How to Get Ready for Your First Spartan Race: Prepare for Glory!
It doesn’t matter if you look like DJ Qualls in The New Guy, or The Rock in, well
basically anything. We’re all looking to achieve the next level of manliness. And when it comes to embodying all that is man, there’s no one that tops our King, Leonidas (If you haven’t heard of Leonidas, first slap yourself. Then look up manliness in the dictionary). But no matter how long you grow out your fashionable man-beard, there are a few other things you’re going to have to do before you achieve the level of beast that is embodied by the one and only Leonidas.
So, What’s Your Next Step?
Do you go into the wild with nothing more than a loin cloth and a sharp stick looking to hunt a wolf? Do you declare war upon an army of thousands with only a couple of your buddies to back you up? Do you declare war on thousands of wolves bringing only your beard and a can-do attitude to battle? It can all be so confusing. Well, while all of those could be good steps down the line, why don’t we start off with something a little simpler? We’ll call those plans B, C, and D. (Author’s note: those are all terrible ideas. Please don’t try them. You’ll almost certainly perish.)
Signing up for your first Spartan race is a good median plan. If you don’t know what a Spartan race is, I’ll give you a quick rundown. There are four different levels of Spartan races:
- The Spartan Sprint, which is a 3+ mile race with 15+ obstacles
- The Spartan Super, which is 8+ miles with 20+ obstacles
- The Spartan Beast, which is 12+ miles with 25+ obstacles, and finally, for the real lunatics…
- The Super Beast, which is 26+ miles with 50+ obstacles. Then there’s some crazy stuff about Hurricane Heats, but I’m not going to get into that.
It was created by Joe De Sena, who is one of the founding monsters that developed the original Death Race. If you don’t feel like clicking on that link and reading the article (good call, it’ll give you nightmares), just imagine what goes along with anything dubbed “Death Race”. Whatever horrors come to mind were probably just one of many events held there. They offer free on course burial to anyone who dies while attempting the race, so I guess that’s a perk. Or a huge red flag. I hope they’re joking. Anyway, his philosophy about his races is simple, “Adversity breeds success in life. If they want it easy…well, that’s not here.” – Joe De Sena
I highly recommend signing up for a sprint before attempting one of the Super’s or Beast events. In fact, I think it should be a requirement. This race is no joke; I consistently heard calls over the radio of the personnel working the event for the medical team. It was mostly for dehydration and heat exhaustion, but plenty of other things come up. Laura Caroll, author and regular competitor in obstacle course races said after competing in her Super, “The medical tents were kept busy all day with injuries that varied from lacerations and ankle sprains to broken bones and stitches.” (2014)
The one that I just finished was the Miller Park Spartan Sprint. It consisted of 4 miles and what felt like 200 obstacles. Now mind you, I did not train up for the event, because I’m that stupid. But it was a last minute thing where I found a Groupon for it 2 days before the event. Still, I figured running 3 or 4 miles for me was no problem at all, and I keep myself in relatively good shape. Surely that would be plenty to get me through this silly race with little to no problem, right? That was just enough to get me through the finish line; and now I sit here writing this article because it hurts my legs (which are now the equivalent of a pair of tube socks filled with Jello) far too much to stand.
If you’re wondering what type of obstacles you may encounter at one of these lovely events, here is a recount of what I ran into:
- We started things off with a sandbag carry up and down bleachers for about ¼ mile.
- We then followed this up by running the bleachers without the sandbags for another ¾ mile or so. I felt like crying, bleachers are not my thing. (How can they be anyone’s thing? How can running up and down thousands of steeply inclined steps possibly be anyone’s thing?)
- Just in case our legs weren’t worked well enough from this, they had us follow this up with 25 box jumps on a box that was mid-thigh height for me (I’m 5’ 11”, so it was a pretty tall box).
After that, there was a bunch of running up and down stairs and hallways, and things get a little blurry. My brain went into survival mode; I may or may not have hid in a corner for awhile gnashing my teeth at anyone that came too close. But some of the obstacles I do remember after this point are:
- A double water jug carry
- Crawling up dozens of flights of stairs under bungee cords
- Crawling roughly the length of a football field under barbed wire
- Climbing and jumping over walls of various heights
- More running, more crying
- A rope climb
- Walking on your hands with your feet on some three wheeled medieval torture device
- Climbing cargo nets
- Lifting a huge weight really high with a rope and pulley
- Climbing sideways across a handmade “rock” wall
- Chucking a spear through a straw warrior
- And many more that I’m sure my brain blocked out as a defense/ survival mechanism.
Each event has different obstacles, and they don’t put out a list in advance of what you’re going to run into, making training up for specific event combinations impossible. So what I’m trying to say is, you may want to go into this with more planning than a simple, “I can run and I’m in pretty good shape.”
So what should you do to prepare? Well, I’m going to outline here the things that I did that worked well, and the things I plan to do in preparation for my next event. Yes, I’m planning to do another. I’m hoping to compete in the Spartan in Chicago in August (but may be unable to due to a family event), and hope to work myself up to doing a Beast sometime within the next year. Because apparently I hate myself. Also, because I want the Trifecta medal.
So What Worked?
While I did not have time to properly prepare for the event, I did have a bag of tricks to dip into. I used the knowledge of how to prepare myself for this kind of abuse from years of shenanigans in the Army. Some of the things that I did that I would recommend to others are:
Load up– On carbs, water, and electrolytes before the event. I started on the morning prior to race day. I ate a boat load of fruits (especially bananas for the potassium), drank 3 Gatorades (two on race morning), and ate a big pasta dinner. I also drank about a gallon of water.
Gear up– You never know what you’ll be running into in one of these races. Whether it’s jumping over a fire pit, crawling through mud, or handling barbed wire. You’ve got to be prepped for any and all of it. For this you’ll need some basic supplies:
- Trusted running shoes- don’t buy a new pair of shoes for this event. Your feet will look like hamburger meat at the end of it, and your new shoes will probably look like garbage. Use the old trusty beaters that have at least 50 miles under their belt, if not a few hundred.
- Gloves- While not a requirement, I felt bad for those running without them. You don’t need to buy some fancy pair of combat tactical gloves (I know this will be hard for all of the ninjas out there. But seriously, you’re just going to ruin your pretty new gloves). I bought a pair of thin mechanics gloves with rubber on the palm side from a gas station on the way to the race for $2, and cut off the fingertips at the knuckle point. They worked out great, and I didn’t have to fret about trashing them on any of the events.
- Compression shorts- We didn’t end up having any water events (which I was sad about, because it was pretty hot out to be running around like a mad Spartan), but if you do you’re going to wish you had these. Getting cotton underwear water logged can make for a very uncomfortable running experience. I think you get my drift. On that note…
- Don’t wear cotton anything if you can avoid it. You’ll be sweating like crazy, likely going through mud and water, and running a lot. Doing all of this with cotton leads to water logged shorts and a lot of chafing. No one wants that.
- Hydration- Wear a Camel Back or some other type of hydration setup you can bring with you. I didn’t bother, thinking it’s only a few miles so I wouldn’t need it. Reference any part of this article where I call myself dumb.
- If you’re really interested in keeping track of the time, a rugged watch that you won’t be upset about destroying. I didn’t bother with one, but if I had it would have gotten broken.
Spartan up!- Bring a positive attitude and a whole truckload of energy. Be prepared to get a little ridiculous. People will be shouting Arooo! Like a bunch of crazed Spartan soldiers. You need to hop on board the crazy train or stay back in your gym. I personally like to get prepared by showing just a little hint of American spirit and patriotism. I like to keep it subtle, so this is my race day outfit.
What I Plan to do Before my Next Spartan
The Chicago Spartan race is 11 weeks out at the time I’m writing this. It is going to be a 2 day event, the first of which will be a Super Spartan, the second of which will be a sprint. I’m planning to do the Super. That’s right, 8+ miles of pain. But I expect it to go better than my sprint, because this time I have the time to prepare, and I’ll know how to train for it. What type of training do I plan to do? I’m glad you asked.
#1, Avoid the gym– Or at least the typical gym workouts. I freely admit that I’ve never been a big fan of the typical gym scene. A bunch of guys with overly developed arms and pecs bench-pressing 500lbs may look impressive, but that type of strength doesn’t lend itself well to real world events. For an event like a Spartan, you need to be in good shape, but your body needs to be developed as a whole, not as separate units of muscle. Check out one of the articles on Crossfit for more on this.
Running– I plan to do a bunch of running, on pretty much anything but flat pavement. I’m going looking for the steepest hills, deepest sand, and muddiest paths. In fact, if I can find the steepest hill with really deep, muddy sand, I’m going to run it 100 times. I’ll also be carrying whatever random heavy objects I can find, because you do a lot of that as well. You never know exactly what you’re getting yourself into in one of these races, but one thing is for sure, you’ll be running a lot and most of it won’t be on flat pavement.
Explosive leg workouts– I’m going to be finding the tallest boxes I can jump up onto and calling them home. I plan to do 3 sets of jumping lunges every other day between now and race day. Squat jumps, stair jumps, and single leg squats will all become part of my routine. Anything that trains the body to work as a unit to generate explosive power will be of great benefit in your Spartan pursuits.
Arms, shoulders, and chest- If you’ve got access to a big tire and a sledgehammer, you’ve got the tools you need to do well in this area for a Spartan. If not, grab a kettlebell or anything else heavy and learn to swing it at every possible angle. Keep it under control, but put force into it. This will train the muscles of your entire upper body to generate the power you’ll need for any type of event they throw at you. Other great ones are pull-ups with all of the typical variations, a salmon ladder (if you’ve got access to one), and clapping push-ups.
Core- The hammer/ kettlebell swing will take you a long way in developing your core muscles as well. It is a beast on your lats, which help to stabilize you during any exercise and can be a great source of explosive power. Planking while rotating lifting one, or even two limbs at a time is great for developing tone and balance within your body. And if you’re looking to concentrate on developing massive core strength, nothing I’ve found tops twisting inverted sit-ups. Gravity boots are really helpful here, but if you don’t have a pair you just need a partner and a pull-up bar. Hook your legs over the bar and have your partner hold your feet (padding the bar helps prevent beating up on the backs of your legs). Then do sit-ups and twist to have each elbow touch its opposing knee.
Total body– Throwing things is a great way to develop explosive power throughout your body. Remember, the key here is to get your body to generate power as a whole unit, not as a bunch of individual units. Find something of reasonable weight (don’t go too heavy with this or you risk doing more damage to your body than good), and practice throwing it in different ways. Some good techniques are:
Throwing the object backward over your head– start in a squatting position, with the weight held between your legs. Then as one fluid motion, jerk upward, straightening your legs and flinging the weight over your head.
Shotput– Start with the object held close to your ear while squatting, facing perpendicular to your target. Then, in a fluid motion, extend your legs and twist your body towards your target while simultaneously extending your arm to launch your object in the desired direction.
Discus– This one is too hard for me to explain with a short paragraph, so here’s a link to a video on proper form for throwing a discus. You can see from the video how this is going to work your entire body, and teach it to work as a unit.
Starburst with a twist– A variation on the typical burpee, for this you drop down and do the pushup like a typical burpee. The variation comes when you stand to jump. Instead of just standing up and doing a little bunny hop, you explode upward, twisting 90 degrees in air and extending your legs and arms outward. This is a wonderful little torture technique that I picked up in Special Forces selection that I try to incorporate any time I’m training up for any grueling full body event. To make it even harder (if you like pain?) try doing a clapping push-up when you drop to the ground.
The seal crawl– I don’t know what other names this goes by, but I can tell you how to do it. Find a smooth flat floor that you have some room to move around on. You’ll also need a dish towel that is completely dry. Place both feet on the towel, and assume the plank position. Then walk on your hands back and forth across the floor while keeping your back completely straight. Once you’ve mastered this technique, amp it up and get more of a leg workout by using two dish towels and placing one foot on each. Then while you’re walking on your hands, simultaneously spread your legs apart and bring them back together. You’ll be hard pressed to find a workout that will get your burn going as quickly, and teach your body to work as a unit more than this little treasure.
Yoga– I remember the first time my brother told me that he was doing yoga to stay in shape. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to tell him that yoga is what frappe drinking moms did as an excuse to pass on a real workout. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. That’s because my brother is a beast and a physical phenom. He looks like Brad Pitt in Fight Club on a small day, and Brad Pitt in Troy on a good day; so I decided to give yoga a shot. Consider this my official statement of apology to all of the frappe drinking yoga mom’s and everyone else who does yoga out there. I now understand why you can wear spandex in public with no shame; it’s because you’ve burnt off every cell of fat in your body and you are now as tone as a Greek god. Yoga increases flexibility significantly, which adds to overall body strength. It works your body as a whole, and gets a burn on that you might typically associate with wind sprints- with your whole body.
There are tons of great guides out there on how to prepare for a Spartan race or any like it. I recommend checking them out. I’m secure enough to say this is not the most comprehensive one out there, and it’s always good to get several different views on things. This was just meant as an outline of how to get yourself prepped. The important part is that you train yourself to a level that you’re comfortable with so you don’t injure yourself during the event, that you’re getting out there and staying active, and that you end up with the sense of pride associated with knowing how proud King Leonidas would have been to fall under a hail of arrows by your side.
Now, let’s talk about how to hunt wolves with a sharp stick! (I’m just kidding, please don’t do that. Wolves are beautiful creatures. Also, they would eat your face.)
Now, Spotter Up and Prepare for Glory!