Everything You Need to Know About Spartan Race

Spanning 30 countries and reaching almost a million avid followers, even the shortest Spartan Races are designed to push you to breaking point. Here’s everything you need to know to battle through and cover yourself in glory.

Part obstacle course, part toughest thing you’ll ever attempt, Huel’s latest partner, Spartan Race, has been dragging fitness stalwarts through hell since 2010.

With races ranging from three miles to 50k+ ultramarathons, a Spartan Race is the perfect way to shatter your own ideas of what you’re capable of, both physically and mentally. It’s an addictive quality that has helped Spartan Race build a community of almost one million members.

Feel like a Spartan Race could provide exactly the sense of camaraderie and challenge you’re looking for? Read on to find out exactly what to expect in each race, and how to train for them.

What is Spartan Race?

The brainchild of ultramarathon runner and New Yorker Joe De Sena, Spartan Race was first conceived as a more accessible spin-off of his infamous ‘Death Race’, held annually on De Sena’s farm and so brutal that in 2014 only forty of three hundred entrants crossed the finish line.

Spartan Race, on the other hand, was designed to be brutal. But not that brutal.

“Spartan's mission is to help people live without limits,” Spartan Race’s online messaging explains, adding that “living "the hard way" based on ancient wisdom and daily training can make us the people we were born to be.”

There are multiple Spartan Races taking place at any one time, with five scheduled across scenic UK locations from May to October, including the British OCR [Obstacle Course Race] Championships in Lincolnshire.

Beginners can wet their beak in the Sprint 20 obstacles (5k) or Super 25 obstacles (10k), while those wishing to level up might set their sights on the Beast 30 obstacles (21k) and Ultra 60 obstacles (42k). Across the series, you can expect torture in the form of walls, bucket carries, rope climbs, cargo nets, balance beams, monkey swings, slack-lines, atlas carries, log carries, double farmer’s carries, and more.

“Spartan Races involve a good mix of balance, strength, speed, stamina and agility, but it’s 95% trail running,” says Jack Carpenter, a fully qualified level three personal trainer and elite OCR athlete who has been ranked the fourth best Spartan Race competitor in the UK for the past three years.

To be clear, this isn’t your typical trail run: “Every Spartan Race will throw in a good mix of grassy fields, woods, and hills to get you nice and muddy,” adds Carpenter. “Not forgetting, the series’ most unique aspect: testing your ability to hit a bale of hay with a spear, in true Spartan style.”

How to train for Spartan Race

Unless you were born with Spartan blood pumping through your veins, it’s likely you’ll want to ease your way in, starting with the 5km, 20 obstacle, Sprint Race. Carpenter thinks this is a good idea, but warns it still involves “Spartan staples like the rope climb and the dunk wall.”

Because Spartan Races are mostly running, Carpenter says this is where you should focus the majority of your training. But, instead of worrying about things like pace, heart-rate and even power, he suggests you keep it simple and focus on RPE, or ‘rate of perceived exertion’.

“We measure RPE on a scale of 1-10, 1 being rested, and 10 being you can’t take one more step,” he explains, adding that “I like to break running training into time instead of distance. For example, a sprint takes an average of 45 minutes, so you need to make sure you have that time in your legs.”

To get there, Carpenter advises mixing up your three weekly training runs, like this:

Run 1: “Slow and steady, run for 60min at RPE 5”.

Run 2: “This is a threshold run, so it should be close to race pace. Break it down into five minute blocks of RPE 8, with 30 to one minute recovery blocks at lower RPE, with a good warm up and cooldown for a total of 45 minutes.”

Run 3: “A race-specific run, focused on high RPE sets of three minutes each, repeated as many times as you’re able.”

What else should I do?

OCR competitions aren’t just about running for time or at a certain speed. “Spartan's are stop-start races with obstacles thrown in randomly throughout, so it’s good to get used to ‘compromised running,’” says Carpenter, i.e. having to run then stop to climb/crawl/vomit, all of which forces your body to work even harder as it’s having to constantly adapt to a new challenge.

Compared to running flat out at the same pace for half an hour, compromised running makes it much harder for your body to settle into a comfortable rhythm.

As race day approaches, Carpenter recommends building up your anaerobic fitness – giving you the ability to push through when you want to collapse – by adding in the below.

Burpees

“Run 1km followed immediately by 10 or more burpees. Repeat until you hit a rep, distance or time target, depending on your race category.” Fail the spear throw – in which you try to launch a spear 20-to-30-feet into a hay bale – and you’ll have to do a 30 burpee forfeit, so it’s good to get your practice in for that reason too.

Carry reps

“Pick a 400m loop. Run one lap, then grab a heavy bag and go again. In Spartan Races, this would be 50lbs for women and 60lbs for men. Aim to build a flow from running to picking up the bag and running again. Try not to stop or walk, just keep a good steady pace and repeat depending on your ability.”

What about the obstacles?

While there is a heck of a lot of running involved in Spartan Races, it’s the obstacles that really get us excited. Unless you have an official Spartan course in your backyard, it’s going to be difficult to train for the exact race set-up but you can get ahead by practising Carpenter’s recommended accessory exercises.

Grip

“A lot of OCR requires you to hang, pull, or hoist a spear using your grip strength. Exercises like pull-ups or dead hangs will really help here. If you have the basics down, you can progress with weight or higher reps/time.”

Strength

“Bodyweight training is enough in most cases, so only add in kettlebells or dumbbells if you really need to. Focus on squats, deadlifts and lunges for leg strength, and push/pull movements for the upper body. Hanging knee raises are great for your core, too.”

Balance work

“A lot of competitors fail the balance beam at Spartan. Doing so incurs a penalty that can be avoided with some simple one legged standing beforehand.”

Crawling, jumping and climbing

“Adding bear crawls and broad jumps into your weekly training is really useful, while a session at your local climbing wall can really help with grip strength and body position.”

Cross training

“Not all of the cardio volume needs to come from running. Adding in swimming and cycling is a really good way of building endurance and stamina while keeping impact low and encouraging recovery.”

Words: Tom Ward

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