We Put a Tough-as-Nails U.S. Air Force Specialist Through the Fitness Wringer. Here’s What He Learned.

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.

Push your body to its fitness max over a brutal five-day endurance challenge (think: back-to-back OCR), and you learn a heck of a lot more than your physical capabilities. Or, at least, that’s what U.S. Air Force TSgt Matt Stevens says when he bagged the Spartan Games.

Yes, it took blood, sweat and a steely mentality to cross that finish line. But, after years of warfare training as a survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialist, that wasn’t a surprise to him. (TSgt Stevens’ day job literally involves everything from jumping out of helicopters to scuba diving, so he’s used to performing in extreme conditions. Plus, when he’s not in the field, he trains daily with an aggressive running, biking, HIIT and active recovery fitness plan—and competes in every Spartan Race his demanding schedule allows.)

What TSgt Stevens’ realized (beyond the physical feat) was just how much he relies on inner resilience and grit: the fabric of his DNA as both Spartan Warrior and Warfare Specialist. Tune in to AIM HIGH, Chapter Three: WIN to watch how he tapped into his military training to not only survive but also dominate this challenge. For more, get his concrete takeaways below that drive him to perform his best now, and always.

Related: How Special Warfare Training Prepped TSgt Matt Stevens for Spartan’s Toughest Endurance Challenge Ever

5 Life Lessons from TSgt Matt Stevens’ Spartan Games Experience

1. Fostering Community is Key

As TSgt Stevens reflected on the Games, the event’s sense of community topped it all. “Being a part of the Spartan Games was much more than what was portrayed on the YouTube series,” he says. “The fact that we were competing next to one another at a high pace, then going back and eating and living together was pretty amazing. Stories shared, getting to know everyone and really seeing people at their worst, best and most vulnerable moments was something special.”

At most other fitness competitions, you prep with your team and coaching staff in your separate sleeping spaces, then hit the venue to compete. Once your day is complete (which, unlike the Spartan Games, doesn’t last from sun up to sun down) you head back to your respective lodging to recover for the following day. “You don’t all stay in the same house, or in our case, the same barn,” says TSgt Stevens. “You would think there would be [trash] talking, or angry and bitter people but it was the complete opposite. Some were helping others out with tips on how to set up mountain bikes, how to not let your goggles fog up in the water and so on.”

2. Adaptability Helps You Thrive

No matter what obstacle you’re facing—on the course or in life—adaptability can make the difference between surviving and thriving, especially in the mental game.

For example, TSgt Stevens says returning to his inherent passion and drive for endurance sports kept him going when fatigue set in. It also helped him find common ground with other pro athletes. “Going into an event like this, it pays to have things in common with people. To build a personal bond with everyone there is key,” he says. “Just through small similarities with everyone there, I was able to feel connected and more secure when pushing my body to the limits. I walked away from Vermont with 23 new friends who all share a super cool story.”

Related: Tips to Fuel Your Fitness Fight from TSgt & Superhuman Matt Stevens

3. Live in the Moment

As far as preparing for BIG challenges to come, the key to success is remaining present. The second you overthink it, you cease to live in the moment. “Just as we do in [SERE] training, take your day meal to meal,” he says. “Don’t get too far ahead of yourself and take life slow. Life is fragile. Things are stressful in today’s world.” Instead of cruising on the anxiety hamster wheel, TSgt Stevens says to keep it simple: relax, exercise, focus on yourself and those closest to you. It’s about taking the next right step, one workout, one nutritional choice, one day at a time. Do that and you’ll cross the finish line, literally and figuratively.

4. Remember: Mind Over Matter

TSgt Stevens says he didn’t feel like a champ during the Games per se—heck, they were hard no matter who you were (we did that on purpose). But, because he was able to conquer the challenge, it inspired him to reconsider the limits of his existing training regimen. “I pushed myself past what I am normally used to,” he says. “In Special Warfare training, we push ourselves but always keep a little in the tank because it is such a long process. I knew the Spartan Games would only last five days, so I physically went all out. Not failing any obstacles on the last Spartan Cross event was so special to me, both mentally and physically. It is a testament to ‘our minds are stronger than are bodies’.”

5. When the Going Gets Tough, Lean on Your Inner Grit

There’s no doubt about it: grit and gumption were key to TSgt Stevens crushing the Games—and it’s fostering those inherent qualities that help him stay sharp and achieve success. “Ever since I grew up, I’ve had this drive for competition,” he says. “Whether it was me against me, me against someone else, or our team against another team, that grit has always come natural to me. It is that “fight or flight” mentality, and I will fight every time. (Unless it’s my wife, then she always wins.)”

BONUS TIP: As far as TSgt Stevens’ best piece of advice for budding Spartans who want to build more grit and perform at the all-time best? “Train hard, but know no limits,” he says. “Of course, limits were made to be broken, but so are your muscles. Take your training seriously, eat right, train smart and recover properly. This will help maintain your level of fitness and bolster your confidence. Strive to stay in the top mental and physical condition. As always, return with honor!”

Learn more about careers in Air Force Special Warfare and join the fight.