You probably know or have heard of someone who ran their first Spartan race without any preparation. It happens. And if the person has been putting in their time at the gym or on the track, they may even come out relatively unscathed. However, according to Faye Stenning, one of the world’s top obstacle course racers and the co-founder of the online coaching business Grit Coaching, this type of trial by fire approach to racing cannot be sustained. “I get it! Athletes are excited to compete and they think that if they’re already strong or they have a background in running, then they’ll just go ahead and start racing. But then the injuries start coming, and they wonder why.”
Faye Stenning's Secret
In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re new to the sport or a long-time athlete, as Stenning sees it, the one true secret to racing success applies to everyone: balanced fitness. “Often, runners have a deficiency in strength, while it’s the other way around for those who do a lot of strength training,” Stenning explains. “The challenge is to recognize that and not rely solely on the specific aspect you excel at.”
But building up balanced fitness takes time, and is always relative to where you’re starting from. Stenning, a Spartan Pro racer who established Grit Coaching together with 10-time Canadian championship medalist and Olympic 5000 m competitor Jess O’Connell, suggests getting up close and personal with your strengths and weaknesses before you start putting together a training program.
A Question You Have to Ask
“You have to ask, how strong is your aerobic system? Do you have a solid strength base? How’s your grip strength: can you carry? Of course, it’s different for every individual, whether beginners or more regular racers, but in our coaching we definitely assess every athlete before we can start training them effectively.”
That said, she notes that much of the time the first step is usually to build up an aerobic base. “A lot of people focus on strength first, and while this is important, being strong won’t get you far if you can’t maintain a steady running pace between obstacles. In fact, if athletes could do the obstacles without the running component, they probably wouldn’t have much trouble,” she notes. “But often what happens is that racers are so taxed from the running that their strength output is diminished. A good aerobic base enables you not just to run, but to handle the tougher obstacles and to recover well post-race.”
For that reason, Stenning suggests including basic aerobic workouts and regular running in your training regardless of your level. “As you get ready for longer races such as the Spartan Beast and Super, running becomes even more of a priority. You’ll be running for one to two miles before you hit a significant obstacle, so workouts must consistently include aerobic training days followed by long runs, progression runs, hill repeats, and tempo runs.”
Still, it’s not all about pounding the pavement. “The cool thing about this sport” says Stenning, “is that it is a combination of different physical challenges and that translates to the training.” This helps to keep athletes motivated and committed to the end game, which is, of course to ace their race and be fighting fit for more. For that reason, she suggests always mixing up a training program with aerobic base work and foundational strength training such as squats, bench presses, push-ups, and pull-ups. Close to race time, adding more “functional” training specific to the running—lunges, step-ups, etc.—will give your workouts that extra edge.
Stenning, a trained kinesiologist as well as an elite racer, claims, “Functional training that correlates to something performance-related can really help make your ongoing fitness routine more purposeful.” It can also make it more fun, and that, according to Stenning, is as necessary as any fitness training elements for OCR success.
“Fun: it’s why we’re all doing these crazy races, right?” she says. “It’s the fun that helps us go for and achieve our goals. And it’s the fun that helps us, ultimately, incorporate fitness to live a happier, healthier, more balanced life.”