Building the Backpacking Athlete

Everyone is an athlete. Everyone can be an athlete. Everyone should be an athlete. The minute you start seeing yourself as an athlete, good things happen. Your athletic identity guides you to not just exercise, eat well, and be healthy – but to train for peak performance in your chosen sport or passion pursuit. Almost magically, your behaviors become purpose-driven and meaningful. And your outcomes are 10x’d. 

A quick run-through of the exercises featured in this article!

If you are a regular reader, you know I admire all aspects of human performance. Athletes and artists of every type inspire me. The community here at TLA is an inclusive one in which everyone is celebrated. 

As the title indicates, our focus today is the backpacking athlete. Backcountry performance is a big part of my personal and professional existence. I work with backcountry hunters, hikers, bikers, runners, skiers, climbers, birders, and anyone else that wants to enjoy wild places and live primally. That takes conditioning and preparation for optimal results. 

As you are also well aware, I often speak of the importance of healthspan. Put simply, healthspan is the portion of the lifespan in which we are optimally healthy. The goal is self-evident…stay vital, robust, and resilient for (almost) as long as you live. Fight back The Reaper and don’t let him get you too soon. 

The preceding paragraph is why I use a health-first methodology in athletic preparation. That’s The Lifetime Athlete 5-3-1 System. Apply the 5 Components of Lifelong Health to the 3 Essential Elements of Peak Performance, and become the 1 Athlete for Life for which your genes are programmed and which you so richly deserve to be. Putting that foundation of health first allows you to look, feel, and live your best. Your training “sticks” and you achieve your performance goals.

Using the 5-3-1 System (or any similar approach) allows you to become Hard to Kill. The Reaper will get you in the end, but you’ll hold him off longer and better, doing the things you love – to your utmost potential and for as long as possible. A Hard to Kill Lifetime Athlete is strong, fast, agile, and durable…in body, mind, and spirit. The state of HTKLA means you are versatile and capable in more than just a movement sense. You’ll have athletic, dementia-free neurons. Athletic, plaque-resistant blood vessels and organs. Athletic problem-solving ability. Athletic creativity and energy. Athletic sexual function. The list goes on.

Once I explain this I usually don’t need to do any more convincing. In fact, I don’t even work with doubters and haters anymore. I only work with motivated individuals who want the most out of life and with whom I can do my best work. Most of this is just how the content and access funnels have evolved at TLA, but I also steer those who aren’t bought into these realities toward other avenues. Gladly. Life is indeed too short. The opposite of being HTK is weak, slow, stiff, and fragile. Nobody deserves or wants this representation of a poor healthspan and early tangling with The Reaper. 

I’ve found backpacking athletes to be a very intelligent and academic population. They like science and nature (HELLO),  and really love exploring ways that can help them to stay out on the trails. When we break down the 5 Components of Lifelong Health, I like to simply touch on the basics to start with. We can always dive deeper in the coaching relationship on any area if it’s needed. For the sake of brevity, I’ll list out those components and provide a few simple points on each.

  • Food: We need to fuel optimally. This means daily diet as well as nutrition out on the trail. There is no one ideal model, just good general principles around which to personalize one’s food plan. Calories, macros, micros, timing, and the like need to be customized for health, performance, and body composition. And in all probability, we should minimize processed food intake.
  • Movement: We require a goodly amount of general daily activity (GDA). Daily tasks and chores, fidgeting, and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) create the movement foundation. Then it’s on to “official exercise” and if we turn that into training (one of the 3 elements of peak performance), plus a little play and competition, we’ve got a winning combo.
  • Awareness: Knowledge of self. Understanding others. Communicating. Experiencing and creating less stress in our worlds. Breathwork. More flow. Less fight. Good stuff.
  • Ergonomics: Optimizing our workstations and behaviors to make professional output easier, higher, and less taxing on our beasts is key. And tuning the personal environment with respect to toxins, electromagnetic fields, and other concerns can be a gamechanger. Sunlight exposure factors in here bigtime.

Once health is tuned and idling along well, we can turn greater attention to Peak Performance. Training, recovery, and mindset are the major success-determining elements. I’ll provide a few considerations next.

  • Training is built around the 5 Capacities of Athleticism.
    • Strength is maximum force production capacity. Think of a 1-rep max lift.
    • Speed is maximum velocity. In truest form it’s your 40-yard dash.
    • Power is expressed anaerobically as F x D/T, such as when pushing or dragging a sled. From an aerobic perspective its maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and represents your output ability over 5-7 minutes.
    • Agility is the combination of mobility, stability, reactivity, and fluidity. It’s the world of the MOVEMENTSMITH – someone who owns every position and who has mastery of motion in every direction.
    • Endurance is the ability to deliver and utilize oxygen as well as muscular fatigue resistance. 
  • Recovery is the secret sauce in performance. Conditioning is the result of training plus recovery. Many people think they are overtraining, when in many circumstances they are simply under-recovering. The art form or recovery is more than just the passage of time, it’s the application of specific practices, workload management, and intelligent program design.
  • Mindset is critical to drive the organism (the backpacking athlete in this case) in the right direction. Words like growth, positive, realistic, and collaborative are in the champion’s recipe. This is somewhere between total Pollyanna and macho warrior thinking. It’s different for each person and it’s dynamic within that individual.

Analysis of The Backpacking Athlete: When I rate the physiologic and biomechanical demands of an athlete, I list out strength-speed-power-agility-endurance in that order. Then I apply a rating of 3 (high), 2 (moderate), 1 (low) levels of those capacities as needed for each specific sport. Using simple tests and measures, we can determine where the athlete’s current status is in regards to his/her chosen sport. We can then use this information to customize training, also taking into account the individual’s genetics, training history, etc. 

Backpackers need to be a 1-1-1-1-3 for optimal performance. Relatively low levels of strength-speed-power-agility are required but we make sure to give them just enough of those capacities for good health and longevity. Endurance is the jam of the backpacker. When designing training programs, for much of the year, I’ll place a percentage emphasis of those characteristics (again, in same order) of 10-10-10-10-60%. There actually is some amount of crossover benefit from comprehensive training, but an emphasis on aerobic endurance and muscular fatigue resistance benefits the backpacker most. 

Seasons are another important factor in pro-level training. By breaking the year into post/off/pre/peak seasons (not necessarily all of equal length) we can accomplish a lot. Post season is when we recover from one or a series of expeditions. Off season is when we build volume with general fitness and address injuries and imbalances. Pre season is the time to get more specific and also ramp up intensity a bit. And peak season is all about the hiking and camping, with maintenance training thrown into the times between outings.

Specific Workout Considerations: While this could be an entire book, I think I can describe this in a few sentences. The backpacker should do the majority (again, 60+%) of training in the endurance category. Hiking and other forms of “cardio” are the ticket, with most of that being in Zone 1-2 plus a sprinkling of high intensity intervals from time to time. A smaller investment of strength, speed, power, and agility work (safely scaled and applied to the individual) yields a great return. This could look like a mobility flow, a few resistance exercises, and some simple extensive plyometrics and power moves. Several examples are featured in the brief video attached to this article.

Training Sessions: The sky is the limit. There are many, many ways to put together a workout plan that serves the athletic backpacker’s needs. I’ll describe two of those below.

The Aerobic Training Session: This could be via any mode you prefer, such as running, cycling, rowing, etc. but the example I’ll use is a very basic brisk walk or hike, wearing a backpack, outdoors or on a treadmill. The beauty of using the pack is to not only get used to wearing your pack, but to sneak a bit of load into the session to give it more workout value without beating up your joints. Hill reps (uphill only) allow you to do some power repeats on a hill, or treadmill if those options are available. The low impact interval option (hypoxic training) can provide challenge if you have no hills or treadmills available. This increases CO2 tolerance and essentially gives you a more vigorous session with no mechanical overload.

Backpacking40-60 minutes15-30#10 x up (strong)
and down (easy)
on a 1-minute hill.

Insert into middle
of your hike.
10 x hold breath for 10 seconds,
breathe normally for 50 seconds.

Work up to 10 x 20/40 sec.
Also perform mid-hike.
A basic weekday option for town, gym, or trail.

The “Gym-Based” Session: Gym is in quotations because this could be any commercial gym, garage, back porch, park, etc. If you need ideas for simple equipment and #noexcuses #findaway training just check out some of the resources on the website. I’ll also link up a few videos below. I’ll usually set up a workout with a preparatory (warmup) component, a primary (main) portion, and an accessory (finale or cooldown) part. Nothing here is written in stone, just one idea to try. I customize these things extensively with my coaching clients. Examples of all the exercises are featured in the video.

Mobiflow x 2-3 min.

Cone drills 2-3 min.

Med ball series 2-3 min.
Bag Drags
4 x :20on/:40 off

3 circuits10-8-6 reps
L-M-H weight or load

Goblet Squat
Kettlebell Swing
Bodyweight Row
Triphasic Walking Lunge
(slow lower, pause, fast up)
Free Choice Cardio
Any mode
Try nasal breathing
Passes talk test
20-40 min.

Optional Stretching
All examples featured in the attached video!

Training Plans: Putting together a year-round conditioning system, otherwise known as an Annual Training Plan, is equal parts easy, fun, and effective. Using that seasonal model, we can encourage backpackers to get out once or twice on a weekend for a long, enjoyable cruise whenever possible. This isn’t just “training,” it’s doing the passion pursuit. Then during the week, one model would be to hit two each of the workouts listed above. In the off-season, work on building distance, reps, and time. In the pre-season, hold at that level or even back off a tad, and push a small amount of effort, weight, or compressed rest periods. And once you’re in peak backpacking season, just do one of each of the workouts every week. 

Unlimited Options: Truer words have never been spoken or written. The main thing is to be relatively consistent with training behaviors you like. Game-ify things where you can and want to. Make some of your sessions with a training partner or group. Be sure that the exercises you select fit your body well and don’t cause joint pain. Progress gradually and patiently. Celebrate what you accomplish and don’t beat yourself up when things sometimes don’t get done. Have fun!

Thanks for joining me for this segment. It’s just one example of many more to come on how to train athletes of every type, from gardener to piano player to golfer to snowboarder to triathlete. All Lifetime Athletes. 

If you’d like more explanation via a deep-dive discussion into today’s topic, have a listen to Episode 285 of The Lifetime Athlete Podcast. It’s on all the major pod players if you have a favorite listening platform.

The Lifetime Athlete
The Lifetime Athlete
Ep285 – Building the Backpacking Athlete

And as I promised, here are a few videos you might find helpful.

The Athletic Assessment (long version)

The Athletic Assessment (brief version)

Load Management for Lifetime Athletes

T2 2023 Training Equipment Update

Identifying and Leveraging Assets and Liabilities in Training

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