Coaching From the Ancient Spartans

Coaching From the Ancient Spartans

You’ve done the Spartan Race, you’ve shouted the “Aroo!” chant, but how much do you know about the ancient Greek warriors for whom this obstacle course race owes its namesake?

The original Spartans were a highly organized ancient Greek city-state in which all men trained for and served in the military for the entirety of their able-bodied lives. An egalitarian ethic united the small and potent fighting force which, with the help of the Athenian navy, staved off an onslaught from the Persian empire and saved an empire from collapse.

To train and live as a Spartan was unforgiving, but we combed the literature and talked to historians to find the six ways you can implement the Spartan lifestyle in your training and daily routine to become fitter and more disciplined than ever.

1. Compete

Ancient Spartans played no games about the games they played; Spartiates (male Spartans) dominated the Olympic Games for more than 100 years, winning 33 of 66 recorded events between 776 and 680 B.C., according to historical record. And Kyniska, a Spartan woman, was the first female victor at Olympia in the marquee four-horse chariot race, which she won in 396 and 392 B.C. But the most ferocious competition occurred amongst the Spartans themselves, who used sport to condition their minds and bodies for battle.

There was Sphairomachia, or “battle ball,” an epic game of keepaway during which two teams of 15 lined up facing a ball and, upon the starter’s signal, sprinted toward the ball in a full-contact, no-holds-barred frenzy that ended when time was called. No goals, no fouls, just keep the ball at all costs. Imagine an referee-less NFL where the ball gets loose every play and you get the gist.

If sphairomachia doesn’t sound brutalist enough, enter Platanistas (“plane-tree grove,” literally translated). The game is basically sumo wrestling with no rules: Two teams cross bridges on opposite sides of a small island and try to shove each other into the water. Of the tactics, the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias wrote, “In fighting they strike, and kick, and bite, and gouge each other’s eyes out. Thus they fight man against man.”

We’re not suggesting you rearrange your neighbor’s face in the interest of sport, but challenging your training partner to a friendly burpee competition could inject some intensity into your workout. If you’re a lone wolf, try something like the Bring Sally Up push-up challenge for an added stimulus.

2. Keep Good Company

 The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus famously said that speed, strength and agility were all less important than stamina, grit, endurance, and courage. More Spartans died in retreat—of their own hand, due to the shame and exile associated with cowardice—than in battle, according to the ancient Greek philosopher and historian Xenophon. The movie 300 is accurate in depicting Spartans as more willing to fight to the death than the soldiers of other Greek city-states, although in real life, the Spartan messenger who King Leonidas sent back to Sparta later killed himself over the implication that anyone who survived the Battle of Thermopylae had retreated rather than fought, historian Paul A. Rahe wrote in The Spartan Regime.

 “After a defeat in battle, the Spartans were more likely to mourn the living than the dead,” Rahe wrote. Thus anyone who survived a defeat, among other public embarrassments, was not allowed to exercise with the rest of the Spartans.

For the most explosive gains, make like King Leonidas and surround yourself with workout partners who are just as committed as you.

Spartiates dominated the first 100 years of the Olympic Games. Modern Spartans return to Sparta to enjoy some discomfort on the old training grounds.

3. Eat simple

 Less austere city-states such as Athens ate any and every delicacy they could get their hands on. “We know that they’d have all sorts of crazy delicacies,” says Spartan historian James Lloyd. “They’d have wine from foreign places which they’d shipped in, they’d have eals and these sorts of things.”

Not in Sparta. The “Spartan breakfast,” Lloyd says, was a piece of bread dipped in wine. We’re not sure whether they even had a lunch, and for dinner, they dined in communal mess halls, in part because Lycurgus—the Spartan leader responsible for instituting strict social policies—thought food intake should be regulated to keep warriors lean, and also because anyone who drank too much wine at dinner would have to stumble home in the dark and be shamed for getting drunk.

Nor was the fare particularly decadent. About the grain-based diet, non-Spartan Greeks would joke, “I can see why they’re so willing to die, given what sort of food they have to eat,” notes University of Cambridge professor of Greek culture Paul Cartledge. Lloyd says they’d start with bread or a “Spartan broth,” which Athenians said was horrible, and Cartledge notes the presence of a bloody pork dish called haimatia. They’d also cook wheat flour in oil and eat it in a bay leaf, Lloyd says. There were no seconds; as with all aspects of Spartan society, everyone was on equal footing.

None of this is to say you should hate the food you eat, but keeping a simple and consistent diet will go a long way toward achieving your fitness goals.

4. Dance

 Song and dance permeated Spartan culture, and the choral dances were rigorous and loud. “It’s not just the same as running and jumping; dancing was a key form of exercise in the Greek world as well,” Lloyd says.

The Pyrrhic Dance was a traditional Greek war dance that simulated combat conditions by requiring two dancers to mimic battle maneuvers like “retreating, springing up, crouching, attacking, thrusting the lance and shooting the arrow,” according to Cambridge historian H. Michell. During the first phase of the agoge, which began at age seven, Spartan boys learned to dance with shield and spear to become acquainted with their weapons.

Many of the principles of Pyrrhic Dance apply to plyometrics—quick steps, staying light on one’s feet—so getting good with a jump rope would have a similar effect, minus the 15-pound shield and spear.

5. Find Comfort In Discomfort

 People say uncomfortable shoes are the worst. Those people weren’t ancient Spartans, because ancient Spartans prohibited young boys from wearing shoes; Lycurgus thought it would condition their feet to sprint up and down the mountains of Laconia.

Xenophon wrote that during the agoge, Spartan boys received just one cloak to wear year-round, because Lycurgus thought shivering through the winter would train their bodies to regulate temperature more effectively. And in their free time, it was encouraged for adults to hunt wild boars in the Taygetos mountains, “a quite terrifying prey which was hunted with spears on foot,” Cartledge says.

Such seemingly unnecessary hardships were seen as necessary to be successful in battle, so don’t sweat the next time a workout or Spartan Race thrusts you out of your comfort zone; think like a Spartan and let the pain make you stronger.

6. Never quit

Spartan men began training for military service at age 7 and retired at 60, assuming they lived that long (Spartan women didn’t go to war, but maintained meticulous fitness regimes of running and wrestling to bear stronger offspring). Training and fitness was an unquestionable constant, even near the bitter end.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that during the Battle of Thermopylae, a Persian spy observed King Leonidas and his men exercising and combing their hair the day before the final fight, when King Xerxes’ Persian hordes overran and killed every Spartan warrior. Leonidas knew his fate, and thus Herodotus writes that the Persian spy became confused; why would a dead man care to continue exercise and maintenance of his body?

“It captures something very Spartan,” Lloyd says. “It’s a very Spartan attitude to war—that even then, the correct thing to be doing was exercising the body, and that was the continual concern for a Spartan.”

To live like a true Spartan is to train not for a single race or competition, but to train always, to be prepared for any and every circumstance in which sound mind and body are required.

Visit Sparta the way it should be visited. Set your sights on the  2018 Sparta Trifecta World Championship, and download the 2018 Spartan Race Schedule to plan your own Trifecta journey.