I don’t suppose I should worry too much, given that Scott, Shackleton etc puffed (on cigarettes) their way around the Antarctic, and I’m only off for a wee trip in the Hardanger…

I spend a fair amount of time each week browsing a multitude of blog pages curated by a variety of outdoor folks – such as mountaineers, travel/adventures and polar ‘explorers’. In the lead up to trips and expeditions there is often a flurry of posts on preparation, but these are mainly related to equipment, clothing and logistics. Rarely have I seen anything more than passing mention made of the physical preparation required for the given trip in question (1).

Details of others physical training preparation for polar/cold environment expeditions would be a nice starter for ideas, but perhaps this could lead me away from identifying and working on my own physical strengths/weaknesses. Whilst I have a strong background in the Exercise Sciences, I don’t possess a wealth of practical knowledge on exercise programming. My first step has been to breakdown the requirements of the task in hand. In this case my closest objective, which is to spend 8 days skiing (with a pulk of approximately 40kg for 8-10 hours per day) across the Hardangervidda plateau (an undulating high mountain plateau) in Spring 2017. Physically this will require, as I see it, a strong aerobic capacity, strength endurance, and, when required, some raw power. I’m beginning to supplement my own thoughts with findings from a number of scientific studies which have examined the physiologic demands of man hauling/skiing in the Antarctic.

A number of British scientists, including Dr Mike Stroud (Ranulph Fiennes teammate on a number of Antarctic trips), have published smaller case studies of the metabolic cost and changes in biochemistry etc as a result of long duration polar journeys. Not surprisingly the energy expended on these expeditions is often huge, ranging from around 5-6000 kcal per day to a whopping 11000 in some cases (see Figure 1 below). I’m still trying to get around to reading all of these papers, and in the meantime I’ve started training at my local gym, primarily working on my weaknesses of power and strength endurance. I’ve always had a reasonable aerobic base from semi-habitual cycling and running so have left this alone for now.


Figure 1. Daily energy expenditures (bars) and distances covered (squares) by man-haulers on modern Antarctic expeditions and elite endurance athletes racing or training. F/S indicates Fiennes and Stroud (2)

With a little collaboration with one of the local gym instructor’s I’ve decided to focus on a whole body workout routine, that involves mainly compound exercises (i.e. not isolating one particular muscle group). My strengths are strong legs, and my weaknesses include pretty much everything else such as arms, core, back and chest. So ten years after last frequenting the gym for any serious length of time, I’ve managed to keep up a solid 5 weeks (3 times per week) of the following:

  • Warmup, 1km on treadmill @ 11km/hr
  • Machine Pectoral Fly (3 x 12 reps)
  • Machine Rear Deltoid (3 x 12 reps)
  • Machine Low Back Extension (3 x 15 reps)
  • Barbell Squats (3 x 1o reps)
  • Walking lunges with dumbells (3 x 10m reps)
  • Barbell Bench Press (3 x 10 reps)
  • Plank with one leg raised (1 x 1 min reps)
  • Russian twist with medicine ball (3 x 15 reps)

I’m sure many folks could pick holes in this, and recommend alternative exercises, but thus far I feel I’m building a good foundation of strength, which for me is badly needed. I’ve always been fairly lightweight (for 181 cm), usually weighing in at 70-73 kg, with between 8-10% body fat. So for the main task of shifting a mass (sled) from A to B, both strength and some increased mass will come in handy. To my surprise, this gym work and a mantra of ‘eat everything in sight regardless of nutritional quality’ has helped me hit 77-79 kg in the last week or so (much to my girlfriend’s delight, due to her love of my belly fat). An added benefit of course is a bit of insulation from the cold, and a general feeling of a bit more robustness towards keeping the elements at bay – which, as I have been reading, is particularly important (3):

Furthermore, the effects of cold are exacerbated in individuals with lower fat and muscle levels, as the amount of energy lost to shivering increases while the effectiveness of exercise and shivering at heating up the body core becomes progressively less


So, a good start, and much more to come, particularly when I begin to work on my aerobic endurance from January onwards. I may also add in some tyre pulling, as I did last winter in preparation for the trip to Finnmark. I don’t suppose I should worry too much, given that Scott, Shackleton etc puffed (on cigarettes) their way around the Antarctic, and I’m only off for a wee trip in the Hardanger…

  1. However, noted polar athlete Ben Saunders has published a particularly good video of his brutal preparation for the 2013/14 Scott Expedition.
  2. Halsey, L.G. & Stroud, M.A. (2012). 100 years since Scott reached the pole: a century of learning about the physiological demands of Antarctica. Physiological Reviews. 92(2), 521-536.
  3. Halsey, L.G. & Stroud, M.A. (2011). Could Scott have survived with today’s physiological knowledge. Current Biology Reports, 21(12), R457-61.

About the Author Ash Routen

I’m a postdoctoral exercise scientist by day, and cold expedition adventurer (for want of a better term) and outdoors and health writer by night. I’m based in Leicester in the UK, but I also spend considerable time in Cambridge where my partner lives. To find out more about me, visit my about page or take a look at my published writing.

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