Adventure Racing 101: How to Eat Whatever You Want and Still Lose Weight!

by Bill Gibbons, D.O. President GOALS Adventure Racing Association

Adventure Racing Start

I know that many of you made a resolution to lose weight and get in shape. I know that very few of you have been able to refuse the siren’s call of chocolate chip cookies, chips, or any of the hundreds of high calorie snacks that are easily available. Here’s a plan that lets you eat all of them and as much sugar-based beverages that you can handle.

Spring is here! The great outdoors is calling! Perhaps this will be the year that you take on your first adventure race. But what exactly is that?

Mountain Biking during Adventure Race

In adventure racing teams are given a map where they must navigate from check point to checkpoint. Depending on the race leg, it could be on mountain bike, foot, or canoe. Racers have a certain time limit to complete each course.

You may have seen some of the televised events and thought to yourself “I’m in pretty good shape, I own a bike, and I paddled a canoe before (once, many years ago). How hard can it be?” Well, I’d like to congratulate you on your decision to step up and join in one of the greatest sports on the planet and I’d like to possibly help prevent you from making one of the biggest mistakes of your life. As a race director and a racer, I’m here to give you some great advice. First and foremost, don’t underestimate these races!

Adventure races can be grouped into three main categories: sprint, adventure race, and expedition race. The divisions, as you can probably guess are based on the length of the course and the time available to complete the course. The level of skill required of the racers increases as well. That means that you may not want to register for an expedition race (3 + day non-stop events) as your first go at it.

Paddling during Adventure Race

Sprint races and one-day races are where most people start and they can enjoy a fulfilling career as an adventure racer without ever taking on an expedition-length race. The level of training required to be competitive in a one-day race will have you ready to compete at any level.

You are fortunate to live an area rich with adventure racing. There are events in your local area that offer anything from 3-hour beginner races to 24+ hour races.

Adventure races are probably the only events that are designed based on how many teams will finish the course. The combination of athletic activities, challenges, and terrain can wipe out even trained athletes. The best athletes are not always the winners. It is the teams that work together, make keen navigational decisions, and move quickly together that succeed in these events.

There will always be some separation among the more experienced racers, the novice racers, and the newbie racers. But there are ways that you can prepare yourself to be ready to take advantage of another team’s misjudgment. First, you need to prepare yourself to be in the best shape that you can achieve on race day. Once you choose a race, check out the website or send a message to the race director, we get them all the time, and try to find out as many details as possible. We try to give racers as much information as possible without giving away the course.

Climbing during Adventure Race

Get yourself to the point that you can cover the distance of the race in your training leading up to the race. If a sprint race covers 5 miles on foot, 10 miles on a bike, and 5 miles on the water, I would train at least two of those events during each workout. Doing “brick” and “trick” workouts is one of the best ways to see where your weaknesses are.

It might be hard to get your team to commit to this type of time commitment. What we’ll end up doing, if our schedules don’t match for a long workout, is meet up with a group that’s just planning a run and then coordinate meeting with a different group for a bike ride (sometimes road, sometimes mountain). In no time at all, you’ll be leading the pack in each group and possibly even motivate some people to join you in later races.

In order to do all of this training, you need to learn to eat on the go, just like during a race. You should sample different combinations of energy bars and gels, electrolyte replacements, and sports drinks. Everyone’s body is different, and it will react differently to these supplements. The last thing you need during a race is uncontrollable diarrhea or crippling stomach pains. If you’re in a 24+ hour race, you can either have a physically exhausting time or an unbelievably dreadful time.

Next, you need to make sure you have all the required gear. Each race has a gear list. Most of the mandatory gear is safety gear, so trying to get away with not buying or bringing those items could cost you more than time on the clock. Know how to use everything. Teams are responsible for their own bike repairs, minor first aid, and possibly major first aid until emergency personnel arrive.

Punching during Adventure Race

Bike repairs are one of the biggest reasons that teams drop out of a race. Learn how to replace inner tubes, even if you have tubeless tires, adjust brakes, fix chains, straighten derailleurs, tighten chain rings, and replace pedals. I’ve seen all of these mechanical failures occur, even to elite teams in big races.

Now that you and your team are able to go, you need to know where to go. Navigation is the next hurdle that can crush a team. There is nothing more frustrating than wandering around in the middle of who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. The “best” is to then discover that you are making great time headed in absolutely the wrong direction. As Steve Herzog, who has completed many adventure races of all lengths so keenly phrased it, “Don’t start making the terrain match the map. The map has to match the terrain.” That is, you can convince yourself and your whole team that you’re headed in the right direction when, in fact, you keep getting this funny feeling that you’re not. Confirm where you are before you move out. It’s much better than back tracking or dropping out.

At this point you have your team all fired up. Even the ones that you had to drag to do their first race are hungry for more. It’s early enough in the season to sign up for more races. In fact, there are several local races within the next few months all within your geographic region.

Running during Adventure Race

There might be some additional gear to pick up but the wahoo event that goes with it will be well worth it. Whether it’s rappelling, ascending, white-water swimming, river boarding, or canyoneering, you will never forget the thrill that these things add to a race.

The best part about longer races, other than the sleep deprivation, is that the running is almost non-existent. Instead, you need to be able to keep moving at a brisk pace with a loaded pack on your back. You’ll need more survival skills than fast-twitch muscles when you get into multi-day races. But the reward is equal to the challenge. These races are held in some of the most beautiful places in the country, if not the world.

So, the next time your family and friends give you “the look” when you’re reaching for another slice of pizza or a half a bag of chips, tell them you’re “training” for an adventure race. Better yet, get off your butt and sign up for one. After all, adventure racing means, never having to drink light beer!


Bill GibbonsBill Gibbons, DO, FAWM, along with his wife, Anne, founded the GOALS Adventure Racing Association in 2003. GOALS-ARA, a 501c3 organization, conducts training clinics, organizes competitive adventure races, and fields an elite team that travels nationally and internationally to compete. Dr. Gibbons is an invited lecturer for topics in wilderness medicine, endurance nutrition, sports-related injury, and osteopathic manipulative therapy.