As racing resumes in 2021, Spartans of all levels are looking at the schedule and readying themselves for another epic season. The Spartan World Championship, hosted in Abu Dhabi on Dec. 3-5, might feel like a world away — with its different terrain, different time zones, and even bigger expectations — but for elites and amateurs alike, it will be here before you know it, and it figures to be an unforgettable event. As athletes begin lacing up for competition, the ever-present question remains: How do I properly prepare myself?
What does it take to race your best when it matters the most? For elite racers, that answer comes with individualization and tried-and-true methods that have been honed over time. For the novice Spartan eager to hit the course in 2021, that answer is a little more variable.
Two World Champions Offer Insight and Perspective
In the lead-up to the 2021 Spartan World Championship on Dec. 3-5 in Abu Dhabi, Spartan champions Ryan Atkins and Rea Kolbl offered some insight into how they prepare year-round, from the first race of the year to the final championship in December.
Ryan Atkins, who has won eight 24-hour OCR events and is undefeated in events longer than 30 miles (or 6 hours), specializes his training regimen in the days and weeks leading up to a specific challenge.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to structuring your season with a focus on a certain time, versus just maintaining good fitness all season long," the two-time Spartan Ultra World Champion says. "I prefer to have a sustainably high level of fitness all year long, and then fine-tune for specific events.
"In 2019, Robert Killian didn't podium any major races, except for world championships. This is a good tactic if you can pull it off, but a single missed spear could have knocked him off the podium at Tahoe. I won several races and the US National Series, but finished second behind Robert at the World Championship. So it comes down to a matter of opinion, tactics, and knowing your body. Usually I focus on general fitness through the winter and then transition to more OCR-specific fitness as the championship draws closer."
Kolbl is the reigning 2019 Spartan Ultra World Champion, and she's also undefeated in races of 30 miles or longer. She approaches her season, and the championship in particular, in a similar fashion as Atkins.
Interestingly, in the offseason she turns to skiing to stay in peak shape.
“Usually in the early part of the year, when there are fewer races (November through March), I do lots of skiing," she says. "About a year ago I got big into SkiMo racing (ski mountaineering). The uphill/downhill is really different from normal training but still requires really good endurance. This type of training requires powering uphill on a ski slope at high altitude. The descent is less taxing, but still requires concentration.
"The bulk of my training during this time of the year is spent on aerobic capacity and muscle endurance: 30-40 miles a week of running, which is not as much as usual.”
From there, Kolbl's strategy is to use competitions as a tool for improvement.
“Spartan races become training,” she says. “My goal is not necessarily to taper and recover, but instead I use the events as tools. I will often try to incorporate a new strategy during the early part of the season. If it works, great. If not, I’ll take it out. For championship season in the fall, I pay more attention to recovery every week, just to be fully rested and have any injuries fully recovered. I want to be dialed in, with my gear and nutrition being ready when it matters most.”
Constantly Experimenting and Tweaking
For world-class athletes like Atkins and Kolbl, everything from the length of the season to the frequency of training factors into how they perform on Spartan's biggest stage. And again, each of them has a similar approach.
In the lead-up to a championship, Atkins looks to add more rigor to his practices so when he competes against an elite field or takes on a particularly challenging event, he is fully prepared.
"I am always experimenting and tweaking my fitness,” he said. “A good example would be a Beast simulation training session, where I go out and run the distance on harder terrain than I expect to see in the race. This gives me the fitness and confidence to take on (an event such as) the World Championship.”
For Kolbl, variety is the “spice of life” that gives her the motivation to really compete well. She doesn’t have a conventional formula, and instead embraces more adventure when training becomes stale.
“I tend to get bored with things that are repetitive,” she says. “Summer in Colorado is beautiful and the adventures motivate me. For me, getting outdoors provides an external and internal reset. If I know I'm feeling ‘meh,’ I scale down training and try to do something different: a different kind of adventure to get me back.
"I tend to find the highest peak to climb or the most extreme descent. I always look for a new experience I haven't done before, something a little bit longer and harder and different than what I would normally do. That being said, using Strava every day I can see specific benchmarks, since with segment tracking I always know where I am.”
The World Championship in Abu Dhabi will feature challenging terrain and fierce competition that will unquestionably test every Spartan, even the most elite and accomplished pros. With stretches of sand, hills, salt flats, and uneven grades, how Atkins and Kolbl prepare will significantly affect how they perform on the grandest stage. Thankfully, the nuances involved can be adapted by athletes of all ability levels.
Whether it's your very first race or the World Championship, their shared philosophy is to embrace the entirety of the experience.
“Every day is an opportunity to succeed,” Atkins says. “Many athletes go out and crush it for a few days or weeks, then totally fall off the bandwagon because it’s too hard. A better approach is one that is consistent and tailored towards the athlete in question.”
“Don't get too bogged down becoming 100 percent ready for your first race or first championship,” Kolbl advises. “There are so many things we can't control as athletes. Instead, focus on doing your best. That’s really all you should aim for.”
The Mental Approach: Find Satisfaction in Your Effort
Atkins and Kolbl's biggest takeaway is to find satisfaction with your effort, no matter the experience.
“Once the race is complete, really focus on things you did well," Kolbl says. "Celebrate those for a little while. Then, after a day or two, look back on things you didn't do so well and use that for your next training block. It's easier to do your best than to use any other metric, because races are the best teachers.
"It's best to initially focus on the positive, because it's really easy to beat yourself down. Then, you won't want to train anymore. Instead, using what you learned really motivates you to train harder, because there's going to be mistakes all the time.”
For the average Spartan, it's important to remember that a mistake won't cost you a championship (though it can, and will, hurt your final time).
For the elites, it's a different story. At the World Championship in Abu Dhabi, one errant spear throw could make all the difference, which is why their pursuit of glory is already underway.