Joe Di Stefano: Training for Obstacle Course Racing

What is Spartan Race?
Spartan Race, with one million participants across 200+ events in 30 countries, is the global leader in outdoor obstacle course racing (OCR). Spartan Race is a foot race spanning three to 13+ miles of rugged trails with as many as 30 obstacles along the way! Spartan’s obstacles require the utmost physicality and include rope climbs, monkey bars or complex traverses, up to 8’ high walls, barbed wire crawls, arduous carries, heavy weight hoists and even spear throws. Spartan also employs a 30-Burpee penalty for any failed obstacles.

Needless to say, the demands of Spartan Race span the athletic spectrum, from highly explosive to entirely aerobic, and create an exciting challenge for any strength and conditioning coach.

Mental Prep
In September 2014, I shared a car ride with new addition to our Leadership team, Greg, for a three-plus hour drive to our World Championship in Killington, Vermont.

Mt. Killington has some of the most treacherous terrain you’ll find at any Spartan Race, and our Race Directors tend to show no mercy as they chart the course straight up and straight down the 4,000’ summit again . . . and again . . . and again.

Shortly into the ride I casually asked Greg what time he was running. This, while of course knowing full-well he had absolutely zero intentions of toeing the start line. He reminded me of hundreds of clients I’d seen before: I could tell he lacked confidence in his fitness, he was self-conscious about his own body composition (especially now that he worked at a fitness brand), and I did not suspect that he owned a pair of trail runners . . . nevermind a hydration pack or a headlamp.

However, I had already decided that he was crossing the finish line tomorrow, even if it killed both of us.

Greg responded with a chuckle, “Ha! what are you sh*tting me, Joe? I can’t run 13 miles!”

Hearing this excuse before he said it, I shot back with, “I’m not sure I know of anybody that plans on running much of anywhere . . . [chuckle] this is Killington.”

He looked at me puzzled. This was a running race, was it not?

Fast forward 24 hours

Greg and I cross the finish line of the hardest race of the entire Spartan Race season, 16-miles with nearly 8,000’ of elevation gain. The Race also including an arduous 400m, muddy, uphill, double-sandbag carry at mile-11 that had us both questioning our values and the decision to run the World Championship.

With Spartan, you have to know where you are, who you are and what you’re competing for. The medal that’ll be graciously hung around your neck at the finish is the same whether you won the race or crawl across the last timing mat beneath the stars.

As with all things in life, setting proper expectations and nurturing a grounded mind are the foundation of happiness, success and enjoyment. If you’re like me, maybe heading into an OCR for the first time, I advise you start smiling, welcoming adversity and maintain an internal dialogue focused on a “worst case scenario” perspective: Things could always be worse.

The mantra I gave Greg for our  nine hours in the woods of Vermont:

“I’m amongst friends hiking trails on a sunny, 75-degree day, with a bag full of CLIF bars and water. How bad is this? Really?”

Who Runs?
There are really two types of people who sign up and train for Spartan Race; those that are training to survive the event and those that are looking to compete.

If you want to Survive, Spartan Race is a time-on-foot, mobility-based, interval event you can successfully train for in as little as five hours a week.*

If you want to Compete, this is an elite-aerobic event that will require 15+ hours a week of training.

*Please do be one of the thousands that have trained 5-hours a week, chased time on the course and asked me to solve your “inexplicable cramping” issue.

To Survive
Surviving a Spartan Race means your aim is to maximize the likelihood of finishing the course with a smile on your face and without pain or injury. This sounds obvious, but you can always do a little less than what’s advised and survive just as Greg did. Albeit, do not bank on finishing with the smile or enjoying every step of the way.

In our One-Day Spartan Obstacle Specialist course, we have set the following “prerequisites” for all first-time racers looking to come in and enjoy their event. If you can handle the prerequisites and have a strong head on your shoulders, slowly but surely, you should earn your medal.

  1. Be able to touch your toes
  2. Demonstrate a proper overhead squat.
  3. Be able to comfortably run at least 1/3-1/2 of your Race distance*

*the main Spartan events are the Sprint at 3+ miles (but is often 4-5), the Spartan Super at 8-10 miles, and the Spartan Beast which is 13+ miles.

Second to those preliminary tests we also administer tests for the following “adequacies” to assess fitness, find areas of weakness and expose any liabilities as it relates to somebody’s injury-potential:

  1. 30+ second “90/90” Dead Hang (hang from a bar with a tight, wrapped grip and the hips and knees both bent at 90 degrees. This demonstrates fitness to properly begin learning how to climb ropes and ladders.)

  1. 60+ second Dead Hang (this test demonstrates proper grip strength and durability of the shoulders to hang and swing from monkey bars and suspended rings, which will take 20-40 seconds of dynamic swinging to successfully traverse.
  2. 120+ second Push Up Plank (this test demonstrates proper upper body muscle endurance, for the cumulative demand of so many upper-body dominant obstacles)
  3. 180+ seconds Campfire Squat (the test is to squat comfortably, ass-to-grass, and simply have a conversation. This demonstrates relaxation, total body mobility and some of the muscle endurance you’ll need for the terrain and heavy uphill carries.
  4. 50+ Burpees in five minutes (Power-endurance, aerobic fitness, and, well, Burpees will happen and have ruined a lot of sunny weekends for people. For reference, Pro’s and top athletes do 111-127 in five minutes)
  5. >10k steps a day and 25+ flights of stairs for at least four weeks prior to the event (to maximize the durability of your lower legs and accumulate lots of time on your feet.)

General prescription to Survive
Every day roll a lacrosse ball on your feet, lower legs, glutes and traps. Swap hot dogs for down dogs and bird dogs. Feel free to also try the Spartan Pro Team warm up:

Once a week: go long. (60-180 minutes, ideally on a trail)

  • Alternating weekends with either a long, slow hike and a long run/jog/walk works well.
  • How long is long? Estimate how long you’ll be on course and work backwards to what you can do today. Add the requisite amount of time to your long, slow hike each week and a similar percentage of total time to your run.
  • Always practice and refine your hydration and supplementation practices during these runs.

Once a week: run hard for 20-40 minutes. (ideally on a trail)

  • I start people with 3-5 reps of 7-10 minute pushes and slowly move towards tempo runs overtime through reductions in rest periods.

Twice a week: do intervals (30-50 minutes, ideally on a track or trail, some athletes run in grass.)

  • Day 1: 3-5+ reps of 3-6 minutes either running or fan bike.
  • Day 2: 3-5+ reps of sandbag carries of 3-6 minutes each. Men start with 40lbs, ladies with 25lbs.

Three days a week: basic training

  • Phase 1 (2-4 weeks, or until ready to “join a gym”)
    • Accumulate 3-5 minutes of “high push up plank” on the floor, increase the difficulty by elevating your feet on a box.
    • Accumulate 1-3 minutes of a “split squat” on each leg.
    • Accumulate 1-3 minutes of “dead hanging” from a pull-up bar, substitute jumping pull-ups or body rows if you cannot “hang”
  • Phase 2
    • 30-50 reps of Jumping-to-Eccentric or Strict Pull-Ups broken into 15-20 sets of 1-4 reps. i.e. 5×1,5×2,5×3, 5×4, etc.
    • 3 sets of 30-50 Box Step Ups, work up to a 20” box. Pace each round for consistent times across each set. During rest periods, mix in a 1-3 minute heavy goblet or bear hug carry.
    • 3 Hand-Release Burpees on the minute for 5, 10, or 20 minutes or like-circuits.
    • Keep doing Phase 1 (it hasn’t hurt anyone yet.)

What about Cramping?
I called Spartan Race, in part, a mobility-based event because cramps are so commonplace among “survivors,” as are some very specific areas of joint discomfort. Do not be confused, this is almost never because of sodium or anything else, but because, well, “1+1=2”.

If you take a typical desk jockey with tight ankles into five+ hours of dorsiflexion and rugged terrain, they’re going to exhaust their calves/hamstrings pretty quickly and cramp (or roll an ankle). The same goes for areas of pain, such as medial elbow pain. At Spartan, people are hanging onto bars, rings and walls with their entire bodyweight and navigating through the obstacles like they’re a five-year-old kid again—often, for the first time in many years. They’re also grasping sandbags, buckets and atlas stones intermittently throughout the event for periods of up to 30 minutes!

This bombardment, diversity, and cumulative time under tension on the wrist flexors toasts the underprepared and even the occasional podium chaser. For this, I recommend extended carries and dead-hang accumulations, rope work and sandbags. I personally start nearly every workout/program with 10-minutes of aerobic work followed by a 3-7 minute non-stop, fairly light double bell carry (usually some combination of farmers, racked or fartlek style with a few overhead holds. I’m also dabbling now with Dan John’s bear hug carries for this!) Further, with little exception, all the carries we do, warm up or in-session, desk jockey or professional athlete, are over 60 seconds in duration to maximize a more endurance-based training stimulus (We also do a lot of 3+ minute neutral-grip dead-hang accumulations)

To Compete
Now, if you want to compete, this is an elite-aerobic event. Aerobic fitness, both mixed-modal and mono-structural, should comprise the vast majority of your training in all but roughly three months of the year where you aim to get as strong and as bombproof as possible for the following season. I have witnessed more stress fractures, shoulder junk, back pain and chronic fatigue over the years in top athletes than I care to admit.

This was when the sport first started to emerge; it was fun, the community was and continues to be infectious and athletes simply competed too often and trained too hard. Many, assuming they needed to train like a power-lifter and an endurance athlete simultaneously in order to be successful.

For reference, Spartan Race alone has 200 Races this year, each with up to a $3,000 paycheck to first place. So, a naive athlete entering the Sport can easily become quite motivated to go out as often as possible. The requisite travel, balancing jobs, family and training and, of course, cumulative stress can bombard the entire system quite destructively.

Today, I would say, the five most important things for competing athletes to master are the following:

  1. Pushing pace for 80-150 minutes.
  2. Technical descents.
  3. Heavy Carries.
    • 3-7 minutes per interval, on-course Men use up to 120lbs, women up to 80lbs either in the form of a Double Sandbag Carry or a Bucket of Gravel)
    • We at Spartan like to say, “the real start line is the first heavy carry!”
  4. Ankle, hip, and shoulder mobility
    • Most grip lapses in top athletes are neurological shoulder savers, not grip issues.
    • Most back pain is from big toe/ankle mobility deficits.
  5. Dead Hanging / Pull-Up strength. Thus far, I’ve yet to find an “upper limit” here, the more the better.

In my personal coaching, I also ensure my top athletes strive to maintain an appreciable deadlift. My standard is an off-season 1.5x BW for Women and 2x BW for men, always with a double-overhand grip, no wraps, no chalk. Once endurance athletes work up to this load, they can typically maintain it, or close to it, with a little “easy strength” and lots of carries in-season. This standard leaves runners aptly prepared for the strength obstacles, such as the 400lb Yokohama Tire Flip, and still allows them to maximize their economy and pace while running.

Anecdotally, I have seen more athletes whom exceeded this deadlift standard slow down on-course than speed up.

My top athletes are on fairly typical endurance/running-based training programs, with arduous carrying days mixed in as some of the interval days that would more characteristically be 800m or mile-repeats.

Interestingly, Spartan Race and OCR in general is such a melting pot. Over the years, it has not been unusual to see 100-130lb career runners lined up at the start next to 150-190lb CrossFitters who never played a sport in their lives. In some instances, nobody knew who was going to cross the finish line first. Therefore, in my experience over the last seven years, almost every athlete has been truly an individual case study. Although, today the herd is beginning to thin and the best endurance guys are consistently rising to the top.

General prescription to Compete
Once a week: go long. (120-180+ minutes, ideally on a trail)

  • Most pros today are living places with substantial training grounds and are often at altitude.
  • Long runs are long runs, so make sure they’re long.

Twice a week: go hard for 60-75 minutes. (Often the goal here is elevation gain/time and/or long descents.)

  • Standard workout would be 9-11 miles with 1,000-3,000’ of gain.
    • Top Men will run a 6:30-7:40 pace, Ladies ~6:50-8:10 pace.
    • Occasionally mix in metabolically equivalent stressors to simulate the demand of obstacles, these include rock carries, log presses and/or burpees.

Twice a week: do intervals / track work. A few of my favorite workouts are:

  • I start almost every new, up-and-coming athlete with 6x800m with a 2 or 3-minute rest period (based on the athlete). This is usually programmed within ~two-week blocks that shrink the rest periods by :30 until they, hopefully, PR their 5k in coming weeks or months.
  • 4-6x 1-mile repeats. 1:1 work to rest.

Twice a week, in-season, up to four times per week in the off-season: Gym sessions.

  • In season, mostly mixed modal strength-endurance circuits, Easy Strength, and kettlebells.
  • Off season, “Old school” strength training and up to 10 hours of light, fun, base-building, i.e. mountain biking.

Everyday: do something to be better.

  • Most common: 40-60 minute easy run or 30:30s for the same block on the fan bike.
  • Obstacle-Specific practice, i.e. Spear Throwing, technical descents, Rope Ascents, Circuits and chippers that combine obstacles or mimic Race-day scenarios.
  • Rock climbing gym visits.
  • KB Get Ups to “knit” people back together.
  • Dead Hang Accumulations.
  • “Kettlebell Yoga”
    • 3 rounds of 5-10 reps/movement at 12kg
      • Standing Halos + Goblet RDL + Good Morning + Prying Goblet + Low Halo
    • 3-6 rounds unbroken at a consistent pace with double 12kg bells of:3 Front Squat + 2 FR Reverse Lunges to the Ground + 1 Alternating Tall Kneeling Strict Press.
  • Saunas and cold plunges (the cold is something athletes must train, given the World Championship always has a frigid swim/water crossing!)

My athletes spend a lot of time on ski ergs and fan bikes for cross-training and/or recovery. I truly believe these things build incredible obstacle-ready and mountain-ready fitness and allow for athletes to reduce some of the overuse and risk factors we see across endurance sports.

Our real mixed modal days would put 40-60 minutes of mono-aerobic work, such as running or a cross-training modality like the ski erg or fan bike, on either side, or split within an aerobic circuit like:

Perform rounds of 1, 2, 3, 2, 1 minutes each of the following, hitting the standards at all times. <10 second transition between exercises, 10 extended breath cycles between rounds: 

  1. a) 1 Strict Pull-Up + 2 Push-Ups (8+ rounds / min on a 7’ pull-up bar.)
  2. b) Box Step Up (20-24″, 28+ steps/min.)
  3. c) 2×16-20kg Racked Carry (non-stop)
  4. d) Ski Erg or Fan Bike (either a specific pace for everyone or a % of a PR, i.e. a 2k or a 10m max calorie)

Our Strength days would still put 15-25 minutes of light mono-aerobic work, such as running or a cross-training modality like the ski erg or fan bike, on either side of a strength-training session. 

  1. Broad Jumps 5×2 (max effort)
  2. Double Bell Clean and Press 3×5 easy, then 2×5 hard.
  3. Deadlift, 3×5 easy, then 2×5 hard.
  4. [2-3 sets circuit-style with conversational, rest-oriented transitions)
    1. 5x Weighted Chin Up
    2. 5x Glute Ham Raise
    3. 3x Get Up / Side
  5. Sleds and/or Heavy Carries, acute variables . . . vary.

Wrap up
Well folks, there you have it. Whether you’re looking to survive or compete, understand where you are, who you are and what your unique path to success is. Instill proper expectations for that specific situation and enjoy the journey.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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