by Khaled Allen

Picture credit Julia Baykova on Flickr

My most impressive physical accomplishment involved me carrying an aluminum canoe over razor-sharp rocks submerged in  knee-deep water, during a thunderstorm, while thick underbrush dragged me to my knees. It was one of the best days of my life, largely because it ended with a warm campfire and a full belly, but I was lucky to have been well prepared for it. For the month leading up to that camping trip, I had been doing all my usual CrossFit workouts outdoors, running on grassy mounds, lifting logs and rocks instead of balanced bars, and doing pullups on tree limbs. I was used to awkward, slippery, and uncomfortable. Some of my camping partners were totally stuck. Their gym workouts hadn’t prepared them for this, though they could probably lift more than me.

If the only races you’ve ever run have been on paved roads, you’ll be in for a surprise when you first step off the beaten, graded, and well-maintained path. Road runners transitioning to trail running always find that it’s the little things that throw them off: the unsure footing, the twists and turns, the constant elevation changes. They can handle the running itself, but when you have to get past all sorts of other things to even get to the running, you may find yourself stranded.

In reality, our bodies were designed to work in unstable, unpredictable conditions. Primitive fitness is based on using all possible movement patterns, in random and unpredictable environments and is based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors did every day. It pays to keep in mind that we only have to use our own strength and speed when we lack modern conveniences in the first place. The only times you’ll have to rely on your own physical abilities to get work done are also the times you won’t be indoors, near the comforts of civilization. You wouldn’t have to carry your injured friend if you were near a road with a car, for example.

And yet, despite this, most of us train in controlled environments. When was the last time you did a workout in your backyard? Things like pushups and situps become surprisingly difficult when you have to compensate for even a few bumps and inclines. If you ever really have to climb something in life, it most certainly won’t be a nice round pull up bar. More likely it will be a slippery ledge or a thick, knobby tree branch. If you think just because you can do 30 chin-ups on a door-mounted bar that you’ll be fine to climb a tree, you will find it’s a totally different exercise.

Better get used to unusual temperatures too. Unlike your comfy climate-controlled gym, the real world has weather, which can be burning hot or frigidly cold. Ever tried to pick up a barbell outdoors in the winter? It’s an experience. For example, snow adds a whole new element to training and fitness. Just walking around in the snow is a workout for even the best conditioned gym rats, and the cold will force your body to manage its energy more efficiently.

My point is this: if you’re only good in a controlled environment, you’re not much good at all. Sure, you can run 400m in less than a minute, but only on a level, circular track, or you can pull yourself over a bar, but only a slim, smooth one. But what happens when you’re distracted by poor grip or awkward shapes? I’m not saying these aren’t impressive feats, but they are akin to a fast car that can only drive on a special patch of road where it was built and nowhere else.

When you have to deal with unstable surfaces or unbalanced objects, you are forced to rely much more on smaller muscles that don’t get nearly as much attention as the big impressive ones. Stabilizers like the serratus in the trunk, the gluteus medias in the hip, and the teres minor in the shoulders can make all the difference in compensating for an awkward position. In most exercise settings, these muscles are only used in a marginal role. And yet, they will be the first to fail because of their small size and the fact that they are infrequently used.

Mental aspects come into play as well. If you are so distracted by a slipping grip or uncertain footing, you won’t be able to spare the mental energy to push yourself when you need to go harder or faster. Getting used to these distractions, so that you don’t have to spend so much time thinking about them, can go a long way to helping you focus again. And when conditions are in your favor, you’ll find yourself able to relax and perform even better. After spending so much time doing my pull ups on tree limbs, the first time I used a nice round bar felt like a walk in the park, not a brutal CrossFit WOD.

The last thing that makes training in the wild that much more impressive is the fact that, no matter how hardcore you are, you have to rely to some extent on luck. Pray that the weather stays livable for long enough, hope that you have what it takes to cross the river before you drown (because unlike a pool there’s no bailing out), or, as Martin Dugard of Runner’s World says, “to run in the wilderness is to say a small prayer that God will protect you” from mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and random acts of nature.

So if you’re wondering why the Spartan Race is so hard, it’s simply because it takes you out of your element. Most distance runners spend their time on the roads. Most CrossFit athletes spend their time in a gym doing pullups on bars. Ask a person to run up a muddy, rocky slope and do a pullup onto a ledge with poor grip, and you’ll see very different standards of performance.

And while the gym is a great place to train, simply because you can control your environment and ensure consistency, the best way to train is in the environment you’ll be working in. You need to get used to the distractions and potential problems of exercising in the outdoors. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, and getting in touch with nature does a lot of good for your mind and soul that a gym just can’t imitate.

What are you training for? You’re training for the real world, which is full of ridiculous, unbalanced, messy obstacles like the Spartan Race.

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