It seems like there is always a new themed race to get people excited about running. We run 5Ks in Christmas sweaters, under neon lights, and through colorful clouds of powder.
For those who are already excited to run and ready to race under intense conditions, obstacle course racing is becoming more and more popular. Participants slide through mud, climb over walls, or swing on ropes all while competing against the clock for a speedy finish. It’s an adrenaline pumping activity that gives you a taste of what it’s like to be in boot camp, and to succeed you must have both physical prowess and quick problem solving skills.
The ultimate obstacle course is the Spartan race, which its founder calls the Olympic-level equivalent of obstacle course racing. The most elite Spartan racers earn points for their performances, and at the end of the Spartan season the top 300 men and women are eligible for a grand prize. However, Spartan racing is not just for professional-level athletes—more than 150,000 participants competed in 34 events in 2012. The mental and physical commitment is what really counts in a Spartan race, and any person of any shape or fitness level can train for and complete it.
If you are up for the challenge, this list of tips from training resources and a recent Spartan participant will get you out on the course and overcoming obstacles in no time!
Tip 1: Plan Your Spartan Training Schedule
As much as we’d like to tell you that you can just jump off of your couch and finish an obstacle course race with ease, you should get in some regular training before a Spartan race whether you are in peak physical condition or have never run a race before. The amount and ways you train will depend on how much you already exercise, and what kind of physical activity is your forte.
Alyssa is 24 and no stranger to a physical challenge, having run a couple of marathons. She recently completed her first Spartan Sprint race of 4.5 miles, and even though she did not do any Spartan-specific training to prepare, the variety of cardio and strength in her regular workouts helped immensely on the course:
“I’m usually in the gym 5 days a week lifting and doing cardio circuits. I do a lot of bodyweight work like squats, lunges, or pull-ups and I think that is a good way to train for this sort of race and the obstacles you’ll encounter.”
This training plus her runs a couple times a week definitely helped during the Spartan Sprint.
If your workout routine sounds similar or you’ve recently completed a race, it still doesn’t hurt to spend four to six weeks gearing up for the next one. This is especially important if you’ve focused your workouts on just strength or just cardio: you need a training plan that incorporates both of these areas to overcome obstacles and the distances between them without fatigue. For instance, this six-week training plan starts off assuming that you have a good running base, while this four-week plan is based on having a decent strength base from the beginning.
If you search for obstacle race training plans you will find that the web is full of options that have suggested workouts, links to specific exercises, and running schedules. You should also subscribe to the official Spartan Workout of the Day, which can be done anywhere, not just at a gym. If you want to train with like-minded Spartan hopefuls, check out this list of upcoming Spartan training workouts around the country that you can easily register for and attend.
If you’ve never run a race of any kind, try to train for at least 90 days before your scheduled Spartan event. Spartan’s official 16-week training plan is a great way to start, and a detailed version can be purchased too. Beginners should train for at least three days a week to start, hopefully working up to five days a week in the month before the race. It’s okay to break down exercises into smaller sets if you need to rest in between and work up to the full set.
Hunter McIntyre is an accomplished Spartan racer, and his training plan provides options for workouts to cover each day of training per week. These workouts are great for new athletes because of the different options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced level racers.
No matter what level of fitness you’re at while training, it’s a good idea to include long runs once a week, and to incorporate at least one hill workout or include a significant slope in your running route. Also try including a sprint or interval workout each week to increase your anaerobic threshold. Be sure to schedule your training plan so that the most intense week is not right before the race and that you have time to rest up before your event.
Tip #2: Always Warm Up
If you are an athlete of any level, you know that warm-ups and stretching are an important part of your workout. If you injure yourself while training, you can probably count yourself out of a Spartan race. BuiltLean recommends dynamic stretching before your workout, which incorporates stretches with movement.
The benefit to dynamic stretching is getting a full body warm up that mimics the movement patterns you will use in your workout. This increases your kinesthetic awareness, which is understanding where your body is in space, and your flexibility.
Also try adding in low level cardio or aerobic activities, like walking or jogging on a treadmill or jumping jacks for 5-10 minutes, to even better prepare your body for a workout.
Tip #3: Prepare For Intensity With Drills And Circuit Training
Circuit training and drills are two forms of workouts known for their intensity and quick fat burning results. It’s important to include short but intense physical activities in your training, as research shows that they increase strength, power, balance, and coordination—all things you will need for your Spartan race.
Once you have experienced this strength under stress, you will be more prepared for the obstacle course. Drills are often used to prepare professional athletes for competition, and are fun because they feel more like sports activity than just exercise. Try doing drills twice a week with rest days in between.
Circuit training is a form of body conditioning in which a set of exercises represents a circuit and you rapidly move from one circuit to the next. Hunter McIntyre bases his training on circuits that take him to the limits of his strength, like the Spartan race will. While your circuits shouldn’t completely break you down or cause injury, they should test your ability and push you towards improvement. Strength circuits are a particular kind of workout method designed by BuiltLean to burn fat without losing muscle in a short amount of time.
Circuits contain two or more strength training exercises where the targeted number of reps are challenging to complete. Reps are made of 10-15 movements, or however many can be completed within 30 seconds. Each circuit uses two to five exercises.
Exercises should be chosen intentionally in a way that will be most effective, targeting movement patterns rather than muscle groups. Because it’s hard to combine upper and lower body exercises into the same circuit, focus on one area per set. BuiltLean recommends 30 seconds of rest in between each exercise in a circuit, and 1 minute rest after each round of a circuit.
Tip #4: Become Great At Burpees
Alyssa’s number one goal in training for her next Spartan race is “more burpees. Definitely more burpees.”
Burpees are an exercise that involves jumping from a plank position to standing, sometimes with a pushup or jump included.
They are known for being killer on the legs, abs, and rest of the body, which makes them the perfect punishment in large numbers. To prevent you from taking the easy route around obstacles, Spartan implements a penalty of 30 burpees or more for every failed or skipped obstacle.
Spend lots of time practicing them in case you have to do 30—or more—and don’t want to be wiped out for the rest of the race.
Tip #5: Prepare For Obstacles
The hardest thing about training for a Spartan race is that you don’t know exactly what to train for: every race course and obstacles are different, and most people don’t have the equipment like climbing walls, pipes, or mud pits available to them ahead of time for practice. It is this element of surprise that keeps the race fun, but makes preparing more challenging. Your training must be broad for surprise obstacles.
Spartan obstacles generally fall into three categories: climbing, which can be prepared for with pull-ups, crawling, which uses the same muscles as push-ups, and high power activity, which burpees can condition your body for. Alyssa recommends watching the videos on the Spartan blog, which you can narrow down to posts just about training.
The helpful thing about these posts is that they will help you overcome the obstacles that are challenging you specifically, like J-Hooksor Traverse Walls, rather than just offering overall training tips. This video gets advice straight from Joe DeSena , the co-founder of Spartan race, about some of the hardest obstacles.
For instance, wall climbing is best done if you hit the wall with your lead foot and explode upward immediately, propelling your forward motion from running into an upward momentum. For activities like Sled Pull, Object Carry, and Log Flips, use energy and strength from your legs and other parts of your body to move the objects.
Balance is another important thing to practice in your training, and if you are faced with a balance beam try to stay relaxed and focus your gaze several steps ahead of your feet. Grip strength is important to work on while training and will benefit you in a variety of obstacles.
You may encounter an obstacle that seems insurmountable—for Alyssa it was the rope climb, located about 20-25 feet high over waist deep water.
“I had a major panic moment when I was about two feet from the top that I wouldn’t have the strength left to get myself back down without injury,” Alyssa says. “After sitting and contemplating for a few minutes about what to do, I decided to dig deep and finish the obstacle. I’m glad I did, but it was definitely scary.”
If you are stuck on an obstacle, always take a minute to breathe and assess your options. Try watching how others approach it and tackle it using their tactics.
Tip #6: Prepare Yourself Mentally
“Mental preparation is equally if not more important than physical preparation, in my opinion,” Alyssa says. “You absolutely need to be mentally prepared.”
Part of the race’s intimidation is due to the unknowns, like obstacles. Even the posted distances are sometimes approximate. If you are nervous about the unpredictability of Spartan races, control what you can by sticking to a diligent training routine and pre-race habits. It’s also a good idea to volunteer at an event beforehand to see the kinds of obstacles you may encounter (this can also get you a discounted entry fee).
No matter how many races you’ve watched or training videos you’ve studied, when you encounter your first big obstacle it can be very overwhelming. The first mental step you can take is to remain positive. Always approach the obstacle and try it before thinking “I can’t do this.” Mentally committing to overcoming barriers can help you push yourself through the challenge.
The great thing about a Spartan race is that even though it is competitive, it is not limited to elite athletes—the crowds have people of all shapes and sizes, all finishing at different times. They have probably had the same difficulties as you on obstacles and may even be willing to help if you need a push.
Ultimately, some challenges will prove to be too difficult, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to admit it if you have to. If it seems like you will spend too long on the obstacle or that it will take all of your strength from the rest of the race, do your burpees and move on. However, don’t mentally remain in that failure and let it ruin the rest of your race!
Try following Alyssa’s advice:
“If you find yourself losing mental focus, just look around to all of the other people—young and old, big and small, men and women, out on the course who are getting it done. It’s really inspiring.”
Take this motivation and let it push you towards the finish line—crossing that is the most important part no matter how long or grueling the journey can be!