barbell, safety squat bar, cambered bar
Front Squat - Barbell, kettlebells
Zercher Squat - Barbell, sandbag, med ball
Goblet Squat - Kettlebell, dumbbell, med ball
Bodyweight Squat - Weighted vest or loaded backpack can be added for more resistance, Jumping
Box Squat - Same as for back and front squat
Lower body movement that uses one leg at a time in a split stance. Think taking giant steps with the rear knee lowering to the ground.
Primary movers: Quads, glutes
Secondary muscles: Hamstrings, calves, lower back, abs, grip if you have weight in your hands
Effective lunging exercises
Front Lunge - Bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, weighted vest, barbell
Back lunge - Bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, weighted vest, barbell
Rearfoot elevated split squat - Body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells, weighted vest, barbell
Cossack squat - Bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, weighted vest, barbell
One-legged squat - Bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, weighted vest, barbell
Step-ups - Varying height steps, added weight
Sled push - Prowler sled or push a car in neutral
Lower body movement bending forward or hinging at the hip and standing back up. The spine is held neutral, the core is braced, and focus on engaging the glutes to lift. Movement involves bending at both the hip and knees but hip flexion is dominant.
Prime movers: Glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, upper back, grip
Secondary muscles: Quads, calves, core
Effective hinging exercises
Deadlift - Barbell, Trap Bar, Kettlebell, Dumbbell
Romanian Deadlift - Barbell, Kettlebell, Dumbbell
Kettlebell Swing, Clean, and Snatch
Good Morning - Barbell or resistance bands
Hip Thrust/glute bridge - With weight on the hips or single leg
The act of hoisting a weight and moving with it. Trains the whole body and builds fitness that carries over to other activities. Teaches the body to work as a unit and brace against unstable loads. When done for a longer duration they are a very effective conditioning tool to ramp up metabolism and burn a lot of calories.
Prime movers: Core, glutes, calves, hamstrings, shoulders, grip
Effective carry exercises
Farmers Carry - Weight in each hand
Suitcase Carry - Weight in only one hand
Rack Carry - Kettlebell(s) held at shoulder height
Zercher Carry - Weight carried in the crook of the arms like a baby.
Overhead Carry - Weight carried pressed overhead
I suggest picking one each to work on weak points. I do both band pull-aparts and face pulls every time I work my upper body as a shoulder finisher to improve posture and shoulder health.
Abs - Planks, One Arm Planks, Rollouts, Leg Raises
Shoulders - Facepulls, Band Pull Aparts, Lateral Raises
Hamstrings - Leg Curls (can be done with the resistance band wrapped around something solid)
Grip - This is important for climbers. Hangboarding, plate pinches, one arm hangs from a bar
How you structure your program will depend on your goals but for the average outdoors person who wants to be better at hiking then a simple approach is to perform 2-3 full-body workouts per week.
Pick one exercise from each category. Perform 3-5 sets of each exercise for 6-10 reps. If you can do 10 reps add weight and start building up again. Take 1-2 minutes between sets. To speed up workouts you can superset upper and lower body exercises. This means doing a set of each before you take your rest break.
Focus on control and good form. Other than Kettlebell swings which are a momentum exercise, you should be lowering slowly pausing at the bottom, and lifting the weight smoothly. Keep the core engaged and don't let your back arch or round forward.
If you don't have access to much weight then do reps until you are very fatigued and start to see a breakdown in the form rather than true failure. You can make progress with lightweight or bodyweight but it will hard work as you need a lot of reps. It will burn like crazy but will build muscular endurance as well as strength.
Strength Training Tips
Do twice as much pulling as pushing for shoulder health. This can be as simple as adding band pull-aparts and face pulls to the end of every workout upper body workout. 3 sets of 20 reps each will do a lot to balance the shoulders.
Your hamstrings get a lot of work from hinging exercises but adding leg curls, whether with bands or a machine, can do a lot to help with knee pain. The job of the hamstring is to both bend the led and help the glute extend the hip so for balance it is good to train both movements.
Climbers will benefit from doing rollouts and hanging leg raises as this will help with core control and foot placement when climbing overhangs.
Being strong isn't worth much if you get tired walking up the stairs. If you are a hiker or backpacker you need to have the cardiovascular endurance to put on the miles without getting so tired you start stumbling and falling. Endurance is the ability to do a task repeatedly without undue fatigue and it takes putting in the time to build.
To maximize your endurance and stamina you need to train both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Aerobic is processing energy with oxygen. This is the system for long-duration activities.
Anaerobic is without oxygen so it activates for short high-intensity bursts of 10-60 seconds. After a minute the aerobic system picks up the load. The two systems are always working, it is just a case of which has a higher proportion of energy production.
Roughly 80% of your conditioning should be spent on relatively low-intensity aerobic work to build your aerobic base with about 20% devoted to higher intensity intervals or conditioning circuits.
I like to base my conditioning on what my sport is. When I raced bicycles then most of the training was on a bike while now much of my training is weighted hikes as my backpacking is more important to me now. Your conditioning is specific to the activity you do. While anything will help for overall fitness, the training principle of SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) roughly says you will get good at what you do.
During the Corona lockdown, I am doing 6 moderate aerobic sessions per week of about 60 minutes, 2 sessions of 10-15 hill sprints, and 10-minute conditioning circuits at the end of my strength training sessions. I have been training for a long time and had lots of recovery time since I wasn't currently working.
For someone new to this as a simple plan of 3 steady-state cardio sessions of 30 minutes combined with 1 high-intensity interval session per week will do wonders to your fitness.
Steady-State Aerobic Conditioning
This is sustained work like cycling, running, or hiking at a moderate effort level. This is an easy pace you can hold for long periods.
If you have a heart rate monitor then you should aim for 55-70% of your maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes. Gradually increase the length of your workouts up to 90 minutes. I aim for at least 3 sessions like this per week. Once a week a longer effort of up to 3 hours would be effective if you are striving to do really long hiking or biking trips.
If you are a hiker then more of your time will be spent on aerobic conditioning. A rock climber still needs aerobic training just not as much as a lot of training time will be devoted to doing their actual sport. Being aerobically fit will improve recovery from hard training sessions allowing you to train more over time.
Your body recovers from aerobic work fairly quickly so it is fine to do it more frequently if your schedule permits.
If hiking and backpacking are the activity that you are training for then I would suggest weighted hikes. You need an internal frame pack with a hip belt to comfortably carry the load. Start with a backpack with 5 lbs and add 5 lbs every two weeks until you are up to 35 percent of your body weight. This is usually heavier than your pack when backpacking so trips will feel easy by comparison.
To add load to your pack you can use weight plates, two-liter pop bottles full of water, or bags of rice or sand. A two-liter bottle of water weighs 4.4 lbs.
When doing weighted hikes I suggest using hiking poles as you are top-heavy so it will help with stumbles and stability.
High-Intensity Interval Training
Interval training is a hard effort followed by easier recovery periods. This can be done running, cycling, rowing, pushing a prowler sled, or even swinging a kettlebell. The key is doing bursts of something hard followed by a recovery period of easy effort.
Currently, my favorite type of interval is hill sprints. They are super hard but since I'm running uphill there isn't a lot of impacts compared to running on level ground. I found a trail near my house with a steep hill about 40 meters long.
A workout starts off with a walk to get there and a warm-up of squats and lunges to get my legs loose. My first couple of sprints are done at only about 70% effort as a further warm-up. Once to the top of the hill, my recovery is the time it takes to walk down. By the third interval, I'm giving it all I've got. My legs and lungs burn. I then repeat this 10-15 times and then walk home. Simple but effective.
If you want to try hill sprints then look for a grass hill or trail. Toboggan hills can be great for this. Start with 5-6 intervals and build up from there.
If you are doing your intervals on a piece of exercise equipment then you can do 30 seconds hard/ 30 seconds easy. Do this for 10-15 repeats. Not counting warm-up that is a 10-15 minute workout. If you aren't huffing and puffing and dripping with sweat you aren't going hard enough.
When doing intervals indoors on a treadmill or exercise bike it is good to get a fan blowing on yourself to help with cooling as you don't have the breeze you would outdoors.
Intervals are effective but demanding so you want to limit yourself to once or twice per week.
I add these metabolic finishers to the end of my strength workouts to get the blood pumping and burn some extra calories. They build GPP (General Physical Preparedness) and improve mental toughness as they are uncomfortable. Over time these will help increase your work capacity leading to the ability to do more work and recover from it.
When creating these circuits I suggest picking exercises that use large muscles and get the body moving through varied planes of motion to increase the overall energy demand. Avoid exercises that have a high skill or balance component as you will be more likely to get injured when you get fatigued.
Here are a few examples of circuits I have found effective. You can create as many variations as you like but try to cycle them on a biweekly basis so you can track your progress and strive to beat the previous workout's workload.
10 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible)
20 Kettlebell Swings
15 Goblet Squats
10 Minute AMRAP
10 Walking Lunges ( Per Leg)
20 Body Weight Squats
20 Glute Bridges
10 Minute AMRAP
Exercises are done with a Macebell or Sledgehammer
20 Barbarian Squats
10 360 Swings per side
10 Gravediggers per side
10 Minute Ladder
Do 1 rep of each exercise for round one, 2 reps for round two, 3 reps for round three until the timer runs out. Try to get more overall reps each time you do the workout. Once you get to 10 reps per exercise, work your way back down to one rep. This will total 100 reps per exercise. To mix it up the squat can be substituted with a kettlebell swing.
Body Weight Squats - Do jumping variation if you want to make it harder
Pullups or body rows
Mobility is the range of motion you can move into with control. Extreme flexibility is of little use if you don't have strength and control in those end ranges of motion.
The combination of training, age, and lifestyle can leave use stiff so adding some form of daily mobility practice will go a long way to making you more limber. Make sure you are warmed up before doing any stretching as cold muscles can get injured
I will work on exaggerated squats, lunges, and halos (using both hands to move a kettlebell or mace around the head). These do a good job of keeping the hips and shoulders moving well. Additionally, I will stretch after strength training.
A mix of dynamic movement, stretching and soft tissue work with foam rollers and lacrosse balls can help you open up the tight spots.
If you want to outsource your mobility work then consider taking a yoga class a few times a week.
If you have an area that is tight or hurts lookup Smashwerx on Youtube. Great videos for just about every joint for mobility and pain management.
This is working on your specific sport. The goal is to improve efficiency with better technique. In training you want things to be harder for a better training load whereas while doing your sport you want to find every way to make it easier. Think of training with a pack heavier than you carry on a trip as an example.
If you are a backpacker it will mean going on weighted day hikes with all of your gear. Learning navigation, picking your way through rugged trails, and getting your hydration and nutrition dialed in.
Rock climbers will work on technique while climbing whether inside or out. How to use holds, use your feet, create body tension, and move efficiently are all skills to strive to improve. Route finding or reading so you can move smoothly so you have enough strength left in the tank when you get to the crux.
By doing your sport you will be getting some physical training benefits while also improving your mental game. This is where a sport-specific coach can help you with both your skills and your mental game.
Key Training Principles
There are many scientific training principles but these four are the most important to seeing improvement. I'm a big believer in keeping it simple.
Training and healthy eating need to part of your lifestyle. Improvements in fitness come slowly but if you add up those slow improvements over time you will see a substantial difference. The key is to keep at it. Put in your time, do the work, and focus on performance over aesthetics.
2. Progressive Overload
The key to long-term progress is regular small increases in load. This can be adding weight, reps, duration, shortening rest periods, going faster, or doing more volume.
A number of small increases over time add up to big improvements.
This means you don't train the same all year long. The yearly schedule is broken up into phases based on your goals and the time of year.
For example, a rock climber who wants to maximize their outdoor climbing can focus on maximum strength for a couple of months during the winter and then transition into a phase working on power(how quickly you express that strength) and muscular endurance before the outdoor season starts. During the season hard training will be limited to mid-week so there is enough time to recover for the outdoor climbing on the weekend.
Sometimes this is done to just vary the stress so you don't become stale and overworked by doing the same thing all the time. Don't just do the same thing year-round. If all you are doing is going heavy all the time your body can get pretty beaten up.
You get good at what you do. A heavy powerlifting program won't be the best to get you ready to hike. You need to have a program that stimulates adaptions that are similar to your sport plus have the training needed to balance out any overuse.
For example, step-ups with weight train one-legged strength and balance which is needed for mountain hiking. Face pulls strengthen the upper back and shoulders to help with postural issues that can come from a loaded pack and forward reach with your poles. Whereas cycling won't carry over to backpacking very well as it isn't load-bearing.
Keep this in mind when creating your program.
The Wrap Up
Fitness is both complicated and simple. There are a thousand variations that will work but at the heart, it is consistent hard work over time that will get you the lion's share of your progress.
Don't think you can get in shape quickly. If you are out of shape or overweight you took some time to get there so it will take some time to undo it and progress in the direction you want.
Stick with it, focus on the quality basics, eat good food, and don't fall for get-fit-quick schemes. Do this over time and you will be amazed by what you can accomplish.