A couple of weekends ago I competed in my first obstacle race of the season and my first Spartan race in the elite category.
There have been plenty of people posting race reports recapping the event so I wanted to compose a post that details more about what worked and what didn’t in my training in the hopes there might be some takeaways that will help others properly prepare and train for such an event.
To start, let me say that you can never be perfectly prepared for any obstacle course race, let alone a Spartan race for that matter. Even if the race is at the same venue year after year, the course and the obstacles themselves can change drastically.
I am also training for some long distance trail races, culminating with an ultra marathon run of the Grand Canyon or the Rim to Rim to Rim. With 42 miles and 11,000 feet elevation gain, this is a Goliath of an event and so running will always take the priority when it comes to training.
My strategy back in 2015 was to train for speed. I was having some pretty major health issues back then so I wasn’t able to really put in the time to build a good running base. So I spent several hours a week doing crossfit classes and speed work on the track. And it paid off, compared to this year I was definitely much stronger and faster.
This winter and spring was mainly spent building my running base up again. After having 2 kids, I hadn’t run more than 15 miles a week for over 6 years. And man, it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to build that base. This week is my biggest mileage week ever, at a whopping 45 miles. Most pro trail runners and OCR athletes regularly punch in 60+ miles a week. I have a long way to go.
But as I discovered at the Spartan Super at Fort Carson, CO a couple of weeks ago, running isn’t everything. In fact, it accounts for only a small percentage of what makes a really good OCR athlete. Up until this point I’ve been doing some basic strength and conditioning, maybe twice a week, mostly body weight moves using playground equipment. Some heavy lifting and carries (lugging around a sandbag, heavy weights, etc) but not regularly enough to build muscle and full body strength.
So now you know the facts. Let’s break down my experience in this race, the good, the bad and the ugly. And how I plan on shifting my training for my next big event!
Sure, you can run 10 miles, but can you run fast?
I’ve been spending months building my base, which means a ton of long, slow mileage. I am also training for some pretty brutal trail races (the Leadville marathon for one, coming up in just a couple of weeks) so I’ve also been doing a lot of trail running and speed hiking on steep, technical terrain. What this translates to physiologically is great cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity (the steep hills at spartan didn’t phase me, in fact this is where I caught up with and passed a lot of people, only to be passed by those same people during some of the heavy carry obstacles, see below) but leads to a reduction in leg turnover. Your legs get used to that slow speed and so when you try to pick up the pace on straightaways it isn’t your fitness that is the limiting factor but your neuromuscular system: your brain just can’t make your feet turnover fast enough. Sometimes this presents itself as heavy legs, where you are pushing as hard as you can, not even out of breath but you just can’t run any faster! This is exactly how I felt on race day.
——> The solution:
- Speed work!
1-2 workouts a week on the track should do the trick. 400 meter to 1 mile repeats with a higher intensity recovery interval perfectly mimics the demands of completing an obstacle and then sprinting onto the next one.
- Downhill repeats!
Running downhill forces the body to adapt a quicker cadence and thus those neurological adaptations necessary for faster running without taxing the cardiovascular system. I need to find a steep hill and start incorporating 5-10 of these at the end of my longer runs so that my legs can remember what it feels like to run fast again!
2. Crossfit (or bootcamp style workouts) really works!
When I compare my ability to complete the heavy lift obstacles from this year to last there is a significant difference. The bucket carry nearly killed me and I could barely lift the atlas stone off the ground. I was passed by several girls as they easily picked it up and were already on their way back before I had even lifted mine off the ground.
All those deadlifts, tire flips, squat thrusters and other creative forms of torture in the gym really do help you to build functional fitness and strength that will help you overcome all of the obstacles with less effort.
Another benefit a good bootcamp class or crossfit workout presents is quicker recovery time. Most of these workouts employ high intensity interval training where you are working at maximum effort for a certain amount of time with recovery sets built in. This helps to improve your lactate threshold and anaerobic capacity which in laymens terms means you recovery more quickly from obstacles (or burpees). I would say that my recovery rate was exactly zero for this event. I had to take several minutes after each obstacle or set of burpees before running onto the next.
Find a good fitness class that you can join 2-3 times a week. Studies have shown that doing high intensity exercise more than 3 times a week is actually counter productive and causes more stress and strain on all the bodies systems (and sets you up for greater risk for injury too!)
3. Stay warm and be prepared.
This was just a complete rookie mistake on my end. I checked the weather on Friday morning before packing for the event: 64 degrees and sunny was the forecast. So I packed accordingly and we headed down to our hotel for the night. Well, mother nature had something completely different in store for race day as I woke up to overcast skies, drizzle and a balmy 36 degrees. Good thing my race outfit consisted of capri pants and a tank top!
When I arrived at the start line, my feet and arms were already completely numb, I also noticed that many of the other pro girls had on long sleeve dry fit tops and gloves, silly me!
The cold didn’t really effect me until I hit the rope climb and rig, my hands and forearms were so numb I couldn’t even grip the rope or holds. Burpees for me! I was in 8th place until this moment where I wistfully watched as 6 women passed me as I finished my 60 burpees for failing these obstacles which are typically the easiest for me!
I keep a “trail running kit” in my car at all times. Now I think it would be wise to keep an all weather/racing kit in the trunk as well. This would consist of extra clothing, layers of all types, gloves, compression arm sleeves, etc. Lastly, make sure you plan time for a long warm-up: 20 minutes minimum if possible. The last thing you want is to show up and go full speed out of the gates with cold muscles!
3. Trail running works!
As I mentioned, I’ve been doing a ton of hill climbing, descending, speed climbing and mountain trail running. This gave me a definite advantage at Fort Carson. Who would have known that the devious course directors would come up with such brutally steep climbs and descents? I was glad to have lots of practice on this type of terrain under my belt. My legs felt strong on the uphills and I was confident on the downhills. My legs and lungs did not tire in the least and my feet and ankles treaded effortlessly over the uneven, rocky terrain.
—–> My advice:
If you are training for another Spartan race (like Breck) or even the Tough Mudder, start hitting the trails at least once a week! And preferably on technical terrain that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. The only way to be a stronger, more confident trail runner is to, well, trail run!
4. You can’t “fit” in last minute training!
6. Grip strength is king!
Back before kids I was a regular rock climber and if you look at some of the top athletes in OCR like my friends and power couple Ryan Atkins and Lindsay Webster, they have several things in common, one of them being spending time rock climbing. The sport is one of the easiest and most fun ways to build upper body and grip strength and is more accessible than you may think!
—–> My advice: Give it a try! There are a variety of “climbing” gyms across the front range and many will teach you how to belay and basic skills for climbing or bouldering. I typically purchase a punch card at a gym that offers a bouldering wall and self belay devises so I can take an hour in the middle of the day and go solo if needed.
So that’s it! I ended up finishing in 14th for elite women when I was hoping for a top 5 finish but it was a great learning experience. Every race can’t be an “A” race and you can’t be disappointed with your performance if you know that your training leading up to an event was sub-par.
So now onto the next series of events: The Leadville trail marathon and then the Spartan Beast at Breckenridge!
Stay tuned for more post on training, OCR, and trail running and make sure to join the newsletter so you don’t miss a post!
– Lauren Jones, B.S. ACSM