You’ve got a few Spartans in the bag, you’re getting faster, and you’re toying with entering an elite heat. But those head-of-the-pack racers are intense, and their races are fast and furious. What do you need to know to join them?
The sharpest contrast between open heats and elite heats is that elite competitors can’t help each other over obstacles. “People are in the elite heat to be timed, ranked, and judged,” says former Spartan Race World Champion Amelia Boone. “It’s a chance to see where you stack up.” As another former world champion, Cody Moat says, “In the open heat, everybody’s more about having a good time.”
So why race elite then? Why not? It’s an opportunity to see what you’re capable of, move fast without being caught in a mob, and maybe win prize money or qualify for the world championships. Here’s how to physically and mentally prepare.
Essential Advice for Spartan Race Elite Training
1. Anticipate the Competition You’ll Face
When you decide to race in an elite heat, understand what kind of race you’ve signed up for. Spartan has national and regional series points races, five regional championships, and the world championships in Tahoe. You can race and qualify for the world championships in an age-group heat (more competitive than the open races) or in the elite heats (the most competitive).
If you sign up for an elite heat in a regional Spartan race that isn’t part of the championship series, it’ll be slightly less competitive because fewer top pros will be there. Heather Van Sickle found that to be true when she signed up for her first elite heat at the Sacramento Super. “It’s a local 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 make the top 10.
If you sign up to race elite in a championship series race, you’re in for a very intense experience. This year’s US Championship Series races are in Jacksonville, Florida; Saraland, Alabama; Snohomish, Washington; Big Bear, California; and Huntsville, Utah.
2. Respect the Penalties and Rules
Whichever heat you race in, you’re supposed to do 30 penalty burpees if you fail an obstacle. But things are a little looser in the open heats, says Moat. He’s done a few open heats with his kids, and no referee has disqualified the young ones for missing a burpee here and there.
That’s not the case in the elite heat. The refs 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, that’s a 30-second penalty added to your time—which can add up in closely contested races.
Boone’s advice: Do two more burpees than whatever you think is 30, because it’s easy to lose count when you’re ready to collapse and everyone’s cheering. It’s happened to her.
3. Practice the Obstacles Repeatedly
Elite racers don’t fail obstacles—not often. “I wasn’t prepared for the speed the ladies got through the obstacles,” said Van Sickle, who has since become an age-group world champion. “I quickly realized elite racers seldom fail obstacles.”
That’s because they’ve perfected their technique through downright fanatical practice. You can watch other people and fumble through when you’re in an open heat, but in elite, everyone’s moving too fast. You’ll want to brief yourself on formidable obstacles well in advance and practice till you’re confident.
At big races, Alyssa Hawley, who nabbed third at the 2017 world championship, will check out the map released a few days beforehand to see what she’s up against. When she sees something new, she’ll take advantage of the open house Spartan hosts a day or two before to give racers a chance to see the new obstacles. “Go there and play around,” says Hawley.
Moat will even go back out in an open heat, after he’s crossed the finish, to revisit an obstacle he struggled with to improve his technique.
4. Take to the Trails
Moat, Hawley, and Boone all agree the smartest thing to work on is running. Do it on actual trails with actual obstacles. Moat will stop on his long trail runs and do a hang or carry to mimic a race. While people tend to stress about specific obstacles, most of a 5- to 15-mile race is running, and elite racers are all very, very good runners.
Next up, focus on grip strength, and then heavy carries, says Moat. Elite heats often demand heavier or longer bucket carries and double sandbags (rather than one). “They’re killers,” he said—especially if you’re not prepared.
5. Buckle Up
“The energy is just different when you race elite,” says Hawley. That intensity can be jolting.
If you’re used to races starting out with a jog, the elite heat will seem a lot faster. “Everybody’s taking off like they’re going to win the race,” says Moat.
At most races, the men’s elite heat goes off and 15 minutes later the women follow, with another 15 minutes before the age-group or open heats start. The men’s elite heat is often four or five times the size of the women’s, according to Hawley and Boone, though the women’s heat can be stacked with a much higher proportion of top racers.
You can fixate on the front runners, or you can race your own race. If it’s your first elite, 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, says Boone “Expect that you’ll be humbled, and don’t let that turn you off.”