What We Can Learn From People Training in Remote and Isolated Locations

Antarctic research stations, NASA Mars simulations, Army bases in Afghanistan, and Navy SEAL deployments all over the world. Here's what they can teach us about getting workouts in even in extreme circumstances.

Photo: Joanna Perchaluk

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With many parts of the world implementing restrictions on gathering in groups or putting out ‘shelter at home’ orders, most triathletes have found their workouts understandably interrupted or forced indoors. With many pools and gyms closed, lots of us are trying to make do in confined spaces and with limited equipment.

Fortunately, there are plenty of athletes who have been in crazy scenarios before and can share with us what they’ve learned.

Mars Simulation Dome

For a year, Carmel Johnston was the commander of a project to simulate what it’d be like if a crew went to Mars. Known as NASA’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission (HI-SEAS), she and five other people lived inside a 1,200-square-foot dome stuck on the side of a volcano in the middle of the Big Island of Hawaii. If they left the dome, they had to wear spacesuits, and they could only communicate with the outside world via a 20-minute email delay—all to simulate what it’d really be like on Mars. She also worked out every day and raced Ironman Coeur d’Alene a year to the day after leaving the dome as a celebration of sorts.

Her workouts

“We were required to workout for two hours each day,” she says, as part of NASA rules to keep them active and sane. But they had limited equipment, so she mostly ran on a treadmill—even doing two marathons on the treadmill during the year.

They were also power limited, because they were off the power grid, so the treadmill had to be timed with power curves and some activities had to be non-power-intensive. “We didn’t have any form of weights, so we used body weight exercises or loaded up a backpack with heavy products to add weight to exercises.” In general, she’d run and get on the stationary bike every day, and do a seven-minute HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout and some ab/core work.

The biggest problem was everyone wanted to see out the one tiny window. “We initially had a problem with the treadmill because it wasn’t lined up with the window and we kept running off the side of the treadmill because we wanted to be looking out the window,” she says. Once they moved it, then everyone had something to look at while they ran—even if that was just the rocks in the middle of Hawaii.

Her tips

“Find a couple activities that you love and do them at a frequency that keeps you happy. You don’t have to be running big miles or lifting heavy weights. Whatever gets your heart pumping and releases endorphins will work,” she says. Exercise was a stress reducer for her and helped release brain chemicals that they weren’t able to achieve in regular life because of the lack of social stimulation. They were only able to email with friends and family, with a 20-minute delay each way. “It’s hard to convey tone and emotion in an email,” she says, and information would get lost. So take advantage of the communication and exercise tools you do have.

Submarines, Ships, Remote Outposts

What’s the craziest place Wayne Dowd has ever worked out in? “A few times in a torpedo room of a submarine, full of torpedoes. The roof of the American Embassy in Libera, using sandbags meant to stop bullets, some jungles in Africa, a blow out wreck of a building in Iraq,” he says.

As a Navy SEAL, he would get sent on deployments all over the world — sometimes just a few days on a submarine, sometimes months on a ship, sometimes remote locations. Everywhere he went, he would still get his conditioning in; you just have to get a little inventive. After all, that’s how TRX was invented — by a Navy SEAL trying to get workouts in.

His workouts

Getting workouts in is important for a SEAL, not just physically, but also mentally. For the most part, they would get in conditioning workouts with body weight, such as burpees, push-ups, wall sits, pull-ups off whatever bar they could find, lunges, lots of air squats, and jumps. Even if they didn’t have access to weights, water, or a place to run, these kinds of workouts would happen every day — sometimes twice in a day. The hardest part was just finding a place for all of them and making do. “If we were on a ship, well, the pitch and roll of the ship always made these workouts fun (ie. harder),” he says.

“We would become quite inventive when doing these workouts and would use them to crush each other,” he says. “I still, to this day, keep a 60-lb rock named The Smoke Break (I don’t smoke, obviously, so when the smokers go out, well, I hit the rock) next to my desk and do work with that just to get the blood flowing and stay sane.”

His tips

“Be inventive. Don’t blow it off to watch TV,” he says. There’s a lot you can do with a 5-gallon water jug or a sandbags, he says, and hundreds of options for workouts and to get moving. Even if the treadmill or trainer isn’t your favorite, “get on it. You don’t need to spend three hours on it, you can do 45 to 60 minutes and get a better, more structured workout.” And if you have the ability to get outside, then get outside.

Try this workout: He did five rounds of this yesterday with two sandbags, but otherwise you can do it with free weights or even pick up your kid, he jokes.

15 minute jump rope warmup
20 squats
20 dead lifts
8 thrusters
20 push-ups
20 mountain climbers
400m run

Polar Research Station

Meteorologist Joanna Perchaluk is the expedition leader for the Institute of Geophysics of the Polish Academy of Science. That means she spends up to a year at a time in the remote Arctic reaches of the Polish Polar Station in Hornsund, Spitsbergen, Norway. And she still trains for triathlon there—polar bears and lack of pools be damned.

Her workouts

Indoor training is the basic way to go: stationary bike, a treadmill in her cramped gym room at the station, and some yoga and dryland swim training. If she wants to run outside, she has to have someone guard for polar bears.

“You just need to brace yourself and go through your training sessions in the usual way,” she says.

Her tips

Training inside can quickly become boring — though in many ways it’s the same as if it was winter anywhere. “Long indoor training is harder mentally than it is physically,” she says. To that end, she’ll mix it up by putting up photos of forests and mountain trails. She also watches movies and listens to music.

Communication can be one of the hardest things for people stuck at home right now, but she says staying connected through online messaging apps and emails is entirely possible — and even Skyping with training buddies for a virtual training session. “Recently, I got the idea of asking the ‘Women for Tri’ Facebook group for some support. The girls are sending me short movies from their trainings, and I put them in one long movie and have a beautiful, engaging trip through different corners of the world.”

“The most important thing is to not lose faith and not give up on training,” she says, even if races are being canceled. “Staying on track is vital for good spirits, energy levels, for oneself in general.”

Military Base in Afghanistan

Lots of soldiers, all over the world, have figured out ways to get training in on active bases. Brad Williams, who now competes as a pro triathlete, was deployed to Bagram Air Base for a few months and was able to get in regular triathlon training—somewhat modified.

His workouts

Williams was actually able to train quite a bit while deployed, using a treadmill in the base and his bike and trainer he brought with him. All he had to do was set up a fan and a laptop in front of it. There were also a couple of small half-mile loops outside he could run around and still consider it safe, meaning if there were inbound rocket attacks it was easy to take shelter. (The bigger perimeter loop technically could be run, but left you too exposed.)

The hardest part was just not knowing what any day or even any hour might look like and not being able to plan. A run could be interrupted by inbound rockets and everyone would go on lockdown, or something might come up that he had to deal with and the workout wouldn’t happen. “There were also days that you would question your sanity and if it was really worth going out for a run, given the recent inbound rockets,” he says.

His tips

“Be cautious of burning yourself out from too much indoor training,” he says. If you’re new to indoor trainer riding, then just be careful not to overdo it right away. It could burn you out either mentally or just by going too hard on Zwift every day. “The worst thing you can do is come out the other side of all of this exhausted, mentally and physically, and not be ready to ramp things up when you are able to.” While you want to stay fit and healthy and sane, there’s also an opportunity to treat this as a mini-off-season. “Focus on things that may be weaknesses, and focus on things outside of sport that you have been neglecting,” he says.

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