How to: Prep For Your First Adventure Race

Expert tips on getting into this fast-growing sport

Adventure racing may be the ultimate outdoor test. Frequently combining three or more disciplines—including trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and more—with orienteering and navigation, races take place all over the world in formats ranging from two- to six-hour “sprints” to 10-day expeditions spanning hundreds of miles. Coed teams are common, sleep is rare, and merely competing is often considered a victory.

And with adventure racing’s focus split between endurance and technical skills, the sport makes the perfect bridge for many already committed to a single discipline and looking to try something new—seasoned runners, cyclists or even avid kayakers may find a niche in adventure racing.

But one thing that’s certain: If you’re hoping to tackle your first race, preparation is key—even for a veteran outdoorsperson. So before you jump headfirst onto a team, heed this advice from Darran Wells—NOLS instructor, assistant professor at Central Wyoming College’s Outdoor Education & Leadership school and author of the NOLS Guide to Wilderness Navigation—who's competed in more than a dozen adventure races.

Match your training with your goal.
The amount of time and effort you put into training for an adventure race depends on whether you’re just trying to finish or hoping to be competitive. Regardless, “treat your race like a marathon or a 100-mile mountain biking race in terms of intensity of training,” Wells says. He recommends having run a marathon (or at least a half) before attempting an adventure race. If you start training in decent shape, six months of prep—incorporating all the disciplines involved—should be enough.

Learn the technical skills first.
The middle of the race is not the place to try out crucial skills such as knot-tying or advanced paddling techniques, as many find out the hard way. “You don’t want to go out if you’ve never been in a kayak,” Wells says. “You need to have tested yourself both endurance-wise and skills-wise before you try to put it all together in a race."

Know your team.
In adventure racing’s nascent years, people would train alone, meeting their teammates for the first time minutes before a race. But “that’s a recipe for disaster,” Wells says. “The team dynamic is maybe the most important aspect in your team’s success or failure,” he adds, which is why it’s necessary to train with teammates. Establish a routine, and learn how each person responds to stress—whether it’s from a tougher-than-expected obstacle or the lack of sleep, this factor can make or break your experience. (Here, more tips on assembling the best team.)

Have at least two good navigators.
“Probably the hardest thing for rookies, skills-wise, is learning to navigate,” Wells says, and having only one navigator can spell disaster. (What happens if the only one gets sick?) “You really need two navigators on each team, but on the best teams, every member of the team is a good orienteer.”

Opt for ultralight, technical gear.
An adventure race is not a mountaineering trip—so the axes and crampons that might be too light (and more easily breakable) for technical ascents are perfect for races. Plus, less weight will save you energy and rev your speed.

Know your body’s food needs.
Everyone has different dietary and caloric needs. “Learn what kinds of food, and in what amounts, your body needs to perform well for hours and hours on end,” Wells says, adding that training for an endurance race can help you get in tune with your food intake. Still, there are certain constants when it comes to what to eat during adventure races:

Have energy gels and bars in shorter races, along with real food in longer ones.
In sprints, you can get by on energy gels and bars. (Check out The Five Best Energy Bars here.) “But after about 24 hours, they just start to be gross,” Wells says. In long adventure races, MREs (meals ready to eat) and canned soup are popular—anything that can be opened quickly and gulped down. Don’t neglect carbs—they’ll give you the energy to stay up all night (if necessary) and help keep you from bonking. “When we were racing in the mountains,” Wells says, “we’d take ramen, put it in double ziplock bags, put water in the bag, and put them inside our layers to heat them up.”

Send socks.
Basic rules of outdoor clothing apply: wear sweat-wicking layers, avoid cotton. And if you’re smart, for races that have gear boxes for different legs, send a fresh pair of socks to each, Wells advises. Your feet will thank you.