Yep. We’ve all been there (even the elites) ripping through burpees after falling off Spartan obstacles. And it sucks. Sometimes we fail due to an uncontrollable mistake, like losing our grip in slippery conditions. But sometimes we keep failing the same obstacle over and over, and completing it starts to seem impossible. No matter how hard you're training, or how hard you want it, this can be pretty frustrating.
According to Spartan founder Joe De Sena, first-time racers fail certain Spartan obstacles about 90% of the time: the Spear Throw, the Rope Climb, the Tyrolean Traverse, and the Multi-Rig. The good news? With time and practice (and the desire to avoid burpees), the failure rate improves to about 50-50. “Avoiding burpees is a human’s number one motivation,” says De Sena. “No one wants to do burpees.”
OCR coach and trainer Yancy Culp, says OCR-course curveballs can play a big factor in obstacle success. Relatively simple tweaks to staple obstacles can make completion harder for people, he says. For example, climbing a rope hanging off the side of a box, gives racers little room to move. The added layer of the box can throw them off.
But for most athletes, he says, the number one reason they fail an obstacle is due to lack of grip strength and grip strength endurance. While they crush grip-based workouts at the gym, the Spartan course is next level. “Some athletes don’t create OCR-like workouts,” he says. You need to work on both heavy carries, endurance, grip strength, and obstacle specifics. You can (and should) get creative with your workouts. Try your best to mimic the challenges of an OCR course in a gym, like doing heavy farmer’s carries on a treadmill or dynamic pull-ups. He also recommends taking advantage of Spartan Open Houses to scope out the obstacles you'll face before race day. “Most people, with some specific training, can run a clean race,” says Culp. And when they do run their first race without failing any obstacles, it can be life-changing.
Study up on the most frequently failed Spartan obstacles — and fear not, we won't leave you hanging — here are pro tips to get through them, too.
4 Spartan Obstacles MOST Racers Struggle With
We know grip and pull strength endurance are critical to obstacle success, and lacking it can be detrimental, says Culp. If grip and pull are your downfalls, that means your hands and forearms won't yet have the strength to move you through the ropes or rungs. Without endurance, these muscles will also get tired over time. Beater is like monkey bars except each bar rotates like an egg beater.
PRO TIP: Learn to support your body weight with one hand
Do sets of grip strength exercises at the gym where you practice hanging, then let go with one hand, rotate the hand, put it back. Do a pull up, then let go with one hand and move the hand or rotate it. This forces you to support your body weight one-handed, which you have to do as you transition in obstacles, says Culp.
Most people agree Olympus has a really high failure rate—likely the next hardest obstacle after Twister and the Spear Throw It requires you to climb laterally across an angled wall using chains, grip holds, and holes. While it has been on the scene for a few years, Jason Barnes, who manages the North American Spartan Races, says this year new versions of Olympus have slicker material, which makes it harder to get across. Lots of athletes simply slip and then fall.
PRO TIP: Don't forget about your legs
The key is to stay as perpendicular as possible and push out, off the wall, with your legs. Use your quads and don’t rely solely on your arms.
Twister is a rotating bar with a series of offset handles. Since its debut, elites and beginners alike have struggled with this one. Any multi-rig obstacle that contains a series of sections—bars to rings to ropes to rotating bars—tends to have a higher failure rate.
In addition to improving your pull-ups, you need to be able to transition between hand moves. If you mainly hit the gym, work on sets of grip strength exercises. Practice going forward and backward on a bar, even sideways, so you can figure out what works best for you when you get to the obstacle on race day.
PRO TIP: Perfect the pull-up and make it dynamic
Culp encourages athletes to work pull-ups with hand position changes. Then progress to pull-ups where you release a hand and quickly slap a shoulder or then your hip. You can also use a light resistance band for support until you improve, so you can still practice different holds and techniques.
4. Spear Throw
The Spear Throw is a classic, but it can take out both seasoned veterans and rookies. It’s not physically hard to throw a spear, says Barnes, “it’s more mental than physical.” And it requires practice. Breathing to slow your heart rate, balancing the spear in your hand, as well as finding proper alignment and wind up is key.
PRO TIP: Make a DIY spear and hit the backyard for practice
Fortunately, says Culp, it’s very simple to make a basic spear with $15 and three items from Home Depot: a garden tool replacement handle, a big nail, and some epoxy. Then practice hitting very small targets so you’re ready for the bigger target.