CrossFitters: This is Your On-Ramp To Spartan
CrossFitters have great power output, and they love challenging WOD’s, CrossFit training and pushing their limits while also finding and working on their weaknesses. A great founding tenet of CrossFit is to “Regularly learn and play new sports.” This gets you out of the gym and lets you interact with your fitness in new ways, giving it a depth you do not get in the gym. A great new sport and test of fitness that also likes to expose you to your weaknesses is the Spartan race. These races in recent years have become more and more complex: less backyard wrestling and more like a serious multisport event—without the expensive gear. It is a great way to take your CrossFit training fitness outside the gym and have fun while doing it.
Find a Spartan Race That's Right for You
Most athletes entering these races are just looking for some muddy fun and a bigger challenge than the 5 km runs through the city. Those looking to test their CrossFit training out will see an immediate crossover to what they are building in the box. “Run, jump, climb, get dirty, and give it my all?” yeah, that sounds like some good fun and you get to push the envelope a bit. This falls right in line with the “play new sports” part of “Fitness in 100 words” set forth by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman back in 2002. CrossFit athletes like Mat Fraser have participated in trail races (the now defunct O2X) after the CrossFit Games, and recently we saw Katrin Davidsdottir complete a Spartan Sprint in Iceland in December 2017. CrossFit training has been a proven place to begin preparing for OCR.
How Do CrossFit Training and Spartan Work Together?
The energy demands of a short Spartan race, like the sprint, are not that much different than CrossFit training, in particular a long CrossFit WOD with trail running. But the differences can sometimes cause an issue for CrossFitters who are not ready for the demands of getting up and down a mountain while hitting some demanding obstacles, unless you happen to be doing “Murph” or “Glen” every few months on a rocky mountainside. The Spartan Super and Beast will take a bit more dedicated endurance added to the mix of CrossFit classes.
When setting up training sessions or classes to prepare for these events, you will need to break down the training into phases and ramp it up according to the type of Spartan race you will be facing. Is the race distance a Spartan Sprint (5 km), Super (12 km), Beast (25 km), or Ultra (50 km)? How much time do you have before the race? 12 weeks? 8 weeks? You will want to prioritize your training based on the amount of time you have to prepare yourself or your athletes for the race. The more lead time you have, the more strength work you will want to do before increasing the run mileage. Don’t have much time? Focus on the running and obstacles.
Here in the Northeast, the obstacle course race season kicks off around April or May, but we are seeing more winter races pop up. Most athletes don’t hit a 10 km+ challenge as their first foray into OCR; most start with something like a Spartan Sprint or Stadium Sprint. Not all race distances will be in your area and you may have to plan out travel to get to them or complete the Spartan Trifecta, which is a Spartan Sprint, Super, and Beast within the same calendar year.
Building Your Base
The first thing we look at is distance. Is it a 5 km, 10 km, or more? In CrossFit, most WODs only have half to at most two miles of running involved. While intense, doing just the WOD will not fully prepare your athletes for the rigor of trudging uphill for one to three miles. So planning a long group trail run once a week with increasing mileage over the course of training is a good idea as well as increasing the runs in the WODs. This will also help build the team mentality and cooperation needed in an OCR. If your athletes are unable to hit a group run, assign them homework to get the longer runs in when they can.
You want your athletes able to get through the running portions so they are fresh for the obstacles as well as being able to deal with the mental hurdles that come with tough uphill running. When running is easy, the obstacles are fun. Increase the grade and elevation of the runs as you progress closer to the race. But taper off three weeks out by reducing the weekly mileage to 80 percent, 60 percent, and then 30 percent of the highest-volume run week.
We set up our CrossFit affiliate very close to a state reservation so that we would have access to a great selection of smooth and rocky terrain on which to run and prepare for OCR races. I suggest mapping out a few trail or hill runs ahead of time (1 km/5 km/10 km courses) as well as finding a ski mountain that you can get to once or twice before a big race to practice the hard uphill work.
Most OCRs are 5 km long, but the first mile or so is usually uphill, muddy, and meant to tire you out before the obstacles. In the 10 km races, the hilly start is the first three miles with sometimes a hard mile up and down in the middle. Make sure your athletes are prepared to grind out a long uphill battle at the start. After that, it is usually only half to one mile between obstacles. This is where CrossFitters will feel most comfortable.
Movements to incorporate into WODs for uphill conditioning:
- Front squats
- Back squats
- Mountain climbers
- RKC kettlebell swings
- Lunges (walking and add weight, use sandbags if possible)
- Step ups (weighted with barbell, sandbag, buckets with sand; increase box height over training)
- Bear crawls and crab walks (start on a flat surface, then incorporate small to medium incline up and down hill work)
If you have 12–16 weeks to prepare for the race, I suggest a 4–6 week strength cycle incorporated with the WOD. This will bring your new people up to speed on the strength needed for the uphill work to come. I suggest programming a percentage-based program that usually takes a while to plateau with and works well with conditioning work like a metabolic conditioning circuit (metcon) or accessory work like OCR-specific skills after it. Stick to 50–70 percent of max lifts in squat, pull, push, and hip hinge. Cycle between variations of lifts, especially single-arm and single-leg work like split squats, one-arm presses, etc. Incorporate heavy carries such as farmer’s walk, sandbag, and bucket carry.
Are your athletes afraid of heights? Never climbed a wall before? How about a rope climb or tire flip? There are some specific things you as a coach may need to address so your athletes are not skipping obstacles and incurring penalties.*
Working closely as a team can be one of the best ways to help someone get over a fear, especially of the high walls. While most people are really friendly and helpful at these races, it is best for your athletes to know they have a support system. Make sure they know it is a team event and that you will stay together for the obstacles. If you have a lot of athletes running the race, make sure they are in groups of no fewer than three. The eight-foot or higher walls may need three people to get over. And if they get hurt, they will have someone they know with them and someone to get help.
The high-risk, high-skill movements should be taught like a skill session: slow, controlled, and without pressure or time recording. These would be the wall climbs, cargo net climb, rope climb, tire flip, and spear throw. This is similar to teaching Olympic lifts with PVC pipes. After athletes demonstrate proper technique, you can add these exercises into the WODs or create small obstacle courses for the workouts.
*Note: In Spartan races, there is a penalty for skipping obstacles (30 burpees). The burpees can suck time and fun out of the race. Prepare your athletes to be able to get through 90 burpees in a workout. Most new runners fail three obstacles (90 burpees).
Obstacle-specific movements to incorporate in WODs (you'll see common ground with CrossFit training):
- Army/low crawl
- Shrimp squats
- Side rolls
- Crawl over/under/through objects
- Jumping (on, over, onto, and from object to object)
- Low (four-foot)/medium (six-foot)/high (eight-foot) wall climbing
- Rope climbs
- Tire flips
- Sled pull/push
- Monkey bars/rig traverse
Cold, Muddy, and Fun
Spartan races are pretty famous for being wet and muddy. This is a key difference from the kind of CrossFit training you do in an indoor box gym. Most of the time you do not need to train in the wet and mud, but you may need some strategy and good gear. If you are in an area that has some rainy weather, some short outdoor workouts will be a good idea to get athletes used to the race conditions. Just dress appropriately and be smart about it. I always tell my athletes, “If it’s raining, we’re training.”
The first strategy is not to actually run when it's really muddy or in water over your ankles. You will want to run no doubt, but conserve your energy for flatter land and save your ankles from a trip to the hospital. The mud and water will wash away topsoil to leave rock and uneven ground hidden beneath it, especially if you have a later race start time.
Investing in some good mud running shoes is a great, if not the best, idea. They are built for traction in the mud, and that will save some energy for the running. For clothing, I suggest good compression gear (long-sleeve top and bottom) if the weather is still a bit cold out. This will help get the water off your body and keep the mud from drying onto you. The water obstacles vary from race to race, but most of them involve ice water baths, cold rivers, or jumping into and swimming through lakes, so make sure your athletes are prepared to be cold and swim a short distance.
Be prepared to throw some clothes, like a shirt or socks, away after the race. Bring a towel or two for changing after the race. Make sure to have a dedicated meeting place after the race.
Creating an OCR-Specific WOD
You can readily build on your CrossFit training with an OCR-specific workout. Here is a sample OCR WOD for an athlete that has done the running and skill work and is preparing for a 5 km OCR.
- Full range of motion joint warm-up and flexibility work
- Dynamic warm-up
- Bodyweight movements (push, pull, squat, jump, crawl)
- Wall climbing technique–mindfulness over speed
- Getting up, transitioning over safely, getting down safely, teamwork
- Four-foot wall, six-foot wall, eight-foot wall
Scale as needed.
Three rounds for time
- 1 mile (1600 m, 4 × 400 m) run with sandbag (30/20#)*
- 10 lunges with sandbag
- 10 RKC kettlebell swings (53/35)
- 1 wall climb
* Decrease run distance by 400 m each round, for example, round 1 = 4 × 400, round 2 = 3 × 400, round 3 = 2 × 400.
L3: Start at 1200 m (3 × 400 m), sandbag (25/15), kettlebell (45/30)
L2: Start at 800 m (2 × 400 m), sandbag (20/10), kettlebell (35/26)
L1: Start at 400 m (1 × 400 m), sandbag (15/10), kettlebell (26/20)