Start by paying no attention to all that fitness BSI hate fitness writers, and I hate the magazines that publish their work. Every time I pick up an outdoor sports magazine, there’s usually at least one article on the cover telling me how I can “Climb Harder! Paddle Stronger! Hike Faster!” If you read these articles, they generally extol the virtues of some long-lost Soviet-era training regimen that involves towing a tractor around with your genitals. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much—substitute a tire instead of a tractor.
With rare exceptions, most of these “fitness” tips are exactly the same as the diet hype in other magazines. It’s true that if you want to be thinner, then eating nothing but grapefruits for a month will work. (I tried it so I know.) But at the end of the amazing grapefruit diet, you’ll eat about 10 pounds of low-quality bacon and a two-litre tub of ice cream inside of a week. The same is true for most fitness stories. They promise that if you just follow some whack-job set of ideas, you’ll end up being as good as the athlete on the cover of the magazine, but actually, no, you won’t. You may look more buff in front of the mirror until you slip back into your lazy-ass ways, but you won’t be any better on your next trip.
Over the last 20 years I’ve managed to be “good” at three different outdoor sports. By good I mean that if I wasn’t the best in the world then I could at least line up with the best in the world and not get killed or make a total ass out of myself. Not to say that I didn’t make a total ass out of myself with some regularity, but I saw the edges of the game in rock climbing, ice climbing, kayaking and paragliding. (I count rock and ice climbing as one sport because, even though they are different on the surface, they are the same physiologically.) I reached a high level in each sport not because I tried every crazy fitness plan for each sport that I read (though I did try a few), but because I obsessively did the sport I wanted to do. The only people who have probably obsessed about things as much as I have are the other athletes who’ve been beside me on the podium, and the people who are in jail for stalking celebrities.
So if you want to be a better outdoor athlete, don’t go to the gym and watch the sweat stains form on that hot chick (or guy) on the Staremaster (typo intentional) in front of you. Go do your sport. If you want to be a fitter kayaker, then get in a damn kayak and paddle it around. If you want to be a stronger climber, go climbing.
If you have a specific goal then train toward that goal as best you can. For example, if you want to climb Mount Robson but live in the dreariest part of central Ontario—where your options are admittedly limited—put a 25-pound pack on and hike up and down the bleachers at your local stadium for an hour a day four times a week. Now, I can already hear the whining: “It’s cold, the stairs are icy, the view sucks, I’m bored.” Perfect, what the hell do you think mountaineering is all about? Eat a large pizza, put some crampons on, and start grunting up and down the steps. By the time you get to Robson, you’ll be fit enough to climb it, and you won’t be sore the next day. That’s no hype.
If you want to be a top outdoor athlete, then more radical life-altering action is required: you will have to move someplace where you can do your sport a lot, and with people who are better at it than you are, at least for a few years. You will also need to rip away whatever fluff is in your life. You will not be a world-class kayaker if you like driving a BMW more than kayaking. (Besides, no self-respecting kayaker would buy some Eurotrash vehicle that you can’t even sleep in.) However, if you’re willing to get divorced, quit your wallet- and ass-expanding job, and move to a cultural backwater, then you’re possibly ready to be a great outdoor sports athlete.
Of course, not many people are willing to ruin their lives so they can chase after a dream. But those who do often find that the life they abandoned was a waste of a life anyway.