Train Like a Champion: A Q&A with Spartan Champ Rea Kolbl
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.
Rea Kolbl (@reakolbl) doesn’t really train for obstacle course races. “I train for life,” she says. “Being able to do OCR is a really cool side effect.” The Spartan Pro Team athlete literally eats, sleeps, and races (with training in between, she says)—and that’s just the way she likes it. “I love being challenged and I don't know how far my body can go, but I want to find that out,” says the native of Slovenia and current Boulder resident. We talked to Kolbl about her intuitive approach to nutrition—that doesn’t restrict any food group or macro—and why she does foot exercises in the sauna.
Check out what a FULL week of Spartan Rea Kolbl's Workouts Looks Like
A Q&A With Spartan Rea Kolbl
SPARTAN RACE: When did you get hooked on racing?
REA KOLBL: I grew up as a gymnast so I did sports pretty seriously from when I was five years old. When I was 17 my career ended for that and I was in a pretty rough spot for a few years. I started running just to get healthy again. But then when I did a few races, I remembered how competitive I am and how much fun I have racing. But I couldn't find a sport that would fill in as many hours of training as I wanted to. When I was little, I would train for four hours a day every day and when that ended I kind of had that gap that I could never really fill.
I did a Spartan race with a bunch of friends in 2013 just for fun. And I really liked it. It combined running, which I was pretty good at at that point already and gymnastics, which I had from growing up. But more importantly it gave me an opportunity to really train hard for something that can fill the time that you have. I feel like OCR is one of those sports where you're never done, you just kind of run out of time to do everything. It was kind of what I've been looking for this whole time. And I was good at it too. When you're good at something and you love training for it, you don't stop.
SR: What do you consider when you're designing your programming?
RK: My number one objective is always to have fun. I love being outside. I love doing adventures outside. I started mountain biking and I love that now. Being a full-time athlete right now is really a once in a lifetime opportunity to do what I love. So when I'm designing my training, I want to love it. I really want to be enjoying the training because I feel like when I'm having fun and enjoying it, that's when I get better. And then number two is at every single race that I do, I try to see what my weaknesses were, and then really modify the training to put more of that particular thing in it.
Related: Spartan's 5 Toughest Obstacles—And How To Train For Them
SR: What might those weaknesses be?
RK: It changes throughout the season. When I was in New Jersey in April for the Ultra Spartan race, I remember on the second loop, the bucket carry was so hard that I had to put it down twice. I'm focusing on Sweden, which I'm going to have to carry the bucket for hours. So I added more of the heavy bucket carries into my training and now I do it every week.
SR: Anything else you’ve been working on?
RK: I feel like when you're racing on trails, you have to be training on trails. So, that's why all my running is on trails and out in different elements. And I run into winter, I run in the summer, I run throughout the seasons. You can never really predict what the weather is going to be like, and so if you're training in a lot of different environments in different trails, then you're more ready for whatever the race throws at you.
SR: How would you describe your approach to food?
RK: I eat intuitively. Kind of like I train intuitively, where I don't really have a strict plan that I follow. I kind of see what my body does and how it feels. I have the same approach to food. I really try to eat healthy so most of my meals, unless I'm traveling, are homemade from scratch. I'll use a lot of veggies. I use a lot of meat. I use a lot of carbs, but I don't count anything. I just eat until I'm full. And I eat every single food group. I don't restrict anything. The only thing I don't eat is dessert, but I compensate by eating a lot of fruit. So, I'm by no means avoiding sugar. I just try for the sugar to be the natural sugar. And after the run and every time after the workout, I try to get food in me as soon as possible. But other than other than that, I eat a lot and I eat everything.
SR: What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to nutrition for athletes?
RK: Quality, definitely. You want to be getting all of the nutrients. And if you eat 2000 calories of rice, you've got enough calories. Well, 2000 probably won't cut it if you do a lot of things, but those calories are not going to nourish your body if you ate like a full meal.
One thing that was helpful for me was blood testing to figure out where my bio markers are. ad I found that I was really, really iron deficient even though I was eating healthy. Iron is pretty hard to be absorbed and it's especially a problem for female athletes. So, I actually had to supplement [with Hema-Plex that comes with slowly-releasing vitamin C that helps with absorption] that and I'm still supplementing and it took me like two years to get it back to the normal range where I can really feel good. So I like to test periodically just to know what I need to supplement just to be at the optimum performance. Because eating healthy doesn't always necessarily give you everything that you need.
SR: What does your pre or post-race nutrition look like?
RK: I always run in the morning and I run on a fairly empty stomach. The only thing I have when I wake up is my pre-workout, and I'd have like one or two bananas. And then in races, I would do an energy gel in addition to that, just so that I'm more fueled and my glycogen stores are full when I start the race. And then after the morning run, I always have my oatmeal with added protein supplements and both my pre-workout and protein supplements after the workout are made by a Ascent Protein. It's really clean fuel and it doesn't have sugar and sweeteners. It's all natural. And, I put nuts and a banana in my oatmeal and I have it with whole milk, so that I get fats, carbs, protein, everything, right after the run. I have three servings of oatmeal. So, it's a pretty big meal I have right after the run and that kind of carries me throughout the day. And I would have fruits and nuts and just healthy snacks throughout the day until after the second workout when I have my big dinner. And actually for iron, you shouldn't supplement it before or after workouts, because when the inflammation is high in your body, it's also not going to get absorbed. So, I do all my supplementation right before bed, which I try to make it at least an hour or two after the last meal so it’s an empty stomach.
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Pre and post workout summer treats!! 🍉 When it comes to fueling my workouts I mainly focus on healthy and clean ingredients that help me perform better. @ascent_protein preworkout was all of the above already, but with their new flavor formula released today it now tastes amazing too! Watermelon is my favorite - it’s like a refreshing reward for a workout before I even start it. #preworkout #supplements #healthyfuel #theoffoicialsponsorofhardwork #spartantraining #spartanpro #watermelonlove
SR: In all of your years as an athlete, what is the biggest thing that you've learned about your body?
RK: My biggest lesson came from the period in between gymnastics and running. I was really lean and I was restricting food. I didn't have any sweets for years. When I quit I kind of went into the complete opposite and I gained a lot of weight in two weeks. But I also started eating very unhealthy and had a lot of fast food, a lot of sugar, a lot of chocolate, a lot of ice cream. And, it wasn't just the weight gain, it was also how bad I felt and how low-energy I was and how hard it was to do everything. You can do the damage really, really quickly and then it takes forever to get back. I had a variety of different eating disorders I was working my way through. When I came back to being a healthy athlete and having my body now perform, it's really this ability to go on self-propelled for hours at a time and have my body be able to do this. I appreciate that so much because I know how bad it feels when you don't feel properly, and when you're too heavy and unhealthy and what a difference it is and just the quality of life that you can have because of that.
Restricting things like I did in gymnastics is not really long-term. So that's why I don't weigh myself now. I don't count calories. I don't count macros. I just try to eat when I'm hungry until I'm full, but make sure that things are healthy.
SR: What's your recovery protocol look like?
RK: I try and foam roll every day at the end of the second workout. I also try and go with the sauna pretty often just to relax the muscles and everything. Last year I had this foot injury that partially happened because I completely neglected my feet. Going to the sauna for me is like the time where I don't have my phone, I don't have my computer, there's no distractions, and I can really dedicate 15 minutes to working on foot exercises that I would not do otherwise. And then one big thing is just sleep. When you sleep a lot you can do a lot during the day. The priority is on getting my eight to 10 hours of sleep every night if I can. I use a protein supplement right before bed for muscle repair. I also supplement collagen for tissue repair. It’s just a lot of little things and consistently. You can never really tell which one helps, but I've been able to do really high-volume training this year and stay injury-free.
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I'm proud of what my body did this past weekend but I'm even more proud of how quickly I bounced back. I'm still sore in some spots and I can't run fast, but today I was able to go out on trails for over an hour, enjoying the falling snow without anything hurting as I a shuffled along. ••• I did put a lot more effort into recovery, replacing my workouts with rolling and stretching, spending lots of time in the sauna, and eating lots of good food. And even though I'm a lot less active than usual, I never once skip on my @ascent_protein recovery shakes - my muscles need all the help they can get 💪 #TheOfficialSponsorOfHardWork #recoverysupplement #racehardrecoverharder
On the Mental Game
SR: What do you do to mentally prepare for a race or intense training session?
RK: What I try to do before a race, especially if it's a bigger race, or if I'm more nervous, is just think of all the things I did and all the things that I accomplished just to be there. And that usually takes the pressure off of the race itself because I go into the mindset that it doesn't really matter because it's not the first or the last race, and it's the process of getting there that's important. I just try to remind myself to do my best and that's really the only thing I can control on race day.
Related: 5 Jaw-Dropping Spartan Transformations
SR: What do you think about while training or during a race?
RK: Most of the time I think how cool my life is. This is really a privilege to get to live this life. To go into the mountains for 10 days and mountain bike, and run to these amazing peaks with great views, and paddleboard, and do all of these things and call it work. a lot of the times when I'm out there I just catch myself smiling because it just makes me so happy to be able to do that. And of course I have hard days when it's hard to get out. But, then on those days, I just try to think of the times when I was injured and I couldn't run or I couldn't bike. And that's usually enough to make that training run or whatever go by. But, a lot of the times I'm just really happy every time I'm out there because how many people can do this and use it to pay for their life?
SR: What inspires you?
RK: People doing amazing things. I watch a lot of documentaries about people running crazy distances or climbing mountains. Just seeing the limits that your body can push, that is usually what inspires me.
SR: How would you say Spartan Racing carried over into your other parts of your life?
RK: It translates really well to pretty much anything you do, because you have obstacles in everything that you do and you need to figure out how to overcome them. I've had races where I was thrown to the the wolves. Like the first aqua race that I did—that water, I didn't prepare for that. It was fine in the end. And so I feel like getting into this really hard situation, like in New Jersey when I got hypothermia, it's really bad at the moment but you know that you can get through it and it’s going to be okay. A lot of that troubleshooting and overcoming can also be then translated to real life. You know that it's going to be eventually over, and it's going to be okay and you're going to learn from it and move on.
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Someone sent me a message yesterday saying: “May I ask you what’s your diet? You are so strong!” She might not know it, but hearing this made me so happy, especially coming from a woman. I hope that one day all of the girls (and boys) can look at the mountains rather than in the mirror and think “what should I eat and do to be strong enough to climb that?” #stronglikeagirl #strongisbeautiful #eathealthy #trainhardfuelharder