How to Train for a Spartan Race: First-Timer Tips From 3 Pros

Ever wonder how to train for a Spartan Race if you've never done it before?

😜Or maybe you feel like you need a little more "recess" time in your life.

🤘If you're nodding your head, maybe it’s time you try to get back on the monkey bars and run an obstacle course race!

👉As a common entry point to the sport of obstacle course racing (often abbreviated as “OCR” if you want to sound like one of the hip kids), Spartan Races offer runners the opportunity to test their:

  • Strength
  • Agility
  • Speed, and...
  • Endurance over distances ranging from 3 to 50 kilometers with demanding, and often muddy, obstacles placed along the way. 

Wondering how to get started?

Check out this Q&A with THREE OCR pros packed with tips for beginners to help you learn how to train for a Spartan Race.

The origin story of Spartan racing dates back to ancient Rome. Photo credit: Wikicommons.

Spartan training: The origin story....

In ancient Rome, soldiers trained with natural obstacles like ditches and hedges which were commonly implemented as part of their training for combat. 

  • Obstacle courses grew in popularity during the early 19th century when European countries took an interest in physical fitness, coinciding with wartime. 
  • Functional movements like running and climbing, and equipment like parallel bars, rings, and the pommel horse rose in prevalence.

Today, OCR is a growing sport, in part, due to popular reality TV series like:

Above: racers always finish a Spartan event by jumping over a fire, making for epic race photos!

Thinking about trying a Spartan Race? 3 questions to gauge your 'why'

  • Are you a runner looking to branch out and challenge yourself?
  • Are you a strength athlete seeking to test your cardio?
  • Are you brand new to fitness and looking for a different kind of challenge?

If you answered YES to one or more of these three questions, you're in the right place.

Spartan Races are a challenging, type-2 kind of fun that you’ll remember for years to come.

It might be daunting to dive headfirst into obstacle course racing, but have no fear–ok, a splash of fear is probably warranted. 

We’ve got you covered with everything from training to gear! 

💪In this Q&A, THREE elite OCR athletes show you how to train for a Spartan Race, even if you're a beginner.

Meet 3 OCR Pro Athletes

Cali Schweikhart enjoying the suffer-fest that is a mountainous Spartan ultra.
  • Cali is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and offers coaching through her business, CS4 Training
  • She began her athletic career as a competitive goalkeeper .
  • Later, she found obstacle course racing and became a Spartan Pro. 
  • She recently discovered her love for the ultra distance (winning both the Utah and Kelowna Spartan 50Ks in 2022) and also loves to compete in hybrid fitness events like HYROX
DJ Fox after crossing the finish line as World’s Toughest Mudder 2023, running 105 miles with obstacles over 24hrs.
  • With an extensive background in bodybuilding and powerlifting, DJ didn’t start training for endurance sports until he was 25 years.
  • After finding a love for running, he discovered OCR and it quickly became his primary focus. 
  • Now, DJ is a semi-professional OCR athlete and endurance coach. 
  • DJ took 3rd at World’s Toughest Mudder in 2021, won in 2022, and plans to return and dominate again in 2023. 
Josh Ried wins the Vernon, N.J. Spartan Ultra Beast in 2022.
  • Josh is a semi-pro OCR Athlete, accomplished mountain runner, and endurance coach. 
  • Josh ran on the Spartan Pro Team in 2022, winning the New Jersey Spartan Ultra, and earning multiple elite Spartan podium spots throughout the year. 
  • Josh also holds multiple Fastest Known Times on Devil’s Path (deemed “the East’s most difficult hike”), the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail, and the Presidential Picnic.  
  • In 2023 Josh has his sights set on lowering the Unsupported Grand Canyon R2R2R speed record, and setting a record distance in the 24hrs that is the holy grail of OCR–World's Toughest Mudder. 

Q: How should you choose your first Spartan race?

🏃‍♀️Cali:

I think it’s probably best to consider personal interest as well as athletic history! 

  • Is there a certain distance that calls to you? If you want a long day in the mountains, something like a 21K or 50K could be up your alley. But if you want something faster and shorter, the 5K might be what you would enjoy the most. 
  • It’s also important to recognize how prepared your body is to handle any competition. If you haven’t put in a lot of running volume, it might be smart to wait on the longer distances until you’ve given your body a proper chance to get ready.

🏃‍♂️Josh: 

  • If you like to run more, choose the longer distances because there’s more running between obstacles. 
  • If you like fast and furious, go with a stadion or sprint. 
  • If you like long days on epic trails, go with the beast. 
  • If you want to test your grit, endurance, and strength, there’s the ultra beast with more miles, vert, and obstacles than any of the rest. Plus, since it’s an ultra, they award a belt buckle! 

💪Spartan Race Options: Get ready to Run, carry, traverse, swing, crawl, and leap!

  • Stadion: 5k with 20 obstacles held in a stadium
  • City: 3-5k with 20 obstacles set in an urban, “dirt-free” environment
  • Sprint: 5k with 20 obstacles held on off-road terrain
  • Super: 10k with 25 more challenging obstacles run on trail
  • Beast: 21k in a mountainous setting with 30 obstacles 
  • Ultra: 50k in a mountainous setting with 60 obstacles. Note: Participants often face the challenge of the elements
The Gauntlet obstacle is unique to the stadion Spartan race. Racers can choose to showcase strength or agility by either bulldozing or navigating nimbly through.

Q: How does a beginner find places to train on obstacles?

🏃‍♀️Cali: 

  • I think a Google search and some asking around on social media would be the best bet! 
  • Just search “obstacle gyms near me” and any options nearby will likely come up. 
  • You can also reach out to people in the community on Instagram or Facebook. Almost everyone in OCR knows someone who knows a gym! 

🏃‍♂️DJ: 

  • If you have an obstacle or ninja gym near you, it doesn't get much better than that. 
  • If not, getting into a rock climbing gym can be a great option to build some upper body strength and endurance to help prepare you for the demands of the obstacles. 
  • There are also plenty of training methods in the gym that can be used to simulate obstacles to a certain degree and help you be as prepared as possible if your options are limited.
Bucket carries are a Spartan classic. During the Beast and Ultra events, they usually take place on an uphill.

Q: What’s the optimal split between training for the obstacles vs. training for the running?

🏃‍♀️Cali

  • If you want to really be competitive at Spartan racing, the majority of your training should be running volume and aerobic cardio.
  • Spartan is an endurance sport, even at its shortest distance.
  • If you can follow a cardio-based program that has you running most days of the week and then incorporate obstacle/grip training a couple of times per week, that is a really good mix!

🏃‍♂️Josh

  • OCR is primarily running with short bouts of having to carry half of your body weight and hang from things holding your own bodyweight. 
  • The amount of strength needed is as much as is necessary to be able to perform somewhere in the ballpark of 10 pullups. 
  • If you can climb most V3s in a bouldering gym, you’re probably strong enough. 
  • For carries, be prepared to pick up a weight from the ground and carry it on your shoulder for several minutes. The weight is usually around 70 lbs for men and 50 lbs for women.  
Slowly building strength and endurance will help prevent injuries when you're preparing for obstacle course racing.

Q: What are some ways a beginner can prevent injury in OCR training/racing?

🏃‍♀️Cali: 

  • I think one thing people forget is to build up volume slowly. 
  • Someone who has never tried to run before shouldn’t just jump into running every day. 
  • Take it slow and increase the activity you’re doing progressively over time. 
  • It’s also very important to take off days in order to allow your body to soak up all of the training stress you’re putting it through. Rest is a part of solid training! 
  • Other than that, I would suggest investing in some mobility tools. Something as simple as a lacrosse ball can be a great way to work knots out of your tight muscles (especially the feet and calves). Just rolling on one of these for a few minutes per day can be enough to keep things feeling good!

🏃‍♂️DJ: 

  • The easy answer is to train appropriately. 
  • Learn to listen to your body and take your recovery seriously. 
  • If you're not sure where to start, get a coach to help guide you.

🏃‍♂️Josh:

Make sure you’re well-prepared for the event you’ve signed up for. Run on technical terrain and trails. I also encourage my clients to incorporate a mobility routine.

My personal favorite is the Kruseelite mobility routine

Don’t shy away from the pre-race warmup! I suggest the following:

  • 12 mins of easy running
  • 3 minutes at a fun hard effort
  • A sequence of dynamic warm up drills 
    • High knees or A-Skips (20 reps)
    • Butt-Kickers (20 reps)
    • Leg Swings (20 reps/side)
    • ATG Split Squats (2 reps/side with a hold) 
Cali uses upper body and grip strength to traverse an obstacle.

Q: What are some methods to improve grip strength and other functional movements?

🏃‍♀️Cali: 

  • Rock climbing is a really fun way to train grip strength, body awareness, and coordination! 
  • But if you don’t have access to a rock climbing gym, find a local playground and practice swinging and hanging from things. 
  • With consistent practice you’ll probably notice that monkey bars start to feel a lot easier! 
  • There are also plenty of at-home tools that you can purchase to help with this, like a door-frame pull-up bar or a hangboard.

🏃‍♂️DJ: 

  • Dead hangs and active hangs are a great place to start if grip is a performance limiter. 
  • Once you're comfortable hanging from the bar, grip switches are an awesome option to learn to let go with one hand and regain your grip in a different manner.

🏃‍♂️Josh: 

  • Work your forearms, back, and biceps at the same time. 
  • Farmer’s carries and deadhangs are great places to start, then practice getting across monkey bars and rings. 
Doing deadhangs from a suspended ring is an effective way to improve grip strength.

Q: If you could speak wisdom to your early OCR athlete self, what would you tell yourself?

🏃‍♀️Cali

  • Find a qualified coach. You want to make sure that you have the guidance of someone who knows what they're doing and has your health and longevity as the priority. 
  • It’s easy to just follow along with what anyone tells you to do, but you should do your research and make sure you’re getting guidance from an individual with enough knowledge and background in endurance racing. Ask around and do your research!

🏃‍♂️DJ

  • Stay patient and have faith. At the end of the day, consistency coupled to an unbreakable spirit will take you wherever you desire. 
  • If you’re a beginner, keep stacking up those miles, but don't rush. We are playing a game of years. All good things take time.

🏃‍♂️Josh

  • Run more. I had a deep strength background. Aerobic engine is king. Progressively put in more miles as the body gives you the go ahead. 
  • If you have more of a running background, get your core strong and get competent with pullups and swinging from your arms. 
  • Visiting a bouldering gym or a jungle gym is a great way to build this proficiency. 
  • I also encourage newcomers to the sport to practice before they race. Run in wet shoes. Use your nutrition on long runs. Get on monkey bars when you’re already tired and breathing heavy.
Having trustworthy shoes is imperative once you hit the heavy carries on technical terrain.

OCR gear picks: What should I wear?

With training questions answered, let’s move on to gear. 

  • In a Spartan race, you’re executing a wide variety of movements over technical terrain and dealing with the elements including mud, water, rain, and cold. 
  • It's vital to be prepared for the challenges you’re bound to face. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing.

Q: What are your favorite shoes and socks for Spartan races?

🏃‍♀️Cali

  • VJ shoes (especially their Ultra 2s) have been my go-to shoe for Spartans for a while now. 
  • I love the cushion and the rock plate that the Ultra 2s offer, and VJs grip is unmatched on muddy, slick, messy terrain and obstacles.
  • As for socks, I like to pick ones that dry quickly and are slightly compressive. My current favorite are the Feetures Elite crew socks.

🏃‍♂️DJ

  • VJ's are tough to beat on a Spartan course. 
  • The best grip of any trail shoe I've ever experienced keeps you confident that you won't slip off of an obstacle. 
  • I run Spartan races in the VJ Spark because it is the grippiest shoe I own and it fits well. 
  • My pick for socks is the Darn Tough Merino Wool socks. The Merino wool is great even when wet, which is a guarantee during an OCR event. 

🏃‍♂️Josh

  • I choose VJ shoes for 90% of Spartan races because of the grip. 
  • You’re going in and out of water and mud constantly, so the VJ outsole rubber reduces the risk of obstacle failure (hello burpees!) and of slipping on technical terrain. Their XTRM2 is durable and locks down well for increased agility. 
  • I wear ¼ Crew Mudgear socks. The military uses them, they don’t hold water for how much material they have, they are durable, and don’t stretch out. 
DJ on the rope climb obstacle. Just like high-school gym class, but bigger!

Q: For the ultra distance OCR events, what’s your go-to fueling source?

🏃‍♀️Cali

  • My primary source of fueling for any endurance event has been Spring Energy since 2018! 
  • It’s made of real-food ingredients like rice and fruit, tastes delicious, and settles well in my stomach. 
  • They have a bunch of different flavors, but I especially like Canaberry and Awesome Sauce. 
  • I’ll mix in other solid and liquid fuel options from time-to-time but Spring is my favorite.

🏃‍♂️DJ

🏃‍♂️Josh

  • Maurten and Tailwind are my go to’s, but for a homemade option, mix maple syrup and salt for a cheaper, effective, and tasty option. 
The barbed wire crawl, a Spartan classic, is notorious for leaving its mark on racers.

Q: What hydration packs are your favorite for Spartan Races?

🏃‍♀️Cali

  • I’ve always loved the Salomon S/LAB ADV series of hydration packs. 
  • They are light and stay put even when they are stuffed tight with fuel and gear! 
  • The trickiest thing is trying to not get your pack caught on barbed wire. Even with a few tears, my Salomon packs have held up great for Spartan racing!

🏃‍♂️DJ

  • I prefer a waist belt for OCR. 
  • There is less chance to get tangled up in obstacles with it compared to a vest.
  •  I also just find them more comfortable to move in. My go to is the Naked Belt.

🏃‍♂️Josh

  • I won’t carry anything for 40 minutes or less. But for 50 minutes-3 hours, I use a Hydrapak 500ml hand flask and Naked belt because the Ultra races are loops. 
  • Bottles are great for carrying fuel in liquid calories. There are usually water stations along the course, but don’t count on those for calories! 

💪Take the challenge: Sign up for a Spartan Race

With all of this expert advice, now you get to do the fun part: sign up for a race and start training!

Be sure to save this article in your bookmarks to plan your Spartan racing endeavors. 

If you’ve run a Spartan race before, leave some words of wisdom in the comments.👇👇

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Abigail Lock
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Endurance athlete with a proclivity for mountain running and high altitude desert dwelling. NASM Certified Sports Nutriti...

Comments

Jamie Guel This information is great! I enjoy hiking and running! Some of the gear mentioned I will consider! And a spartan race…hmm, I will add to my bucket list ;)

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