Backcountry Survivalist Laura Zerra's Fitness Resilience Advice

“Functional” anything sounds boring—we get it. But in fitness, functional is one of the most exciting adjectives out there. It’s a catchall word to describe the moves and exercises that prep your body for real-life activities. The pandemic forced people away from gyms and led to a surge in outdoor exercise. We quickly realized that our workouts hadn’t exactly prepared us for wild environments. That extra muscle we’d built in the gym only weighed us down on trail runs and hikes. We rolled ankles and injured knees because we’d only trained on perfect gym surfaces and lacked the right combination of mobility and stability. The 72 degree indoor environment hadn’t readied us for temperature swings, the elements, and the general unpredictability of the outdoors. It’s time to make your fitness truly functional again by lifting heavy awkward objects, climbing and crawling and jumping more, redlining your cardio, and engaging in other total-body sweat shenanigans. Nobody knows and appreciates this more than Laura Zerra. Master her lessons in grit and you’ll have fun getting in the best shape of your life.

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Laura Zerra understands how you normally work out: You know the exact number of reps and sets you’ll do. “People aren’t used to not being in control today. Everything is according to plans and schedules,” says Zerra, a 36-year-old survivalist who spends months alone in the backcountry. “But then you go into the wild . . . . The steps on the mountain are not as perfectly spaced as the StairMaster, and it’s not the perfect temperature.”

While you might not be planning a backcountry expedition, you still want to build dynamic grit, the ability to tough out any unknown situation. You know about grit if you’ve pushed through an extra rep or two of pushups or squats. But you need more than this to thrive in triple overtime during pickup hoops or stay the course after taking a wrong turn on your morning vacation run. That’s why Zerra trains in random circumstances, often working out while fasting or on just a few hours’ sleep. “If you don’t know how your body is going to react in those situations,” she says, “you don’t want to be finding out for the first time when you’re on top of a mountain.”

laura zerra

Ben Mounsey-Wood

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THE DYNAMIC-GRIT GUT CHECK

The burpee is one of fitness’s most lung-destroying exercises. Here you’ll use it to build mental toughness. Your goal: Do burpees (dropping your chest to the ground, standing, then jumping) for 5 minutes without stopping. The kicker: You can’t look at a timer. (Have a friend track your time but give you no verbal or non-verbal indication of how much time is left.) Continue doing reps until you think 5 minutes are up. Expect to “finish” early your first few times, more because of negative self-talk than lack of ability. Take the test once every other week.

Get an Edge

The test is designed to mess with your mind: You think of the burpee as something you do for only a brief burst, except you’re doing it for endurance here. Keep a number (and a fairly large one, like 150—yes, really) in the back of your mind as you do this. Don’t stop until you’ve completed that many reps.

laura zerra illustration

Ben Mounsey-Wood

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