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How to run your first Spartan Race

A guide for obstacle racing newbies.

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Crawling under barbed wire sounds like a fun New Year's resolution, right?

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This story is part of New Year, New You, everything you need to develop healthy habits that will last all the way through 2020 and beyond.

It's nearly 2020 and nothing says "new year, new you" like some health and fitness New Year resolutions. Instead of the same old "get to the gym more," why not add something a bit more adventurous to your list this year? 

If you're the kind of person who hates working out or abhors the idea of running on a treadmill, taking your workout outdoors -- up and over mountains, through icy water and under barbed wire -- might be more fun. Or not. You'll have to decide once you take on the challenge. 

Speaking of challenges, how tough is a Spartan Race, anyway? It seems like everyone and their folks has completed an obstacle course race of some sort, whether they're in good shape or not. So does that mean you can do it, too, even if you haven't stepped foot on a track in years? 

In this guide to running your first Spartan Race, I detail everything from course lengths and obstacles to essential training and race day prep. Note that this isn't a detailed, day-by-day training program -- for that, head to the official Spartan Race website, where you can find one that meets your needs. 

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If you're really lucky (or not, depending on how you feel about jumping over fire), you'll get this obstacle in your race. 

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How fit do you need to be to run a Spartan Race? 

Despite having "race" in the name, there's not all that much running in a Spartan Race, particularly if it's wet and muddy outside. Before my most recent Spartan Race in Castaic, California, it just so happened to rain for nearly 48 hours straight, making the course one of the muddiest events I've ever experienced. I ran for maybe one mile out of the four miles because, for the rest of the time, I was trudging through ankle-deep mud. 

Even if it's not muddy, you may not run as much as you'd think because many of the obstacles are placed close together. You'll save precious energy by walking from obstacle to obstacle rather than sprinting. If the obstacles are placed far apart, a moderate jog will do the trick -- you'll need to save some energy to fling yourself over 10-foot-high plywood walls and climb ropes. 

So, running is probably the last thing you need to worry about. It's the obstacles that require more focused training: more on that below. 

How to train for a Spartan Race

Obstacle course races test several measures of fitness: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, strength and mobility. The most important thing when training for a Spartan Race is to have a well-rounded training plan, rather than becoming hyper-focused in one area or another. 

Case in point: If you can run three miles without stopping but can't do a pull-up, you'll find yourself strapped at many of the obstacles. And for every obstacle you can't complete, you must endure a penalty of 30 burpees -- so you definitely want to complete as many obstacles as possible.

To prepare for your first Spartan Race, focus on the following pillars: 

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Wondering how I'm going to make it to the next monkey bar at the Spartan Sprint. You'll need upper body strength to get through obstacles like this (and good grip strength if it's been raining). 

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Upper body strength

Work on developing your upper body strength in both push and pull positions. To develop pulling strength, perform exercises such as pull-ups, barbell or dumbbell rows and lat pull-downs. To develop pushing strength, perform push-ups, bench press, tricep dips, overhead presses and other similar exercises. 

You can also develop power and explosiveness by doing exercises such as kettlebell swings and power cleans, but it's advised that you work with a coach if you've never performed such exercises.

Lower body strength

Keep it simple when working on lower body strength. Squats, lunges and deadlifts will prepare your muscles for the challenges of a Spartan Race. Other helpful exercises include box jumps, tuck jumps, jumping lunges and other plyometric movements. 

Mobility

You might be surprised at how much flexibility you'll need for a Spartan Race -- particularly for obstacles like the slip wall, for which you'll need good hip mobility to get up and over. Spend some time stretching after your workouts to ensure your joints are in good condition for the race. 

Endurance

When you think of endurance, don't limit the scope to just cardiovascular endurance. You need to build muscular endurance, too. Muscular endurance simply refers to the ability of your muscles to sustain contractions -- think squatting for 20 reps versus squatting for five reps. The former is a way to train muscular endurance. 

To up your endurance -- both cardiovascular and muscular -- for a Spartan Race, you should complete at least one high-volume workout per week. Ideally, you'd perform one cardio-heavy endurance workout (like a long run) and one high-volume resistance training workout each week (like a 30-minute full-body circuit workout). 

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There's something special about finishing a Spartan Race -- so special that you grin even while covered in mud and fighting off shivers.

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Spartan training split

When training for any fitness challenge, you should plan your workouts in a split so that you don't end up with an overuse injury or overtraining syndrome. An example of a good Spartan training split is: 

  • Monday: Upper body strength workout
  • Tuesday: Full-body circuit workout
  • Wednesday: Lower body strength workout 
  • Thursday:  Rest or active recovery
  • Friday: Full-body circuit workout
  • Saturday: Cardio endurance (e.g., a long run)
  • Sunday: Rest or active recovery

Course length and obstacles 

Spartan puts on five different obstacle races: the Spartan Sprint, the Spartan Stadium Series (also called Spartan Stadion), the Spartan Super, the Spartan Beast and the Spartan Ultra

The Spartan Sprint is best for beginners. It's about the length of a 5K (3.1 miles), although depending on location, the length can vary from three to five miles: My most recent Spartan Sprint was just over four miles. The Sprint includes 20 obstacles, but the company sets up a unique course for every location, so you won't know which obstacles you'll encounter until you sign up and receive the course description. 

Some obstacles that appear at many, if not all, Spartan Races include: 

  • Rope climb: Climb a rope and ring a bell at the top
  • Monkey bars: Get all the way across with no assistance
  • Barbed wire: Crawl underneath barbed wire 
  • Cargo net ladder: Climb up and over a cargo net structure
  • Hoist: Lift a heavy weight with a pulley system
  • Sandbag carry: Carry a sandbag for a designated length
  • Tire flip: Flip a tire from flat on the ground

The Stadium Series is also a good place for beginners to start. The Spartan Stadium Series is similar to the Sprint in distance, but the obstacles differ. Because these races are set up in sports stadiums, you likely won't encounter any water, mud or barbed wire. But you will have to run up and down stairs, climb up walls, get across monkey bars and more. 

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The sandbag carry. We had to lug a sandbag up a hill and back down the other side, or else perform 30 burpees (and still go over the hill, but bag-less). 

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If you're up for even more of a challenge, you can sign up for the Super (eight to 10 miles with 24 to 29 obstacles) or the Beast (12 to 14 miles with 30 to 35 obstacles). I definitely recommend testing the waters with the Sprint or Stadium Series, though. 

How long does it take to run a Spartan Race? 

This depends largely on which course length you choose, as well as weather conditions. The Spartan Sprint can be completed in less than an hour, but it might take more than three hours. For reference, running a 5K takes me 23 minutes on average. My most recent Spartan Sprint took more than two hours due to the mud and, of course, the obstacles. 

Like I mentioned before, you won't do as much running as you might think, so try not to compare a Spartan Race pace to your usual running pace. If you're preparing for your first Spartan Race, I recommend focusing on finishing and completing as many obstacles as possible, rather than focusing on getting a certain time. 

What to wear and pack on race day

If you made it to race day, congrats! Training for a Spartan is no easy feat -- now it's time to put all that hard work to the test and complete your first Spartan Race. Before you go, make sure you have everything you need to be safe and comfortable. 

You should expect and prepare for the worst. That might sound foreboding, but you'll thank me when you have an extra pair of underpants to change into after the race. Speaking of extras, bring an extra of everything: Extra shirt, socks, shoes, pants or leggings, sports bra, jacket, hair ties, water, snacks. Whatever you think you'll need, bring along extra, because you just never know. 

In general, dress as you normally would for an outdoor workout. If it's wet outside, pants or leggings usually beat shorts because chafing is more likely to occur in wet weather. You'll definitely want a shirt that allows you to move freely: Restricted arms and shoulders will make many of the obstacles even tougher. As for shoes, wear a pair of lace-up tennis shoes with good grip. 

What to eat before a Spartan Race

Follow the same general guidelines for eating before and after workouts: Fuel up with a high-carb meal that has moderate portions of healthy fat and protein. Afterward, recover with more carbohydrates, extra protein, fluids and electrolytes. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.