Polar Fitness

Thoughts on Training for Long-Distance Unsupported Polar Expeditions

As a self-confessed human performance geek, I’ve always been fascinated by the physiological demands of endurance and ultra-endurance challenges, and by the human body’s capacity to adapt to extraordinary levels of stress and demand. My interest in fitness (star-jumps, press-ups and sit-ups as a 12-year-old) came long before the realisation that I might be able to one day join a polar expedition, and when the chance came to step into a sledge harness for the first time, it was an interest in exploring human rather than geographical limits that motivated me.

Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism became an unlikely guide – as it’s aimed exclusively at mountaineers – to the level and quality of preparation I began to apply to my expeditions. Mark’s working maxim, “the goal of physical training can be summed up in one phrase, to make yourself as indestructible as possible” held true for long-distance polar expeditions too, and perhaps more so for negotiating the rough-and-tumble unpredictability of the fractured and fast-changing pack ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Ultimately, these sorts of journeys demand three contradictory forms of preparation: 1) the development of endurance, 2) the development of strength and 3) the development of stored energy as body fat*.

I’ll expand on my specific training in my blog posts from the forthcoming expedition, but my tools of choice for developing endurance are running (everything from hill reps and 400m repeats to marathon-distance), cycling (everything from 20-minute turbo sessions to 10-hour, 200km+ gravel days in Norway this summer) and hill-walking, normally with weight on my back. To build strength I favour heavy compound lifts like deadlifts, squats, rows and overhead squats, and bodyweight movements like chin-ups, press-ups and dips. I’ve also experimented with Olympic lifting this year, and I think having a coach is vital if you’re genuinely aiming to address weaknesses and build the capacity to perform. This year I’ve worked exclusively with the brilliant Jonathan Francis at One Performance in Richmond.

*I’ve read about the importance of competitive sled dogs having time to ‘muscle up’ before the racing season, and while I don’t have any research data to back this up, my experience leads me to believe that putting on a bit of extra skeletal muscle – as well as fat for stored calories and insulation – before extended expeditions is worthwhile.

Ben Saunders (@polarben)



Hi Ben,

great challenge.
I wonder how did you feed yourself to be strength, endurant and fat…
I’ve red you’re doing strength and endurance training but to be fat too you needed to eat a lot and mostly glucid isn’t it?


Peter Allen


Wishing you all the best of luck, Ben. Keep safe.
Peter Allen, photographer, North Cotes and Marshchapel.

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