Are You Ready for an Elite Heat?

Are You Ready for an Elite Heat?
Presented by Spartan Training®

You’ve done a few Spartan races, you’re getting faster, and you’re starting to think about entering an elite heat. But those elite racers can seem intimidating, and their races are fast and furious. What do you need to know to get started?

The main difference between the open heats and the elite heats, said former Spartan Race World Champion Amelia Boone, is that the elite competitors can’t help each other over obstacles.

“People are in the elite heat to be timed, ranked, and judged,” she said. “It’s a chance to see where you stack up.” As another former world champion, Cody Moat said, “In the open heat everybody’s more about having a good time.”

So why race an elite heat then? Why not? It’s an opportunity to see how you’ll do, push yourself harder, race without lines or people backed up on the course, and maybe win some prize money or qualify for the world championships.

Here are some tips for jumping in.

Know What You're Up Against

When Heather Van Sickle signed up for her first elite heat at the Sacramento Super, she was pleasantly surprised.

“The Sacramento Spartan is a local non-national race, so only a couple of big names show up,” she said. That was still plenty hard for the mom of three and she was happy to end up in the top 10.

But not everyone is so lucky with their first elite race. If you don’t realize you’re lining up for a national series race, then you might not be prepared for exactly how competitive it’ll be.

The first thing to know when you decide to race an elite heat is which race you’re signing up for. Spartan has national and regional series point races, five regional championships, and the world championships in Abu Dhabi.

You can race and qualify for the world championships in an age-group heat (which is more competitive than the open races) or in the elite heats (which are the most competitive).

If you sign up for an elite heat in a local Spartan race that isn’t part of the championship series, then it’ll be a little easier—just a little—and fewer of the top-level big-name pros will be there.

If you sign up to race elite in one of the series races, then you’re in for a very intense experience. 

Follow the Rules

No matter which heat you race in, you’re supposed to do 30 burpees if you fail an obstacle. But the reality is things are a little looser in the open heats, said Moat. 

The referees will be paying close attention as you complete obstacles, and there will be a camera on you as you finish your penalty burpees.

If, on review, it turns out you missed any, then that’s a 30-second penalty added to your time—which can add up in closely contested races.

Boone even advises doing two more burpees than whatever you think is 30, because it’s easy to lose count when you’re tired and everyone’s cheering. It’s happened to her!

Practice the Obstacles 

Elite racers don’t fail obstacles—at least not often. “I wasn’t prepared for the speed the ladies ran and got through the obstacles,” said Van Sickle, who has since become an age-group world champion.

“I also quickly realized the elite racers seldom fail obstacles.” Though if the weather gets slippery, it can become a little more hectic, noted Alyssa Hawley, third at the 2017 world championship.

The reason elite racers don’t fail obstacles is because they know how to get through them with the best technique, which they’ve perfected through lots of practice.

If you remember your very first Spartan, you might remember being slightly confused and not knowing how to do obstacles new to you. You can watch how other people do them, but in an elite heat everyone’s moving too fast.

Most of the obstacles are familiar to racers now, so you can learn them in advance. At the big races, Hawley will also look at the map released a few days beforehand to see what she’s up against. And when there’s something new, she’ll take advantage of the open house Spartan hosts a day or two beforehand to give racers a chance to see the new obstacles.

“Go to the open house and play around,” said Hawley. Moat will even go back out in an open heat, after he’s done racing, and see if he can go through an obstacle he struggled with a few times just to improve his technique.


But if you want to be prepared, Moat, Hawley, and Boone all agreed the biggest thing to work on is running. And do it on actual trails with actual obstacles.

Moat will stop on his long trail runs and do some kind of hang or carry to mimic a race. While most people worry a lot about the specific obstacles, the majority of a 5- to 15-mile race is running, and the elite racers are all very, very good runners.

The next thing to focus on after running is grip strength, said Moat, and then heavy carries.

In the elite heats, they’ll often have heavier or longer bucket carries and double sandbags (instead of just one sandbag). “They’re killers,” he said—especially if you’re not prepared.

Expect the Unexpected

Be prepared. “The energy is just different,” said Hawley. That intensity can be a little surprising at first. If you’re used to races starting out with a jog, then the elite heat will seem a lot faster. “Everybody’s taking off like they’re going to win the race,” said Moat.

You can either go with it and see how you stack up, or you can race your own race and pace yourself for your first one.

At most races, the men’s elite heat goes off and then 15 minutes later the women follow, with another 15 minutes before the age-group or open heats start. It’s often the case that the men’s elite heat is four or five times the size of the women’s, said both Hawley and Boone, though the women’s heat can be stacked with a much higher proportion of top racers.

If it’s your first one, unless you’re some kind of prodigy, you’ll likely fail some obstacles and struggle to keep up. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be fun. “Expect that you could be humbled, and don’t let that turn you off,” said Boone.