Pushing Your Body to Physical Limits How to Train Like a Fitness Badass

Updated: December 5, 2011

Leo Babauta

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This is a guest post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

Recently in the space of six days, I completed two of the most fun and most challenging physical events of my life.

The first was the Urbanathlon, a 9.75-mile race that included 7 obstacle courses along the way, including running up 389 stairs in the S.F. Giant's amazing AT&T ballpark, climbing up walls and under Jeeps, across monkey bars and over buses. So much fun -- and I finished 8th in my age division, doing it at about an 8-minute-mile pace.

But that was just the warmup event.

About five days later, I did the hardest thing I've ever done -- the Goruck Challenge: a group challenge about 13.5 hours long, nearly 20 miles of running and hiking with a 55-lb. backpack (and much more), along with weighted pushups, lunges, bear crawls, carrying logs and teammates.

Basically half a day of hell, or as we Goruckers call it, "Good Livin'".

I did these two grueling and wonderful challenges in a week, but there was more exercise in those two days than I did for the entire year in 2005. Six years ago, I was fat, sedentary, addicted to junk food, a smoker, and couldn't run a full 10 minutes without collapsing.

So while there are people who are much more badass at fitness than me, I am happy to declare myself a fitness badass, by my own standards. My 32-year-old self would have puked just thinking of these challenges, but my 38-year-old self says, "Bring em on!"

In this post, I'll share how I trained and prepared for these two challenges, in hopes that you can become a fitness badass yourself.

[caption id="attachment_834" align="alignnone" width="610" caption="Just one of the many physical tests included in the GORUCK Challenge."][/caption]

The Urbanathlon

I did this event just for fun, when my friend Scott Dinsmore asked if I was up for it. It looked like a great challenge, with all the obstacles, and so with only 2 weeks to prepare for the race, I said I was in.

Most of the race is running, and I'm a runner. I've been running since late 2005, when I started with just 10 minutes of running. If you're at that level, just start with 10 minutes a day, and increase by 2 minutes a week or so. At the end of 2006, I had not only run multiple 5Ks, 10Ks and a half marathon, I finished my first marathon. That's too fast -- wait 2-3 years after you start running before attempting your first marathon.

Since then I've done two more marathons and multiple half marathons. So my first piece of advice is to build up your running endurance, slowly. If running a 5K is too hard for you, the Urbanathlon will be way too hard. But if you can do 12-13 miles without dying, you should be fine.

Second, start including some hills and stairs in your training. There was a major hill (Telegraph Hill) in the Urbanathlon, and many people were wheezing going up the hill. I run hills regularly, so I was fine. And as I said, we did 389 stairs in the ballpark, which wasn't easy, but I regularly do stairs, so I was cool.

Third, do bodyweight and weighted exercises. As you do your runs, add some pushups, lunges, bear crawls, pull-ups, etc. Climb up stuff if you can. Run through a playground area and climb the monkey bars and do some pull-ups and dips.

If you can do these things, you'll be fine. The Urbanathlon will be a blast.

The Goruck Challenge: Training

There really is no way to fully prepare yourself for the Goruck Challenge, to be honest. I thought I was fairly prepared, and physically, I was in pretty good shape. But it's really a mental test, and no matter how hard you train, you'll be tested. You'll want to give up. You'll have to reach down and not quit.

But let's talk about physical training. Every Goruck Challenge is different, and I won't tell you all that's involved. But you can be fairly sure there will be lots of running with a weighted backpack (about 55 lbs. including water and six bricks if you're over 150 lbs.). There will also be lots of exercises with the backpack on: pushups, lunges, squats, bear crawls, running up hills, sprints. Lots of bear crawls.

How do you prepare for this? It's unlike any other kind of event training -- you can't just do endurance training, because while it is definitely an endurance event, it also includes intervals and bursts of strength, and requires lots of strength endurance. It's varied, it's grueling, and most of all … it's mental. The event is a mental one more than a physical one.

Training should also be varied. Here's what I'd suggest:

  • Running. You should be good at running, and be able to do a couple hours.
  • Sprints & hills. Do some days of sprints, hills, stairs. You can include this with longer runs, or just do it on separate days.
  • Bodyweight. Get good at pushups, pull-ups, lunges, and bear crawls. After you get good at these, add a weighted backpack -- just 10-15 pounds at first. Crossfit workouts are also good. My favorite is the Murph: 1 mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, 1 mile run -- try that with the weighted backpack for some of the exercises.
  • Weights. It's good to be strong. You should do 2-3 days a week of barbell training -- squats, deadlifts, bench press are your main lifts, along with dips, weighted chin-ups, overhead presses. Split these into two alternating workouts, one that starts with squats, the other starting with deadlifts. Five reps per set, 3-5 sets per exercise.
  • Intensity. If you can do Crossfit met-con workouts, you know what intensity is. Basically, you should try to do some workouts as hard as you possibly can -- challenge yourself to do it harder, faster. Intensity is good because it prepares your body for intense short bursts, but also prepares your mind for continuing when you want to quit. Good examples: run a mile, do 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 bodyweight squats, then run another mile. See how fast you can do this (taking breaks only when needed).
  • Ramp it up. In the month before the challenge, start to increase the training gradually. Consider increasing to doing some days with two workouts - one in the morning, another in the afternoon/evening. They don't have to be long -- just a run and a strength workout. It's good to be ready for volume, not just intensity.
  • Rest. You don't want to be injured or exhausted going into the challenge. So be sure to include 2 days of rest a week. Don't do weighted runs for every run -- maybe just one a week, and one weighted hike a week. In the week leading up to the challenge, cut back on the exercises drastically, and leave the last two days for nothing but rest or maybe a 1-mile run. You'll be incredibly rested and in great shape for the event.

[caption id="attachment_834" align="alignnone" width="610" caption="In the wee morning hours of the GORUCK Challenge, after hours of testing my physical limits."][/caption]

The Goruck Challenge: Packing

You'll get a packing list before the challenge, but I thought I'd give some tips:
  • Wear a tight-fitting compression shirt. It'll prevent chafing.
  • Get a camelback-like water bladder, and practice running with it and drinking from it.
  • Wrap your bricks: first with Gorilla tape, then a plastic bag and Gorilla tape, then with bubble wrap (for some padding) and Gorilla tape, then with a heavy-duty garbage bag and Gorilla tape. They'll be waterproof for when you go in the water.
  • Put your brick high in the bag. I recommend the GR1 backpack, as the smaller Goruck bags are too small -- I use an Echo for daily needs, but do NOT bring an Echo to the challenge as it won't fit your bricks. Strap the bricks up high, inside the bag, using straps going through the webbing at the top inside of the bag. I also put a foam yoga brick under the bricks to support them. Having the bricks high on your back distributes the weight better, and keeps them from banging on your lower back.
  • Food: I used Cliffbars because I'm used to them and like the flavor, along with a lot of peanut M&Ms. You'll really love the M&Ms during the challenge. Find stuff that will keep you energized, but make sure beforehand that you like the flavors.
  • Waterproof bags: I used Aloksak zipper bags, to protect my extra clothes, ID, and a $20 bill (in case you don't finish and need a taxi).
  • Other items: I also had lightweight trail running gloves (to protect your hands when you do bear crawls, etc), a lightweight waterproof windbreaker, a headlamp, a baseball cap (to protect my shaven head from the elements), and Inov-8 X-Flight 195 minimalist trail running shoes.
Don't bring a lot of extra stuff besides this. You have to carry everything, and over 10-14 hours, that can add up to a lot.

Final Word

There are many of you reading this who aren't in shape to do this kind of training -- yet. But remember that six years ago, I couldn't have run for 10 minutes. It's possible, if you do it right.

Start small, and build up gradually in baby steps. That's simple advice, but extremely important. Most people ignore it, and go out and do too much. Then they get burnt out or injured, or it's so hard that they hate the exercise and quit after a week. Don't ignore this advice, please.

Get moving. It might just be walking at first, but later you can incorporate some spurts of jogging, or some hilly hiking. Do a few pushups if you can, and if you do it regularly, after a couple months you'll be doing 20 or 30. Do a pull-up if you can, and soon you'll be doing 10.

Make it social. Find a friend to walk or jog with, and have a conversation. Get into a class or find a coach. Go on Fitocracy (invite code: ZENHABITS), log your workouts, get motivated by others. Find a gym partner. Play sports that you enjoy. Most of all, make it fun.

If you do these three things (baby steps, move, and socialize), you'll see incredible progress over the next six months. In a year, you'll be wanting to tackle harder challenges. Come back to this article, and get ready to become your own version of a fitness badass.

Because in the end, being badass isn't about beating others -- it's about testing yourself, and in the process, finding yourself.

(All images via Goruck & Goruck Challenge)

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