Spartan Race Training Over The Years: Training Hard Vs. Training Smart
This is a review of the last 6 years I've been training and competing in obstacle races. This is also an article for A type personalities that don't value the importance of recovery for performance. Its also for people that are interested in the training variables that may lead to better results when applied to obstacle course racing.
As a trainer I've always taken my clients through very appropriate, structured, and progressive phases of training that have led them to achieve good results in strength and conditioning, I've also seen my clients, colleagues, and other A type personalities take it too far, go beyond a structured training program, and injure themselves, sometimes contrary to my sound advice. I've been constantly experimenting with variables in my own programming that erred mostly on the side of pushing training volume conducive to injury and overtraining. I've since gained a better understanding of how to structure my training for best performance while reducing incidence of injury. For detailed comparative data between styles of training and lessons learned over the years, you'll like the discussion at the end.
Spartan races have been a part of my annual training cycle since I started in the fitness industry. I first heard about Spartan Race back in 2012 from one of my colleagues at the time while I was working as an audio engineer in the music industry - this was before I even thought of becoming a trainer. Back then I'd take care of my health by making the best choices I could with my food intake and I'd work out in the halls of the studio between bouts of sitting, watching bands record, or editing music.
I was a fan of obstacle courses ever since I watched the original Ninja Warrior from Japan, long before it made its way to America. Hearing about Spartan Race piqued my interest and reignited a flame. Years earlier, misinformed training (running daily on a treadmill for warmups before workouts) had ruined my knees, and I thought I'd never get into running again.
My first year of racing. This was the year I got back into consistent training. I gained knowledge and started applying exercises to my training routine that I never did before (barbell deadlifts and squats). Before then, I had gone 9 years of consistent gym training only having done weighted lunges and machines (leg press, leg extension, ham curl). for legs. The time off that I had from running while working in music, and the application of new knowledge as a fledgling trainer gave my knees a new start. Strength training and multidirectional movement (playing soccer a few times a week) were crucial in developing my hips to a point where I didn't feel pain in my knees.
I signed up for my first Spartan Sprint race in the spring, and then put another four races into my schedule for the rest of the summer (Spartan Beast, Warrior Dash, Mud Hero, and Tough Mudder). I was hellbent on doing well at these races. It was an exciting new training goal, and a chance to put my new training knowledge to the test. I had an injury prevention protocol, conditioning, strength training, and mobility all included in my program.
Toronto Spartan Sprint - June 23rd
Enter my first race, the Toronto Spartan Sprint. I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know the rules, I just went in full force. For whatever reason I didn't get a result time, so you'll have to take my word that I placed first in my heat (and made the top 20 open division). It was a 10:30am start time - a couple of heats into the morning - and I was running into (and getting stuck behind) racers from previous heats. This was the beginning of me always signing up for the first heat of the day on subsequent races. This first racing experience fuelled me to train harder for my next race three weeks later, the Toronto Spartan Beast.
Toronto Spartan Beast - July 14th
Leading up to this race, the longest distance I had run in training was a leisurely 10k a week before the race. Aside from that it was soccer 3 times a week, short, fast paced 5k runs 3 times a week, and split body part gym sessions 6 days a week.
This ended up being one of my best races to date. I placed 5th in my age group (25-29) and 16th overall. I underestimated the length of the race and had to stop for a few minutes near the end due to dehydration and cramping in my calves and hamstrings. It took me a minute to regroup, uncramp, and a couple of cups of water later I continued to the finish line.
- 6 days a week split gym routine (Legs, Chest/shoulders, Arms, Legs, Back, Core).
- 3 days a week soccer games (roughly 45 minutes long)
- 2-3 days a week 20 minute steady pace runs.
Weekly time commitment: 8.5 - 9 hours
I had no injuries aside from a first degree (minor) ankle sprain during a soccer game in between my 3rd and 4th race. I applied a proper recovery protocol and was back playing soccer the next week, and at close to full capacity within two weeks, just in time to be ready for my 4th race.
This was the beginning of my ego and type A personality causing problems. I was so eager to start training long distance at the first hint of spring that I went for a 14km run completely unconditioned. The consequence: I developed IT band syndrome in my left knee from sudden overuse and muscle imbalance. I took a month off from running. I then slowly picked up training again. I only entered one race, the Toronto Spartan Sprint. My training wasn't focused on racing, I had a host of other priorities that summer. All things considered, I was strong, in good overall shape, but not well trained for the races.
Toronto Spartan Sprint - June 7th
I ended up placing 78th overall in this race. I jumped the gun early in the preparation season and didn't have enough training leading up to the first race.
Lesson learned: follow proper progression - you are not an exception to the rule.
- 6 days a week split gym routine (Legs, Chest/shoulders, Arms, Legs, Back, Core).
- Occasional soccer games (roughly 45 minutes long)
- 2-3 days a week 30 minute steady pace runs starting in June.
Weekly time commitment: 7-8 hours.
Having learned from my mistake the previous year, I progressed my long distance running starting in early May. I entered an 8k warm up trail race in mid July, two weeks prior to my first Spartan race of the season.
Toronto Spartan Super - July 19th
For whatever reason (technical difficulty?), I don't have time or placing results for this season. I trained hard and my performance was decent, but nowhere close to my first year of racing.
This was a particularly challenging season for training - I was running on barely any sleep, waking up at 4:30am three days a week to swim before my first client, and at 6am twice a week to do 10k runs before class. I had begun full-time RMT school while working full-time as a trainer seven days a week. I'd allot one day in the week for food prep, and it took half the day. As a result, to the best of my ability, I offset my lack of sleep with a clean, healthy diet, exercise, and focus.
Ottawa Spartan Beast - August 9th
This was by far the hardest race I have ever done. It was over 30k. We all received an email notifying us that taking food and water were mandatory for the course. Having done a Beast race two years prior without packing food or water, I felt I could probably get through the course without it. I also had better endurance training this season, having done 10k training runs 3 times a week leading up to the race.
My legs completely cramped at around 26k. A fellow racer gave me one of his electrolyte tabs, some water from his pack, and an energy gel. It got me to the finish line, but I never experienced true muscle failure in my legs like I did that day. I felt every muscle in my leg seize, starting with the hip adductors, then quads, hamstrings, and calves. Lesson learned: take some fuel to a Beast, especially if you have never done over 30k successfully in training.
- 3-4 days a week gym routine full body (short, 20-30min workouts, time restricted)
- 2 days accessory (Core, shoulders - 20-30 minute workouts).
- No time in schedule to fit soccer games.
- 3 days a week ~10k runs (40-45 minutes)
- 3-4 days a week 1000m swim (20 minutes)
Weekly time commitment: 7-8 hours.
Not only did my legs completely cramp during the race, my IT band syndrome that caught me early in the 2014 season came back later into the Beast race; it took about a month to subside.
I had to take this year off. In April, I had finally finished my RMT program and was the most eager I had ever been to devote a large chunk of my time to training and have this be my best season of racing to date. I kept up a consistent training routine all throughout the winter with early morning swimming sessions 3-4 times a week, and weight training 5-6 days a week. The weekend after my last day of class, I got out to train on the hills and in the gym. My program was not structured, I was just putting in as much training volume as my body could take. That Sunday, April 17th, I did a training session running up and down hills, a heavy squat session at the gym, and a run after that. I had already done a run and a full body gym session on Saturday.
The morning of Monday, April 18th, I decided to fast while training my morning clients. I had planned to go eat something after my morning block, but while training my clients, my training partner texted me asking if I was around to train. I could've said no given that I was feeling weak, hungry, and could've used a recovery day, but I couldn't turn down an opportunity to train. Furthermore, when it came down to the training session, I decided to make it a high intensity chest and back workout rather than having a lighter workout - my ego was bigger than that entire gym. I loaded up the bar with about 200 lbs for v-bar landmine rows for sets of 6-8 reps, and 225 lbs for flat barbell bench press. I was an endurance athlete trying to maximize my capacity for strength, while training endurance in the same phase of training. For anyone that understands programming, endurance training and training for strength and power don't go hand in hand (one will always detract from the other). I knew I wasn't training to specialize in either, but I wanted to milk my body's potential to be the best it could be at both.
On my fourth set going between those two exercises, I was grinding out my third rep on bench press when I heard a loud tear in my right pec and felt a sharp pain. The bar dropped on my chest, but I sat up and rolled it off. I had a much bigger concern than that bar at that moment. I felt like my pec was torn and rolled up into my chest. I couldn't move my shoulder.
My training partner drove me to a nearby hospital. After waiting a couple of hours, a doctor took a look at my shoulder, made me move it in various ranges, and I got referred to get it imaged (ultrasound). The ultrasound showed a minor 2-3mm cross-section tear. When I read the scan results, it didn't specify which muscle was affected! I was sent home with a referral for physio. I call that an unfortunate system failure.
I knew it was more than a small tear in an unspecified muscle. Nonetheless, I started my own recovery protocol, waited for the bruising to go down (my right arm, from shoulder to elbow was dark purple), and went to train clients the next day. After about a week, the bruising started to disappear and I was able to get a better picture of the contour of my chest in the mirror. The right side chest to arm looked like it had a big piece missing (characteristic of a pec tendon rupture) and I was still unable to perform any chest dominant movements without pain, even with the slightest resistance.
Having studied the success rates of pec tendon rupture recovery with or without surgery, I knew I had to have my injury confirmed by a specialist. The studied prognosis of pec major tendon rupture with successful surgical repair is close to 100% return to full strength in the muscle after recovery and rehab. Without surgical repair, the prognosis is roughly 70% original strength in the muscle after recovery and rehab. It was a no-brainer - the sooner I could get surgery, the better. I had a surgery scheduled within a week, and the remainder of the year was a long, depressing road to recovery.
The remnants of bruising from the tear before surgery.
Post - op. May 14th, 2016.
-slowly regaining pain free range of motion in right shoulder (2 months).
-slow progression of exercise.
-about a year's worth of consistent, progressive training to return to functional, pain-free strength (ex. being able to do full range body weight dips without pain in the shoulder).
I learned where my physical breaking point was and what I had to do to get there. From the start, I knew the literature for proper athletic programming. I knew that during the competitive season, especially in an endurance sport, training volume in the gym should decrease in favour of more sports specific training. Nonetheless, I wanted to learn exactly how much I could keep both up, and what it would do (negatively or positively) for my performance. I learned at a high cost. Scheduled recovery is paramount for repair and performance - I always knew this and preached by the book to my clients, but deep down my ego wanted to prove physics wrong.
I trained really hard consistently to get my body as close as I could to my pre-injury baseline strength. My goal was to complete a Spartan Trifecta and qualify and compete in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships. I was cautious not knowing what to expect in terms of how hard I could push my body. I couldn't afford risking damage to the repaired tendon. All things considered, I achieved the goals I set for myself and felt satisfied.
Toronto Spartan Sprint - June 25th
I had smarter programming going into this season. The Sprint course was challenging and felt like a new beginning after a year spent getting my body back to normal.
Ottawa Spartan Super - August 6th
I started training longer running distances and more hills before this race, but nothing longer than 10km. I knew from past experience that I was prone to recurring IT band syndrome in my left knee from overuse. Near the end of the race I felt the onset of overuse pain in my left knee, but it wasn't a big deal. I placed 42nd overall which was reasonable for a comeback season. I can't say I pushed my limits for this one.
Toronto Spartan Beast - September 9th
After the Spartan Super, I ramped up my long distance training. I started to run close to 10k three times a week leading up to the race. I was getting pain in my left knee from overuse. I did what I could to ameliorate the symptoms, but I couldn't stop training this far into the season. I worked around it. When it came to race day, I did alright. My knee started to really give me problems around 14k; it slowed me down significantly. I finished 45th overall. I was happy to be back, able to race.
Obstacle Course Racing World Championships (Short Course) - October 13th
2017 was my physical comeback year. After a winter of slow, consistent work at the gym, I set my sights on qualifying and competing in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships (OCRWC), which happened to be held in Ontario (Blue Mountain). I needed to place top 5 in my age group in a qualifying race to qualify for the competitive division in OCRWC. I ended up getting 4th place in my first race of the 2017 season (Metcon Blue). I have an eventful story for what happened on that race day, but that would take up an entire separate article. Long story short, I qualified and competed at the OCRWC 2017 and was happy to be there and run the course. After running the Spartan Beast a month prior, my left knee was still in pretty bad shape. I was happy to transition into the offseason.
-4-5 days a week gym and calisthenics park routine, full body (45 min workouts on average)
-3 days a week ~ 10k runs (40-45 minutes) leading up to Spartan Beast race.
-2-3 days a week 1000m swim (20 minutes)
-3 days a week steady cycling (1 - 1.5 hours average per session).
Weekly time commitment: 10-12 hours.
For 2017 I had combined high volume endurance and resistance training. I ended up getting my recurring left IT band syndrome from overuse, but chose not to completely let off training until the season was done and I finished all the races that I signed up for. Having the recurring IT band issue for a third season in a row pushed me to seriously reconsider my training style for 2018 and revisit what I did in my first year of competition (2013), when I had my best results to date.
This was by far the most interesting year. It was the first full season that I had my Garmin Forerunner 235 GPS watch that tracks my vitals and metrics around the clock, during my races, and training sessions. I had this watch for the tail end of the last season and I'm able to compare my training program, metrics, and results specifically between last August (2017) and this August (2018) leading up to and including the Spartan Beast race, which was held in the same location and was the same distance for both years. Now we can get a little more scientific about programming and other variables that impacted results. I'll save this for the discussion at the end.
Toronto Spartan Sprint - June 23rd
My training for this race started about a month prior to it. I incorporated hill training, full body gym training, and pace runs no longer than the actual race length (7 km). It was a nice warmup to the season. I placed 43rd overall. The first race of the season is always a test to determine what areas of training need more attention and work. I learned that I needed to improve my stamina on hills, increase my grip strength for the hanging obstacles, and focus on nailing the spear throw.
Ottawa Spartan Super - July 29th
This race was held in the same place as the year before but they added more hill climbs and descents and an extra 5km distance to the course overall. This was the first race I got the spear throw in my 5 seasons of racing. The hills were the toughest part of the course and it took a lot out of me. Towards the end, my heart rate peaked at 209 during a hill climb; that's the first over 200 bpm in the time I've had a wearable heart rate monitor. I finished 42nd in this race - the same place as the year before.
Toronto Spartan Beast - September 8th
After the Spartan Super, I decided to really focus and create a structured program geared specifically for this race. I took a week off from training after the Spartan Super and created a program in preparation for the Beast. I knew what the Beast course would roughly be like because it was being held at the same location as the year before. It was fairly flat terrain, and the same distance (21k). I had three things that I implemented into this new program based on my past experience: 1. No hill training, 2. Less long distance training and more interval training - based on my past experience of suffering overuse injury from repetitive wear and tear, exhaustion, and break down of running form; and 3. Dedicated recovery days.
In the past I would have a loose program (except for 2013 - I followed my program closely) and depending on how I felt, I'd train more when I could. The result was usually to cut out rest days in favour of more training. I'm really good at overriding the way I 'feel' with a perceived urgency of achieving as much as possible in the shortest amount of time; it's a flaw that has cost me performance and induced injury in the past. So this time I stuck to science and what I knew about training rather than winging it in favour of ridiculous training volume. I stuck to my program and got great results. I placed 25th overall with the least amount of weekly training I've ever done: 4 hours per week.
-3 days a week, 45 minute focused gym sessions (2 full body days with compound lifts, and 1 sport specific day to improve grip strength and stamina with carries, hangs, burpees, etc.)
-3 days a week, max. 30 minutes per session (100m sprints on the field with soccer ball).
Weekly time commitment: 4 hours.
I had one dedicated recovery day per week and a taper week the week before my last race to reduce volume and allow my body to recover before the race. This was my first season completely injury free, and by far my most efficient and effective programming to date - especially in the month leading up to my last race.
Here I'll compare August 2017 to August 2018 and the factors that contributed to the difference between me placing 45th with an overuse injury in 2017 vs. 25th with no injuries in 2018. The Beast course for both years was held at the same location and was a very similar distance (marked as exactly the same - 21k). I also have all the biometric and training data for both years having had my GPS watch for both. I can see how well conditioned I was for both races by looking at my heart rate stats. I can also see my progression in cardiovascular efficiency during training based on my heart rate stats. Here's a visual comparison between the 2017 Beast and the 2018 Beast:
You can see that the course was much less strenuous for me in 2018. Now for a comparison of course length (distance and time), and estimated energy expenditure:
As you can see by the maps, the course was almost identical for 2017 and 2018, meanwhile I used half the energy in 2018 as I did in 2017.
Here are the main factors that contributed to a better outcome in 2018:
1. Strict adherence to a well designed training program.
In 2017 I was still training more than was beneficial for my body. I was throwing as much as I could into training while trying to stave off overuse injury (left IT band syndrome). In 2017 I was training 10-12 hours a week. In 2018 I brought it down to 4 hours per week - that's a whole lot of time I freed up to do other things while getting better results on the course. In 2018, I followed my program to a tee, this included scheduled rest days and a deload/taper week leading up to the race. The training sessions were very specific and focused, and I didn't do anything extra outside of those scheduled training sessions that would negatively impact my training in any considerable way.
2. A different approach to building speed and stamina.
In my first season of competing (2013) I did almost no long distance training (except for one 10k session). Instead, I played soccer games and did short 5k pace runs 3 times a week. This approach worked well for me. It improved my speed, prevented breakdown in running form, and improved my stamina for longer distances.
In 2018, I adopted a similar strategy: no long distance training, only pace runs, and in the month leading up to the Beast race, only 100m intervals with progressively less rest in between sprints.
For the seasons in between, I put too much focus on long distance training, and it only caused overuse injury from repetitive stress. Any small benefit from training the longer distances was dramatically outweighed by the effects of overtraining and repetitive strain injury.
During my first season of competing I had two things going in my favour:
1. It being the first year of intense, focused training.
My body was fresh and not previously subject to such high volume running. I could get away with more damaging volume without being immediately injured. Overuse injury usually develops with more repetition, and eventually did develop for me in following seasons.
2. My training wasn't heavily focused on long distance.
Instead, I was doing shorter bursts of running with little rest time (soccer games), and short pace runs to develop speed and stamina.
In 2018 I took these points into consideration and applied what I know about best training principles to create a great program.
The longer I compete, the smarter I have to train. I have to take into consideration the wear and tear on my body, the fact that I have more muscle on my body than conventional endurance athletes (and I want to maintain that), and that having a slightly heavier weight and predisposition to overuse injury requires adjustments to training.
One of the greatest takeaways from my experience doing these races over the years is psychological. I can no longer let my ego guide my training, I will let my inner coach guide my training. You need an objective observer that will consider all your details to build your program, and you need to follow their educated, experienced judgment.
In 2018, I chose to take all the data and training knowledge into consideration and stop myself from pushing far beyond my physiological potential. I had tested the extent to which I could avoid recovery. It was time become my own coach and follow my own structured program - to follow the educated coach that I am to my clients.
I'll take 4 hours training per week with better results over 10+ hours a week any day - as you can see, with the right approach, it can be done. All it takes is applying the correct training variables in the correct amounts (specificity, volume, frequency, rest, and recovery). Training needs to be focused.
In a race to get as much training volume and frequency in as I could, I put recovery on the back burner until this year (2018) and stuck myself in a perpetual loop of mediocrity. All things considered, I don't regret the experiment. Like the suspicious scientist that I am, I had to test all of these variables on myself to make sure they held true.