Lexus redesigns its cars and SUVs so they stay fresh and they’re ALWAYS better than the ones that came before. Spartans are no different. They’re always redesigning the way they train, eat, and think — whether it’s to prepare for the next unbreakable feat or overcoming obstacles like injury or age. In this five-part series, we spoke with Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena about how redesigning his training, nutrition, and recovery over the years has forged him into the Unbreakable CEO that he is today.
Joe De Sena’s unbreakable resume all started with a BMX bike, which his parents gifted to him.
“I remember popping wheelies down the street,” he says.
Young De Sena loved the bike so much, in fact, that his first introduction into the world of endurance sports was actually by accident: “I was taking on endurance feats with the bike and I didn't even know what an endurance feat was,” he says. “Maybe there was some freedom attached to it.”
As he rode his bike and started skiing, a more mental side of fitness was oozing into the young athlete's brain. For that, De Sena has his mother — who practiced yoga, meditation, and distance running (including completing the “insane” 3,100-mile Transcendence Run in Queens, New York) — to thank.
Since then, Spartan's CEO has taken what he calls his “machine” through multiple redesigns. And not only has he never slowed down, but he doesn't plan on it.
“A very smart guy said to me a long time ago: ‘Do you notice, Joe, that cities don't fail?'" De Sena explains. "'Cities will go through iterations over thousands of years, but they eventually reinvent themselves and come back with a new, fresh look, vibe, and culture. Whereas companies do fail.’ Well, why is that? If you are not growing, you're dying. And we’ve got to constantly reinvent ourselves, remain relevant, and try new things.”
Here, De Sena explains how he's managed to do just that, even through all of the inevitable hurdles and obstacles he's faced along the way that have forced him to be constantly redesigning his approach.
The Early Days: A Body Composition Transformation
“I was annoyed that I wasn't as fit looking as some of my friends who naturally had V-shaped backs and structured shoulders and six packs,” he says.
De Sena decided to pursue his first fitness redesign, going from an endurance athlete to a muscle-building one. He read Pumping Iron and then hit the gym to actually pump iron.
From there he began a “prison workout” in the late 1980s, well before CrossFit: “The only people that would do it with me were guys who were just out of prison,” he says. “True story.”
De Sena’s prison workout was a four-round circuit that included an exercise for every body part, performed for 20 to 25 reps each. For example, you might squat, then bench press, then row, then curl, etc. In the end, you’re doing around 400 repetitions and your goal was to finish in an hour or less. According to De Sena, it’s a perfect combination of endurance and lifting, but you could only do this three or four days a week maximum, because of how taxing it is.
“It completely transformed my body, but it was rough,” he says. “Every time you got to the gym, you were just miserable, but it is the crème de la crème for overall body look."
Sound tough? De Sena followed this "miserable" routine while he was running his swimming pool and construction business and working 14 hour days, seven days per week. No excuses.
The Ready-for-Anything Days: An Unbreakable Formula
While popular opinion says “master of one or master of none,” Spartan's CEO would beg to differ. De Sena continued to strength train, but ultimately found his way back to his endurance roots, completing a number of incredible feats, including:
- The Iditarod (on foot)
- A 300-mile run from Central Park, Manhattan to Pittsfield, Vermont
- The Vermont 100, The 135-mile Badwater alongside David Goggins, and the Ironman Lake Placid — all in seven days
- A bike ride across the United States
- A race across Switzerland by foot
- 21 Ironmans, 14 in one year
- The Death Race
- Countless Spartan races
- And more ...
“My training methodology after 30 years of doing this stuff — and I would stand by it today — is really simple: You had to build a base level of fitness that incorporates your whole body, flexibility, and mobility,” he says.
To this endurance junky, that translates to 60 to 90 minutes of exercise, five days per week. And as a tortuous twist — and where things really get interesting — De Sena adds what he calls his "sixth day."
What’s Your Sixth Day?
“Those five days a week were like clockwork for a year, but then on the 6th day, I’d start tackling something unbreakable, like an Ironman, a 100-mile run, an Ultra, or a Death Race, whatever,” he says.
Where the five days of training will build that base, the sixth day is where you’re truly pushing the limits of your endurance. De Sena’s typical "sixth days" were anywhere from eight to 12 hours long. That’s right, eight to 12 hours long, every sixth day.
“I wasn’t breaking any records, but I’d get up at four in the morning and go,” he says.
And it wasn’t necessarily always running. He’d bike, swim, kayak, hike — you name it.
“Sometimes all I would do was put 40 pounds on my back, bring some pickles, and just go hiking in the mountains for those eight to 12 hours,” he explains.
And when it came to race day, De Sena just made sure to take the four days prior completely off to make sure he was recovered.
Unbreakable Fact: In preparation for Ironman in Lake Placid, Joe rode his bike from Vermont to Lake Placid (a 250-mile ride), left the bike there, got a ride home, and then completed the event the next week.
The Maintenance Mode Days: MURPH and/or a Fan Bike
For most people, De Sena’s “maintenance mode” is still tougher than any routine they’ve ever attempted: Murph. Every. Damn. Day. Yes, for a large block of time, De Sena would wake up every morning, perform the 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another 1-mile run.
“I wasn’t doing it for time, or with the weighted vest, but I’d get it done,” he says.
And more recently, his maintenance mode routine has consisted of an hour every day on a fan bike. He credits those slogs to his ability to keep up with the Walton family, who put in mountain bike trails near their home in Bentonville, Arkansas.
“I don't ride bikes anymore, yet I found myself next to the Waltons, having full-blown conversations, going uphill without cliff pedals and feeling great for 50 miles,” he says.
And that’s not all it’s helped. The CEO can still jump into any Spartan race with ease.
“I grabbed a sandbag and carried it up a hill like it was nothing, so I think my maintenance mode is proving effective in being ready for anything,” he says.