As the Paleo movement has gathered pace, it has inevitably attracted critics. In particular, there seems to be criticism that centres around use of the word ‘Paleo’ and its connotations with a so-called caveman existence (which is nigh-on impossible to recreate in the modern industrial world), rather than the excellent lifestyle message it promotes, which in a nutshell is: eat less processed food, eat more vegetables, eat cleaner, more sustainable sources of protein, be more active, be more in tune with your mind and body, and so on. I mean, if we are going to argue about semantics of a word, then we may as well argue that Martians don’t eat Mars Bars!
Unless you fancy your chances joining up with tribes such as the feared Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands or learning to catch your own food alongside the Kalahari Persistence Hunters… then leisure pursuits and structured exercise sessions are the only real chances we get to move around and be active on a regular basis.
Another article I read recently₁ made a very good point about how Paleo and CrossFit are perceived to be interlinked by many even though they are not – their main point being that it doesn’t matter how much you clean and jerk or jump rope, you’re not going to be replicating a hunter-gatherer. In my opinion, it was a point well made (although I’m not sure many people following a Paleo diet or those who ‘CrossFit’ are under any illusions that they are replicating our ancestors), but it did make me think if general exercise is not stimulating the multitude of senses that a naturally primal lifestyle would, what can we do to get anywhere near that feeling? Do we need to undertake survival training?
Unless you fancy your chances joining up with tribes such as the feared Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands₂ or learning to catch your own food alongside the Kalahari Persistence Hunters₂ (good luck arranging that gap year!), then leisure pursuits and structured exercise sessions are the only real chances we get to move around and be active on a regular basis. It would therefore make logical sense to adapt these to test yourself in a way that doesn’t focus solely on linear movements, brute force, or tests of endurance in a safe environment; in other words, survival training.
What is Survival Training?
One of the most influential books I read when I first came into the fitness industry was written by American corrective exercise coach, Paul Chek. His How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy₃ publication focused on (amongst other things) what he called primal patterns – or exercises that would replicate movements essential for life as a primal being. These included squatting, deadlifting, pushing, pulling, lunging, and twisting. Chek argues that these movements should always form the basis of any exercise programme, as they will build a more solid foundation of core strength and total body strength.
Now, I have no issue with this philosophy, and would recommend the book to anyone wishing to learn how to train your body in an effective, functional way – I would also say that before people attempt to ramp up their exercise programmes to a high level and test themselves with anything out of the ordinary, they need to be proficient in all of those movements. But to really test yourself in a way that may stimulate those innate primal senses, then you need to test your strength, endurance, agility, balance, coordination, memory, mental strength, team work skills, ability to strategise and compete over different terrains, and maybe even show some instinctive survival skills all at the same time.
Last summer I found this challenge in the form of the Bear Grylls Survival Race, which I ran with my brother. It was a 30km obstacle course race with a twist – you didn’t just have to run, climb, jump, and swing your way across military standard obstacles set over 30km of varied terrain, but competitors were also asked to complete six different survival challenges that were only revealed on the day. These included: observation and memory tasks, fire starting, shooting targets, as well as a couple of tests of strength. All in all, it was a pretty gruelling race, which we completed in a respectable 4 hours 25 minutes – with every obstacle and challenge successfully conquered and no time penalties incurred. I can safely say it was the toughest and most comprehensive fitness challenge I’ve put myself through to date. A true lesson in survival training.
How Did I Train For It?
It goes without saying that to complete a 30km course you need to build up your endurance to last the distance, so I had to spend time putting miles in the bank. I ran cross country, over varied inclines and trained at different speeds. Developing my neuromuscular system to get used to this type of course was as important as building the endurance to last it – I became accustomed to hidden tree roots in the ground, my proprioceptors adapted to the changes in terrain, and it was never going to be a shock on race day to see miles of woodland in front of me.
The obstacles we had to get over were a mix of climbing walls, swinging on bars, wading through muddy rivers, jumping over fire, balancing on slack lines, crawling under nets, climbing ropes, carrying heavy bags, and much more. This meant I needed to mix up my traditional gym sessions for a while and get creative with my programming. For my survival training, I climbed trees, found monkey bars at the local park, did lots of crawling and carrying exercises, performed agility training using ladders and cones, and completed plenty of workouts wearing a weighted vest so that on the race day it would feel lighter to haul myself over things.
One of the elements I liked most about this particular event was that I ran it with my brother. We are both competitive individuals, but we decided to work as a team by supporting each other over every challenge and keeping to our strategy of maintaining a controlled, steady pace so we could complete all tasks and finish with our heads held high – there was no other way we could have completed this survival training… and it worked!
Now, I’m not saying that doing a race like this has made me more of a caveman than someone taking part in a class at their CrossFit box, or someone working out at the local leisure centre – it hasn’t. But what it did do was test my body in a way that required a greater number of skills and techniques than a conventional gym session, and really tested my mental capacity for endurance, pain, and aptitude all at the same time. I really enjoyed it and would encourage anyone wanting to really challenge themselves to sign up this year or at least consider incorporating elements of survival training in their weekly training programme.
Have you ever taken part in a survival race? How did you train for it? Leave a comment below with your experience!
- Forenchic, F. (20/06/2016). Sorry, not Paleo. [Weblog]. Retrieved 24 February 2016, from https://paleomagonline.com/sorry-not-paleo/
- Czartoryski, A. (27/05/2011). Amazing Hunter-Gatherer Societies Still in Existence. [Weblog]. Retrieved 24 February 2016, from huntercourse.com/blog/2011/05/amazing-hunter-gatherer-societies-still-in-existence/
- Chek, P.(2004). How to Eat, Move and be Healthy. Vista, CA: C.H.E.K. Institute.