Sponsored by our partner, U.S. Air Force Special Warfare
In October 2020, Air Force TSgt Matt Stevens joined 23 other top-tier superhuman athletes in our most grueling endurance challenge yet: the Spartan Games. Over five days, competitors battled through mental and physical feats across multiple disciplines including OCR, ultra running, swimming, mountain biking, functional fitness and other strength and endurance-based events. This 3-part series, AIM HIGH, follows TSgt Matt Stevens as he crushes the Spartan Games—watch each episode for more on his momentum, pain points and lessons learned. Plus, how his intense military training prepared him for this epic test.
What happens when you demand that your body runs, bikes, climbs, jumps, vaults, burpees and endures for days on end? You sprint headlong into a fatigue wall. BOOM. As expected, U.S. Air Force TSgt Matt Stevens—like the rest of our 23 pro athletes crushing the Spartan Games—had to battle burnout at the competition’s midway point.
“The hardest part was waking up on day three,” says TSgt Stevens. “The fatigue was setting in and my body needed rest and recovery...” And he had the metrics to prove it. His Whoop device (a system that tracks physiological state and determines performance readiness) recorded his heart rate and recovery status, among other factors during the Games. “I was certainly in the red for all of it,” he says. “Normally on those red days, I don’t train, and if I do, it’s an active recovery day.”
But, as TSgt Stevens will be the first athlete to attest, the Spartan Games was not about taking it easy. It was not for the faint of heart. “Pushing my body past what my mind thought I was capable of was extremely challenging,” he says. “Deep down inside, I loved it.”
Tune in to AIM HIGH, Chapter Two: FIGHT to watch how TSgt Stevens tapped into his U.S. Air Force military training as a survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialist to re-strategize, pivot and power through this endurance challenge. Plus, below, get his expert tips and takeaways to stay on your feet, beat the mental game, and cross the OCR finish line. No. Matter. What. (Think: it’s as much about proper preparation as it is about inner grit.)
TSgt Matt Stevens’ Tips to Stay Strong in the Fitness Fight
1. Expect the Unexpected
Even though one aspect of OCR may be your strong suit, like endurance or strength, be ready for your body to tell you differently when you’re performing under pressure. “I would say the most challenging part for me was the run, which is funny because I am a decent runner and I train in similar terrain,” says TSgt Stevents. “But not after 2.5 days of beating my body at an extremely high level. The steep downhills were killer and the level of competition was insane.” Experience, and expecting the unexpected (so your mental game isn’t tossed), will help you stay on your toes even when things don’t go as planned.
2. Face Frustrations Head On
OCR, and life, for that matter, rarely go how we expect it will. But that’s the point of training and living the Spartan Way, isn’t it. Ultimately, we work to develop resiliency in mind and body so rolling with the punches gets easier. One way to tackle hard things? Face frustrating moments head on, instead of avoiding them. TSgt Stevens says the wrestling event in the Games was most irritating because he had to perform in new circumstances. “The rules weren’t anything like I was used to, or have ever done, so not being able to get low, drag a knee and go in for a take-down was frustrating.” But he showed up and gave it his all anyways, because #NoExcuses.
3. Find Joy & Humor in the Small Things
Playing to your strengths cultivates a positive mental attitude that goes a long way. Hone in on the obstacles you like and lean into challenges that seem fun. And don’t take life too seriously—if you can’t laugh at yourself a little bit when you spot a physical skill you’d like to improve on, well you’ve got bigger problems. “The easiest for me, and probably most fun, was the Highland Games events,” says TSgt Stevens. “Minus having to go against Curt [Maggitt] round one of the tug-of-war. He ripped me across the line like a ragdoll. No shame. That man is a beast and one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
TSgt Stevens says his real strength at the Games came on two wheels. “I felt like a little kid while on the mountain bike. I loved the technical downhill jams but not so much the uphill struggles,” he laughs. “My joy after lap one will hopefully show my excitement for mountain biking—hence why I do a lot of it still today. Good stuff.”
4. Consider Quitting NEVER an Option
Go into an event knowing you are going to come out the other side. Same goes for life—if you’re facing a daunting task or a tough time, dig deep and believe in yourself so much that giving up is just not an option. Period. Do that, and you can do anything. “Quitting never once crossed my mind,” says TSgt Stevens. “Stopping for an orange, some water and snapping a picture at the top of the mountain was the closest I came to slowing down!”
TSgt Stevens says he falls back on these three things when it comes to maintaining mental grit:
- Your mind will quit you before your body will. Don’t let it.
- When you hit the wall, remember why we do what we do—the Spartan mentality must be at the forefront of your mind.
- Always strive to be better than you were the day before. Then, you can’t lose.
(That said, we’ve gotta say it for our own sanity: if you sustain a bad injury during a race, for goodness sakes, be smart and take yourself out of the game. The goal is to train and compete wisely so you can participate in OCR for the long haul.)
5. Set Clear Goals, and Be Cool with a Game-Time Pivot
Since the Spartan Games was unprecedented, it was tough to set goals, too. TSgt Stevens says he came into the event hoping to place 6th or 7th overall. After tackling obstacles for a few days, “it quickly turned into a fight for staying alive and not coming in dead last (which, thankfully, I didn’t),” he says. But in reflecting back on the demands of his SERE training, he knew what his mind and body were capable of. “I think [my training] gave me an upper hand once everyone was hitting their walls,” he says. “Re-focusing and re-strategizing was key to stay in the game and not fall out of it completely.”
The bottom line: set realistic goals, stay humble enough to pivot when necessary, and push yourself to the absolute brink. “I would say the Spartan Games is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life—simply because of how hard I pushed myself physically.”