Rusty? Spartan Pros Explain How to Hack Your First Race of 2021 (and CRUSH It!)

Presented by Spartan Training®

Racing is back! A new year means new goals, and for many Spartans, this long hiatus means more questions than answers. With three events available in Jacksonville in a month –– a Super 10K, a Sprint 5K, and a Trail 10K –– the time is right to start preparing for battle. If you have questions or doubts about your fitness level, what to expect, or how this year might require a new set of skills, you've come to the right place. We’ve enlisted two Spartan pros to help you hack your way back to the top.

Go Back to What You Know, and What Works

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Kevin Donoghue has been a member of the Spartan Pro Team since 2015, has broadcasted Spartan events on ESPN, and is the all-time podium finisher across all divisions (with 147 podium finishes). With his plethora of experience and expertise, he has a unique perspective on how this year will be different.

The primary concern is addressing the reality of having taken so much time off.

“None of us have raced in a legit Spartan race in over a year," Donoghue says.
"If you didn’t race at Jacksonville last year, It could have been as long as a year and a half.”

Having such a stark absence from competition means that there will be a lot more reliance on individualization for training, since there hasn’t been a competitive field to gauge progress.

Related: 6 Unorthodox Ways to Motivate Yourself to Work Out

“The biggest fears people will have is to pick up where they left off," he says. "There are a lot of questions there and a lot of self-doubt. Am I the same athlete? Well, the answer is simple: Trust your training, trust yourself. Go back online and look at some of the older TV coverage. Refresh your memory as to how it was.

"Go back through your social media — you seeing the competition, your friends, the obstacles — because you're going to be okay. Remind yourself of the technical Spartan race moves. Get back on the monkey bars, grab a couple of sandbags, do a few spear throws. Tell yourself you can still do this. It's not to be completely alien. It's going to be like riding a bike.”

Get Some High-Intensity Obstacle Prep in

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Fellow pro Cali Schweikhart also has great insights to share. In 2017, just at 21 years old, Schweikhart became one of the youngest females ever to win an elite Spartan race. Since then, she has been on the podium at numerous other Spartan events. She was a top 20 finisher at the Spartan Race World Championship in 2019, and is currently working her tail off to further climb the OCR ranks.

“Even though I have been preparing throughout this lengthy break, I am still weary of the rustiness that comes with not being exposed to the specific demands of a Spartan in over a year,” she admits. “To prepare for the first race back, it is definitely a good idea to get in any high-intensity obstacle prep that mimics the feeling of going through obstacles while your heart rate is sky high and lungs are burning up.”

How do you do that? It can be as easy as doing some sprints, and then immediately taking a few passes on the monkey bars at a local playground. (Bonus points if your hands are wet, or if you do it in the rain.)

“Even better would be to do a couple race-simulation workouts that mirror the challenges of the race,” she adds.

Related: Yancy Camp Race-Simulation Strength Workout

A Simple Workout to Get Your Body Race Ready

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For an event like Jacksonville, with such a unique topography, the approach will be a little more customized. Athletes will have to tailor their training to combat what is primarily a speed course.

“Jacksonville is a tricky course," Donoghue says. "It's flat. There is less than 100 feet of elevation gain, even on the Super. While that means it’s fast, it’s still a strength course. There are lots of bogs, lots of mud, knee-deep water, and there are steep up-and-down motocross jumps that you have to power up.

"With deep sand, marshes, and heavy carries that are lengthy, your heart rate gets elevated and there’s real anaerobic power that’s needed. The flooded out, marshy sections are undulating underneath with lots of suction.”

A custom workout routine is not required to combat these obstacles.

“Try to practice running in sand, snow, or muddy terrain,” he says. “Do repeats in that kind of terrain to train your muscles and heart rate to compensate.”

Schweikhart suggests doing 8-12 rounds of a 400 meter run, at a hard effort, coupled with a strength-obstacle exercise like monkey bars, bucket/sandbag carries, lunges, farmer’s carries, and jump squats.

“These exercises all test specific skills/strengths required to excel in Jacksonville, and mixing them between hard-run efforts should get your body ready to meet the demands on race day,” Schweikhart says. “However, it’s important not to overdo these types of workouts, as they are quite taxing. They should be difficult, but not so difficult that they leave you completely tired and unable to recover for the race.

"You’d probably want to aim to complete them at just under race pace/all-out effort, so you’re challenging your body to meet the specific demands of the race, but are also able to finish them feeling strong and ready (as opposed to destroyed and utterly exhausted). [Doing] one to three of these workouts, depending on ability and where you are in your training, would likely do the trick.”

Related: How to Master the Monkey Bar Obstacle Like a Champ

Do the Mental Work to Get Your Mind Race Ready

The field in Jacksonville figures to be as difficult as the obstacles themselves.

“Being that this will be the first major race of the year — and also the first major race in a LONG time — it is likely that both the men’s and women’s fields will be stacked with solid competition,” Schweikhart says. “Anyone showing up to Jacksonville should mentally prepare for battle against the best of the best.

"This course will yield some very speedy times, and there will be little to no room for obstacle failures. In addition, the humid and often wet, muddy conditions in Jacksonville will add to the difficulty of the obstacles. When I raced Jacksonville in 2019, I was a bit caught off guard by just how slick and messy everything was, and it definitely affected my race. The burpee pits were pretty crowded at anything grip-strength related.”

The true preparation for Spartans –– the real hack –– comes with the confidence of sound and consistent training. Both pros harped on the value of consistent, injury-free work, which they had ample time to put in in 2020.

“Some mental work would be a great addition to your race prep,” Schweikhart says. “I tend to prefer the use of mantras. These meaningful words, or phrases, are something you can latch onto in your training — and during the race itself — for a little confidence boost and a reminder of why you’re out there pushing yourself. My favorites are Conviction and comfort don’t live on the same block,’ and the simpler, yet powerful, ‘You belong.’”

Considering the significant time spent away from racing, these powerful mantras will help you feel confident and ready to embrace the inevitable pain and challenges that come with competing.

“When athletes go into a competition expecting it to be difficult," Schweikhart says, "but they're excited to push themselves — versus fearing or dreading how hard it will be — they race with a confidence and fierceness that ups their game and tends to yield much better results.”

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