We all want to know: What makes the best-of-the-best Spartan athletes out there tick? How do they keep their edge? In our Train Like A Champion series, we dig into the details of the training, nutrition, mindset, and more that keeps our most epic athletes on top.
Ashley Heller (@ashmillost22) isn’t just a Spartan pro; she’s a pro at everything. Training time aside, Heller and her husband run a real estate company with 22 agents. And that’s not all. She also teaches three different health and wellness-related courses at a local junior college. Busy schedule? Not a problem for Heller.
Here, she breaks down her secret to success, both on an off the obstacle course, which includes being meticulously organized, disciplined, setting daily intentions, and building on experience. Plus, her hard truth on powering through the tough days.
Check Out What a FULL Week of Ashley Heller's Workouts Looks Like
A Q&A With Spartan Ashley Heller
SPARTAN: How did you get into OCR?
ASHLEY HELLER: I ran cross country and track in high school and all through college. Then I tried to qualify for the Olympic trials in the 1500 meters, but after battling lots of injuries I decided to retire from the track. It was very sad, but I’m one of those people that has to be competitive at something or striving to achieve something. So I saw an advertisement for a Spartan race here near my house and I jumped on it, ran it, won it, thought to myself, "Maybe I could do really well at this." From there I went to Utah for my first Elite race and it spiraled out of control after that — I became obsessed.
SR: How do you manage everything you do with such a busy schedule?
AH: Over the years I've developed what works for me, but I always have a plan. I'm a very organized person, which helps a lot. I'm very mindful of the time that I set aside to do each of the things I do. For example, if I set aside two hours for a workout in the morning, that's what I'm doing during those two hours. I'm not working, I'm not doing anything else. Sometimes stuff comes up, but I like to look at it like it's an appointment. I made this commitment, so I'm going to keep that commitment. I'm super diligent about that.
Related: 5 Spartans Share What Drives Them
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Still reeling from a stellar race weekend in Whistler. Saturday Sprint I ran fine but raced like 💩. Good enough to hold my spot in the Mtn. Series but we all know "good enough" surely is not good enough. So I came back on Sunday for the Super with a bit of rage to take out on that course. Both therapeutic and effective. Fell (again) on the first steep decent on slippery rain sodden grass, slid on my butt for a way then looked up and @jessclemon_ocr was gone. Spent the rest of the race trying to reel her back in. Earned a 2nd on what was one of my most favorite courses ever! I loved that mountain and even the rain! Now dialed in for Tahoe. 💪 . . . #manukasport #endurelite #familyoffast #manukahoney #energygel #BEEFIT #rebelrunnerpro #SpartanPro #epicmassageboise #manukafan #brocr
SR: What does it take to be a top-performing athlete?
AH: You have to be disciplined, which sounds cliche, but it’s all-encompassing. It doesn't mean just be diligent about your workouts, but also being diligent about recovery, what you're eating, and how you're managing your time. If you have a job, how do you balance that and make the schedule work for you? Luckily, my husband is super supportive, so we can work off each other. He can pick up my slack or I can pick up his slack, when necessary. So, overall, I think you have to be disciplined in every single facet of what you're doing.
SR: How would you describe your training?
I'm very calculated, and it’s very cyclical. I always have a plan, and it’s rigorous, but at the same time I know enough to allow my body to recover.
I have a bachelor's degree in exercise science and a master's degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in biomechanics, so programming is my forte. I also have many years of higher-level experience being a professional runner, and then a track athlete in college, so I know what my body needs over the years of doing this, and I try and give it exactly what it’s asking for.
SR: With all of your experience, what have you learned the most about your body?
AH: I know there's certain workouts that I love, and certainly ones that I hate, and I have to force myself to do the ones that I hate because I know they're going to make me better.
Believe it or not, I'm actually pretty low volume in terms of running miles. I have battled some chronic injuries like stress fractures, multiple times in the same place, so I know what triggers that and I try to be really, really careful. I flirt with that line where I might be a little too much, but then I take a half step back from there.
SR: How do you push through tough days?
AH: You kind of just do it anyways. I know what the end goal is, and I know what it takes to get there, so if I'm lacking motivation, I mean, that's real. Sometimes you wake up and you’re like, "I don't want to get up out of bed right now," but at the same time you just have to look at the overall picture. My goal is to complete X, so I have to do this, this, and this in order to get there, so you just do it anyways.
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"When you connect to the silence within you, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you." ~Stephen Richards . . . . #brocr #endurelite #familyoffast #manukasport #manukahoney #fuelyourinnerwarrior #energy #BEEFIT #rebelrunnerpro #SpartanPro #epicmassageboise
SR: What’s your approach to nutrition?
AH: I can say that I've had my bout of struggles in this category, but at this point, I eat very clean, and I eat when I'm hungry. I eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. I don't restrict anything, but I avoid processed foods and try to not eat anything out of a package unless it says gluten, soy, and lactose-free. Other than that, I also try to avoid high amounts of refined sugars and stuff that doesn't exactly give me a whole lot of energy. I will indulge in a healthy dose of dark chocolate once in a while because who doesn't love that?!
My body is also very regimented, so at the same times every day I am hungry, and I know I should eat and have snacks on hand.
SR: What does your recovery protocol look like?
AH: I believe in bodywork, so massage therapy. I foam roll every single day whether I hurt or not. I’ve had a lot of chronic foot issues with several stress fractures, so keeping my muscles loose and joints mobile has really been a focal point for me. I also firmly believe in ice baths. I’ll take an ice bath every single day that I run, no matter what. Usually I want the water temperature between 48 to 52 degrees. I’ll hop in about waist deep for 10 to 12 minutes.
On Mental Strength
SR: How do you strengthen your mind or prepare for races?
AH: I actually worked with a sports psychologist to deal with a lot of anxiety, both in my normal life as well as performance anxiety. But I have also adopted and incorporated more visualization and meditation into my training. Every day I set an intention for my workout and that's my goal, rather than getting hyper focused on so many other variables. I pick one thing to focus on.
The day before a race, I always take an hour to go over the entire course in my mind and practice every single obstacle. I visualize what I'm going to do, when I’m going to do it, note the terrain, and how I am going to use the terrain to my advantage. Then, after training or a race, I’ll meditate to calm myself down and come back to that normal zen level.
SR: Where did you learn these practices?
AH: It’s actually something I really just started adopting last year before World Championships. I had some downtime and I was laying on my back in my hotel room, and I was looking up, and just randomly decided to go through it. I ended up sitting there for a really long time. I was just practicing [the course] in my mind, and I did really well, and it worked really well for me because I knew everything that was coming up in the race. Afterwards, I was like, "Wow, I really need to implement this as a routine because it worked great." So it was kind of just a random thing.
*This interview with Ashley Heller was lightly edited for clarity.