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.
Since May, one of the fiercest OCR female competitors, Nicole Mericle (@nickeldm) temporarily left her home in Boulder, Colorado to train and compete at a number of different locations and terrains leading up to the World Championships in September.
After building out a custom van with all of the basic living essentials such as a bed, sink, and stove, she’s made stops at Big Bear, Monterey, Malibu, and Lake Tahoe.
Spartan.com caught up with Mericle to learn some of her top secrets to competitive success, plus get access to what it would look like to train with her for a full week.
Check out what a FULL week of Spartan Nicole Mericle's Workouts Looks Like
A Q&A With Spartan Nicole Mericle
SPARTAN RACE: What do you consider when you're designing your programming?
SPARTAN NICOLE MERICLE: Most of my training comes from my coach, David Roche. He deals with all my running programming and everything that revolves around that. So, my running program comes first, then I rock climb a lot which takes care of the majority of my training specifically for obstacles, besides lifting.
And when it comes to lifting, I don't really follow anything that's super-prescribed like my running. Normally, when I'm in Boulder, I have a group of friends who are running and lifting coaches, so a few of us get together a couple of times a week and I basically do what they tell me to do and I adapt to that.
SR: How much are you running in a week?
NM: An ideal week would be five days, maybe six days of running. I've kind of been injury prone my entire running career, so when I first started training with David, he had me running five days a week at first, then last year I might have gotten up to six days a week, but this year I'm back down to five. Not really because anything has gone wrong, but I think he just decided that I'm good with five days of running in combination with everything else I do.
SR: And weight training and climbing?
NM: Twice a week I'll do some kind of 30-minute kettlebell EMOM [every minute on the minute], with 20 to 30 more minutes of warming up, and maybe doing a series of pull-ups at the end, or doing some other kind of barbell lifting. So, pretty much twice a week, there’s some kind of lifting, and then after one run a week I may pick up a 50-pound sandbag and do a few one- to three-minute repetitions of carrying that around.
And the rock climbing varies a lot. There will be some weeks that I'm climbing five days a week, and then other times that I only get out maybe once or twice. That’s really dependent on how I feel. And that may actually come down to my skin not tolerating it, not so much as my muscles. There are some areas where you climb two days, and if you're climbing a lot, all your skin is gone, and you have to rest a couple of days for it to regrow.
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After bouldering today I realized I’ve lost a lot of upper body power and strength. I guess 3 months of travel and not being in a routine can do that. Here’s a clip of me working on this overhanging boulder problem. I’m excited to finally be back home in Boulder in 1 week and put some solid training in for 2019. In the meantime, I’ve been trying out the new climbing gyms in Houston that popped up since my move 6 years ago. Not too shabby Houston. 👏 If you could just grow some hills then I could spend more time training here. 🤣 You might be surprised to hear that I have an issue with my hip that limits how far and fast I can run on flat ground. If you’ve been to Houston then you know it is really REALLY flat. It’s been a frustrating 2 weeks of running for me here and has really illuminated how dysfunctional my hip still is. While this is a good reminder to double down on mobility and rehab exercises, I also feel fortunate that I can live somewhere more conducive for my hip injury. If you’re getting over an injury or dealing with something chronic, know that I’m right there with you. Sometimes you just need to get creative. For me, this has meant breaking up my runs with other exercises, searching out baby hills and running up and down them, and my silliest alteration is running around like a kid jumping off of street curbs and benches to break up the monotonous flat, straight paths. 😂🤷♀️ Here’s to building fitness and overcoming/working around injuries!
< SR: How do you know when it’s time to push your body and when to pull back? What does your recovery protocol look like?
NM: One of the coaches I met with a couple of times, a year or so ago, came up with a really great protocol for me. I’d warm up for 30 minutes climbing easy and then go to the campus board, which is a series of really small pieces of wood, stacked one on top of each other, separated by a foot gap each. You’re basically hanging completely on your fingers without your feet. So, I see how I feel doing a max campus, which is going from both hands on one rung, and then seeing how far I can go with one arm, and if I can meet my maximum.
Also, I'll try to have a bouldering problem picked out, either at the gym I’m at, or on the moon board. It’s usually a pretty standard bouldering problem, or something that’s not at my limit, but is challenging enough that I can see how I perform on it and how I feel on it.
Based on those two things, that sometimes predicts, or tells me whether, "Oh, today I should just climb easy because my fingers are really sore," or if I feel great on it, and say to myself, "Well, I was thinking about doing an endurance day of climbing, but maybe today is a good time to go for whatever project that I have in the gym." In that case, I would do max capacity to push my best grade.
But with running, I will pretty much stick to my plan no matter what, and there’s a lot more predictable of how I'm going to feel. I've been doing the same thing for the last three years, and as long as I follow what I'm supposed to be doing, then usually nothing comes up really big. And if I warm up, and I don't feel that great, I still try to do the workout. I'll just get through it and report back to my coach like, "Oh, I didn't feel that great," and then he might adjust things from there.
The only time I think I've really abandoned the plan is when I’ve had an asthma attack.
SR: Would you say your training is unorthodox in some ways?
NM: I would describe myself as being sort of an out of place athlete. Being brought up in the sport of running, that was my whole identity, but then I had been rock climbing for a couple of years, so I had this upper body musculature like a rock climber, and these powerful, muscular legs, like a runner. So my lower body was bigger than a climber's, but I had this whole aerobic system that climbers don't usually have.
Obstacle racing was actually this aha moment, like, "Oh, this is perfect," because I can still compete as a runner, but my rock climbing doesn't hinder that training, because it actually lends itself to being a good obstacle course racer.
I don't think a lot of obstacle course racers train like I do because I just don't think that anybody else is as into rock climbing as I am, or has that as such a big component of their training.
I don't go to gyms that are specifically designed for Ninja, or obstacle racing. I don't typically practice on obstacles or have any built in my backyard, or at my house. There's a lot of workouts that people do that involve different pull-ups, and hanging on the bar, like a monkey bar, or different grips. I've never done anything like that because I feel like I get the same or better results through rock climbing.
On the OCR Lifestyle
SR: Can you remember your first experience with obstacle course racing, and what about it specifically got you hooked?
NM: I was looking for a new avenue to compete because I've always been a competitive runner, and about six years ago, I had an injury that pretty much took me out of any road or track racing. I was totally done running. I could barely jog on a road, on a flat road, and I went through years of physical therapy, and was going to different doctors and surgeons. The results were always inconclusive; they couldn't find anything wrong with me besides that I have a labral tear in my hip. Three different surgeons didn't recommend surgery, but one of them was like, "Well, I'll operate on you if you really want me to." But that's not really what you want to hear from your surgeon. So, I kind of found obstacle racing as a way to compete again, but it took a little bit of convincing.
I had a huge misconception of what the world of obstacle course racing was like. Coming from such a strict running background, my perception of OCR and Spartans was that they were things that you went out on the weekend, got a group of friends together, got dressed up, and kind of played in the mud. Which was totally fine, that sounds like fun, but it didn't seem like there was any type of competitive aspect to it, or that there would be a draw for a serious athlete to go into it. But a friend was like, "No, there are athletes that do this as their job, it's their full-time career. There are very talented, very driven people in this sport."
I did my first one in May of 2016 but was still kind of recovering from the injury, and I wasn't completely prepared for the race distance, but I found the obstacles to be fun, and they were very doable for me, given my rock climbing background. I thought that they were challenging enough that it was exciting, but then there was the whole aspect of the strength obstacles that were definitely very challenging to me, and was the first clear thing that I would need to work on.
On Diet & Nutrition
SR: How would you describe your diet?
NM: I’m kind of stealing this from Jesse Thomas, the triathlete who said he aims for a “B+ diet”. That really resonated with me. I definitely don't have a perfect diet, and I don't try to. I could probably do better, but I don't know, there's joy in eating candy to me. But then again, I do have healthy tendencies.
I would say I eat lots of vegetables, and whole foods over anything really processed, but when it comes to having desserts, and candy, I do allow myself to have sweets every day.
SR: You're working off everything single thing you eat, so...
NM: Yeah, and I don't count calories, but I do have the same breakfast every single morning, without fail.
SR: What is it?
NM: Gluten-free waffles. I'll make them if I have a kitchen and time, but typically, frozen gluten-free waffles with some kind of nut butter, like almond butter, cashew butter, or sunflower seed butter, and berries on the top.
SR: How do you eat before a race or training?
NM: Before a race, I have the same waffle breakfast. Sometimes I'll have less, just because at 5:30 in the morning, I'm not as hungry when I wake up for a race. So, I'll have somewhat of a normal breakfast about three hours before I run, if I can. Sometimes if the race is at 7:45 in the morning, like they normally are with Spartan, that's typically not three hours before, because that's really early, but as close to three hours before as I can.
I'll drink water, have a little bit of coffee, and I'll take AltRed, which is a beet supplement about an hour before the race, then I'll also start sipping on some kind of electrolyte drink. I normally use Skratch, but it could be it could be anything. That's my race, pre-race protocol.
SR: What would you say you've learned about the most in regards to your body and your fitness?
NM: When I was in college, I was surrounded by lots of female runners who were all trying to excel in running, and a lot of women definitely had eating disorders. I was lucky to have several girls on the team who were older than me that ate really healthy and had really hearty appetites, and they did really well. I think I figured that out for myself too. No matter where you run in high school and college, there's going to be somewhat of an influence of being skinnier will make you faster. I remember very distinctly, that I ran the best cross country race of my life, and my weight was a little bit more than it normally was. I think that it was important for me to realize early on that there was no exact number when it comes to my weight, that I needed to be in order to run fast. And it's not just with women, either, it's a lot with men, too.
I've been running since I was 10, and I'm 31, and I've had little injuries here and there, but I've never had any kind of nutritional deficits, like bone density issues, or anything else that goes along with disordered eating. Which I think is pretty huge and important when it comes to longevity of running.
Besides that, I do have a really big sweet tooth, and I’ve learned to realize that sugar and sweets can contribute to a lot of inflammatory processes. It can definitely be beneficial to not have as much in your diet, but sometimes that's hard to curb. So, I've I think successfully replaced most of my candy and sweet intake with things like fruits, and berries in particular, and that seems to work really well.
On Race-Day Prep and Routines
SR: What do you do to get yourself in a good place mentally for competition or training?
NM: I do a little bit of visualization, which would involve looking at the course map, walking through what are going to be the hardest points in the race, and maybe something that I want to think about during those points, so that could be where the heavy carry is. If there's a double heavy carry that I'm especially worried about, if I can go look at it, that sometimes relieves some of the pressure, just being able to see where the start of it is, and how long it goes, and where the finish line of that carry is. And that way I can know, like, “Okay, this is... It's short enough that I just need to move quickly and not put the sandbags down.” And that will kind of be my mantra for that obstacle.
And then I'll also think about where one mile, or a half mile from the finish line is, so I know when to empty the tank a little bit more.
SR: Is there anything in particular that you think about during a race or while in training?
NM: I would say about half the time, I'll run with music, and that's kind of a new development. I don't think I ever ran with music in college. But I enjoy running with music sometimes, but then when I have harder workouts, I'll typically not have music, which seems a little bit opposite, but I like to focus a bit more on my breathing, and like the sounds of what running hard actually sounds like. It depends on the run, if it's an easy run, I'll probably be thinking about all kinds of things, like what I have to do the rest of the day, and what's going on in the day, or what's happening around me, and I've been lucky to run in some amazing places lately, so you're just looking at waterfalls, and taking in the view.
I’llI run with my dog a lot too and talk to him a little bit, but when it's a workout, then I'll put myself in a racing mindset a little bit more. For example, I might think about how this workout, going up this hill, is going to benefit my race in Utah when I have a steep hill to climb, and I try to think how it applies in my next race.
SR: What inspires you?
NM: That's a hard question. I think that I've always liked to compete. I've always been really competitive and enjoyed pushing my body to the limit, whether it's running, or climbing, basically anything. So I have a need to push my body. And when I say I'm really competitive, I'm not like, “Oh, I want to go destroy these other women.” While I do think about winning, most of the intrigue in racing is being able to push myself to the limit.
There have been things that have come along the way with racing, and doing well, like other people who say what I do is inspiring. I think that's great, but I didn't initially set out to inspire anybody or prove anything. I would definitely be competing if nobody was watching.
SR: Do you have a mantra?
NM: I do repeat similar things to myself like, "Just keep going.” “You're strong, you can do this." And, “If you just keep on making small steps in the right direction, you're going to get to the finish line.”
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The finish line hugs were especially sweet yesterday hearing about @johnnylunalima ‘s break out performance and win.🕺Even though my calves had been cramping for miles I somehow had it in me to literally jump for joy. After only 3 miles into the race I had to keep repeating to myself “you can do this” and “just keep moving.” Those mantras and everyone’s cheers got me to the finish line and a 3rd place finish. I couldn’t be more excited about my performance and coming out of the weekend healthy and ready to prep for the next race. Congrats to everyone who completed this monster course, especially the mountain goats @lindsaydawnwebster 🥇and @reakolbl 🥈 who I tried to hang onto as long as possible. 👏 @darntoughvermont @altredbysur @spartanrace
< SR: How does being an obstacle racer or Spartan competitor carry over into other aspects of your life?
NM: I studied sports medicine in college, and I've been an EMT the last two years, and then I will be applying to physician assistant school, so I have an appreciation for how the human body works, in healthy and in injury states as well. It's all kind of related.