We all want to know: What makes the best-of-the-best Spartan athletes out there tick? How do they keep their edge? In our Train Like A Champ series, we dig into the details of the training, nutrition, mindset, and more that keeps our most epic athletes on top.
Ryan Kempson (@coach_kempson) doesn’t check all the usual boxes of an OCR racer. He doesn’t come from a running background like much of his competition, and doesn’t seem to follow the typical style of training either. “A lot of times in endurance sports, people obsess over running and biking and miles, and they sacrifice some of their health,” he says. “I'd rather be really healthy, and then let the fitness come with it."
In addition to taking his own very individualized approach, he’s admittedly not always thrilled to be out there grinding away.
“It sucks the whole time running up a mountain, but when you get to the top, and look back at what you accomplished, after doing everything you could to get to that goal, there's no better feeling to me than that,” he says.
Kempson has made a remarkable comeback after a serious hip injury took him out for more than a year. Here, he shares his health-first approach to training, his experience with anti-inflammatory and plant-based diets, plus why he thinks deep water pool workouts are a game-changer.
Check out what a FULL week of Spartan Ryan Kempson's Workouts Looks Like
A Q&A With Spartan Ryan Kempson
SPARTAN RACE: How did you get into OCR?
RYAN KEMPSON: I got into the sport with my brother. We went to the Yukon, and they had a little adventure OCR race of their own so we did it for fun. We both liked it and decided to sign up for a Spartan and enjoyed that too. But it wasn't for another like two years that we actually thought maybe we should race these. Our first real race was at Killington.
SR: What got you hooked?
RK: We grew up in Vermont in the woods, running around in the mud, jumping, climbing, you know. We were outside all day. And when we did the Spartan races, it basically was our childhood. Frankly, everything was pretty easy to us, but it was fun.
We also love competing. We had played college sports, and had lost the direction of where to compete next so we were like, ‘Wow, we're pretty good at this. Let's try to do this’.
SR: What does it take to be a top-performing athlete?
RK: Obviously it takes some talent, which sometimes may be genetic, and sometimes that talent may come from the way you're raised and what you did as a kid. Then I think it takes commitment, consistency, and really putting everything into it. As for the top guys, there are not many of them who have a full-time job besides racing. It's very hard to compete with someone who's putting 100% of their effort into it.
And it’s not just physical, it's mental too. It's having the right mindset and being able to focus and obsess over the skill sets needed for the sport, whether that be running or climbing or just giving it the time and the thought. Like anything, everything takes a passion and a focus, and if you don't give it 100%, you'll never reach those last couple percents to catch the guys that are ahead of you.
Ryan Kempson On Training
SR: How would you describe your training?
RK: Very different than everybody else. I don't come from endurance, and I also come from a pretty serious hip injury after we started racing. This is about the third year of my progression for rehab, and really only third year of being a runner and progressing.
I haven't been capable of putting in the time aerobically. It's progressed over the past three years of running like 15, 20 miles a week, and then 20 to 30. This past year I was averaging 30 to about 42. And it'll take putting in 40 to 65 miles a week to be able to compete with the top guys.
I focus a lot on caring for my body. I look at it as conditioning, so everything I do to condition my body is so that I can run better and be healthy. Everybody has a certain performance potential, and you're not going to get there if you're not healthy. My idea is to put my body in a position where I can reach my 100% potential so that when I put in the climbing work or aerobic miles and the hard hill training, I'm going to get 100% out of me and who I am. A lot of times in endurance sports, people obsess over the running and biking the miles, and they sacrifice some of their health. I'd rather be really healthy, and then let the fitness come with it.
SR: With all your experience what have you learned most about your body?
RK: I was a coach before all this and worked with higher level high school and college athletes. One of the principles we focus on is not exercising just to exercise, but to have a purpose of training. Conditioning and exercise is to improve your everyday health, the sport itself, and whatever else you're doing.
Ryan Kempson On Nutrition
SR: What is your approach to nutrition?
RK: I've played around and experimented a lot. Having a major injury, I've been fortunate to have a lot of mentors I've looked up to and learned from. I started an anti-inflammatory diet, so I removed a lot of the things that create inflammation in the body such as dairy, sugar,s and gluten. I’ve been consuming a lot more foods that promote anti-inflammation in the body.
I've found that when I’m on more of a plant-based diet, I have a lot more energy, so I try to stick to plants, vegetables, and fruits. I live on the ocean so I eat a lot of fish too.
But in this sport, because of the volume of training, you have to eat volume and that’s just how it is. Sometimes it's really hard for me to eat enough.
Ryan Kempson On Recovery
SR: What does your recovery protocol look like?
RK: I have specialists that I work with for hands-on work, but I also do a lot of work in deep water with a flotation belt. The method I use is called The Burdenko Method, founded by Dr. Igor Burdenko.
You wear a flotation belt in the pool, and most of the exercises are vertical, but it's not your typical aqua jogging. It’s a lot of movements for mobility where you just move freely in the water. The main benefit is that you're de-loading the body because there's no gravity on it. Also, the pool has what you call hydrostatic pressure, so it’s the same concept as compression, except the deeper in the pool you go, the greater the pressure is. Think of it like a natural gradient compression system for the circulatory system. De-loading and the pressure really helps speed up the recovery process.
Ryan Kempson On Mental Strength
SR: How do you strengthen your mind to prepare for races?
RK: I learned visualization techniques during football in high school by studying a lot of film. I was on a football field on defense trying to diagnose plays, and little things happen in a split second, and you learn to identify and recognize them.
When it comes to a race, I have a game plan, I know what I'm capable of, and I have a strategy. You have to adjust, but I go through the different scenarios in my head so that when they come out in a race, I’m ready to handle them. To me, the point of visualization isn't so that you can consciously make decisions while competing, it's so you can unconsciously make decisions. They just become natural, and I really believe in that.
I also do a lot of hot Bikram yoga, which is an hour and a half in a very hot room with very high humidity. You're uncomfortable for an hour and a half, so that helps translate to whether you're racing in heat or cold, but it's about focusing on you and yourself and the task while you're forced to breathe through your nose for the hour and a half.
Any type of mental training or visualization links back to meditation and controlling your breathing. And when it comes to racing, that pain we endure, and uncomfortableness, whether it's heat, cold, stress, sleet, it's easier because you're used to enduring that pain.
SR: How do you push through tough days?
RK: I always listen to my body, so I try not to push too hard, but to stay with that grind, I think about what I want to accomplish. A lot of people enjoy the journey of training and preparing for something, then they celebrate that at a race. I might be a little bit darker in the sense that I don't always enjoy the training or racing. It’s painful, but I love the outcome. It sucks the whole time running up a mountain, but when you get to the top, and look back at what you accomplished, after doing everything you could to get to that goal, there's no better feeling to me than that.