Whether you’re looking to get in shape, seek a new challenge, or you’re a seasoned OCR competitor, setting up a plan to train for a Spartan Race is a critical step in getting ready. Since we don’t know exactly what we’ll be facing on the course, we need to be ready for anything! However, there are a few commonalities that all Spartan Races include, and this Spartan workout plan will prepare you for your obstacle race.
After analyzing my Spartan training journals from my last few races (and comparing them with other competitors), it became clear the things that really work. Let’s start by discussing a basic split. I find that 2 days per week of dedicated resistance training (circuit-style) and two days per week of dedicated running (plus burpee) training tends to work well as a general program.
The following sample workout split tends to work the best in preparation for a Spartan Race:
- Monday: Resistance training circuits
- Tuesday: Running + Burpees (shorter session)
- Wednesday: Rest or take active recovery
- Thursday: Resistance training circuits
- Friday: Rest or take active recovery
- Saturday: Running + Burpees (longer session)
- Sunday: Rest or take active recovery
Of course, it is acceptable to move days around as your schedule allows.
In this article, we’ll delve into which exercises you should include in your resistance training sessions, and how to build cardiovascular fitness to thrive out on the course!
The top 3 exercises for Spartan Race training
In any athletic event, it’s important to focus your training around the exercises that will have the biggest direct impact on performance. Just like heavy squats and bench presses have a high carryover to the game of football, the following three exercises will have the highest level of carryover to a Spartan Racer. Spend the bulk of your training time on these exercises:
I have seen strong, capable lifters get crushed by Spartan Races. Why?
The number one problem I see in the world of training for Spartan Races (or similar obstacle course race-type events) is forgetting that it’s a running event. Think about it. If you’ve got 25 obstacles to cross over 6 miles, you must be capable of running 6 miles as a baseline.
Ideally, you’d be capable of running the distance of the race on your worst day, since running a 6-mile Spartan Race with obstacles is quite a bit tougher than just finishing a 10k race. Spartan Races are also notorious for including steep hills in their courses. Remember that what goes up must come down!
Many Spartan Race training plans published online focus almost entirely on the obstacles. This is a mistake. While it’s important to focus on obstacles, remember that you will be running the entire time!
You will want to be a fairly proficient runner if you plan on working through a Spartan Race.
Running Standard: Be able to run the distance of the race without getting sore or gassed.
I did an analysis of my last two Spartan Races, going over the obstacles in my mind. While I didn’t have a complete list in front of me, I estimated that about 80% of the obstacles involved hanging, wall / rope climbing, or pulling something down from overhead.
If you’re great at pull-ups, awesome! If you’re not, you’re going to want to invest some time in getting good at them. Seriously, do pull-ups.
While building back strength through general exercises like row variations and lat pull-downs is not a bad idea, the pull-up will have the greatest carryover to Spartan Racing, because of the technique involved. Pulling your body through space is quite a bit different than pulling a weight while your body is stationary.
As a side benefit, you should see quite a boost in grip strength (also important for OCR racing) by doing pull-ups.
Pull-Up Standard: Be capable of completing around 10 pull-ups (men) or 10 band-assisted pull-ups (women).
Last but not least, the not-so-humble burpee makes an appearance in the top three exercises for Spartan Racers. Why? Because you’ll probably do a bunch of them during the race.
It’s been hypothesized that the average Spartan Racer will do 60-90 burpees during the race. This includes penalties for missing an obstacle (spear throw, anyone?) as well as burpees required for finishing events (such as the Atlas Stone carry).
This presents a problem – burpees are known for their ability to crush people. Remember that you’re not just completing a set of normal burpees. You’re starting the set winded and tired. Then when you’ve finished your burpees, you need to go back to running! Yeesh.
For specificity’s sake, I find it’s often best to incorporate burpees into a normal running workout, rather than doing them separately (more on that later). For extra specificity, try doing burpee and pull-up workouts as a superset.
Burpee Standard: Be able to complete 2-3 sets of 30 burpees within a single workout.
Secondary exercises for Spartan Race training
The following exercises are also important, but just not quite as paramount as the top three. While someone who is proficient at running, pull-ups, and burpees will likely be able to finish a Spartan Race, someone who is also versed in performing these secondary exercises will thrive out on the course:
If you’ve participated in a Spartan Race before (or even if you’ve watched YouTube videos on the subject), you’ve no doubt seen videos of sweaty warriors slogging buckets full of rocks up hills, hauling Atlas stones across fields, and throwing sandbags on their shoulders or backs.
Loaded carries are a part of the race, and it will pay dividends to at least practice them in an endurance context. While there are certain techniques to improve efficiency and stave off fatigue in specific events, being good at carrying a semi-heavy object up and down a hill or across a field will pay off.
Loaded Carry Standard: Be able to carry a 45-65 lb object for 5 minutes straight.
It’s been said that if the barbell squat is the king of exercises, then the deadlift is the queen. Almost no exercise builds full body strength and coordination quite like the deadlift. For our application, however, we treat the deadlift as a means to an end.
In a Spartan Race, you will have to pick up semi-heavy objects off of the ground numerous times. The Atlas stone carry, bucket carry, sandbag carry, and tire flip events all rely on your ability to efficiently pick up a heavy object.
That being said, the strength demands aren’t super high. You don’t need a 400+ pound deadlift to complete a Spartan race. Most of the objects weigh 45-80 pounds at the most. Basic proficiency in the deadlift will suffice.
Deadlift Standard: Be capable of deadlifting your bodyweight for 3-5 reps.
Step ups / lunges
While running, burpees, and deadlifts will all affect leg strength and endurance somewhat, the humble step up (or walking lunge) is a high-specificity leg exercise that will build your ability to dart up and down hills with ease. This is especially true on events like the sandbag carry, where we’re often running up or down hills with an additional 25-45 pounds on our backs or in our hands.
Step-Up / Lunge Standard: Be capable of performing around 100 step-ups or walking lunges in a row without a break.
Planning your training cycle
In order to design an appropriate training plan, we have a few things to consider:
How much time do you have?
As with any training plan, it’s important to first assess how much time you have to prepare, and reverse engineer a plan from there. In the sample training plans below, we will spend a certain amount of time building Spartan Race-specific fitness, with the goal of being ready to complete the event on a certain day.
If you’ve got 12 weeks until your race, you could spend a full six weeks building fitness, and then 5 weeks getting ready for the race, followed by a deload week. If you’ve only got 7 weeks until your race, you will have to adjust your time frames accordingly.
Assess yourself and determine your weaknesses
Another important aspect of planning a Spartan Race training plan is assessing your strengths and weaknesses. As an example, I did a race a couple years ago with a friend who was a runner, but his upper body strength was lacking. He did very little running to prepare, but spent the majority of his time building pull-up strength.
Myself, I was coming off of a powerlifting training cycle, and I had a few pounds to shed. I focused my efforts on rebuilding a running base and weight loss. Our training plans looked very different, but we were both able to complete the race without issue.
Ask yourself which of the standards above you are lacking. Most of us will have at least one or two areas of weakness that we should plan to address during the training cycle.
- Do you suck at running? If so, then make that an area of focus.
- Do you suck at pull-ups? If so, take a look at pull-up-specific programs, like the Armstrong Pull-Up Program.
- Can you do 30 burpees, and then continue running afterward? If not, you may want to work on improving your VO2 max.
- Can you deadlift your bodyweight for reps? If not, some extra barbell training may be in order.
The point here is to tailor the program below to your specific needs. Perhaps eliminating a running day in order to focus on weight training, or eliminating a circuit training day to add an extra run.
Don’t forget to plan a deload
It should go without saying, but you’re not going to be building much extra fitness the week before an event. You can, however, fatigue yourself to the point of sabotaging your own performance. At least the last week before an event should be spent resting, recovering, eating good food, and getting good sleep. You can still work out if you wish, but keep it light and easy.
The benefits of going into the race fully recovered will far outweigh the drawbacks of missing a workout or two.
Putting it All Together: Your Spartan Race training program
I plan my Spartan Race training around four main workouts, consisting of running sessions with burpees, and resistance training sessions designed to build fatigue (no breaks). Below, I mention dumbbells or weight implements – note that these can easily be substituted by any weighted implement, such as a kettlebell, weight plate, or even a weighted vest).
Workout A: Strength circuit, Deadlift focus:
- Deadlift – 4-6 reps (see notes below for loading parameters)
- Loaded carry with 45-60 pounds – 30-60 seconds
- Pull-ups – Max effort, stopping 1 rep shy of failure
- Push-ups – Max reps in 1 minute
- Repeat five times
Workout B: Running + Burpees (long)
- Run one interval (work up to 1/3rd of your race distance)
- Complete a set of burpees (work up to 30 burpees per set)
- Repeat three times
Workout C: Strength superset, Step Up focus:
- Step ups or walking lunges with a 25-45 pound dumbbell (or another weight implement)
- Loaded carry with the same implement you used for your step-ups – 30-60 seconds
- Pull-ups – Max effort, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure
- Bear Crawls – 30-60 seconds
- Repeat five times
Workout D: Running + Burpees (2/3rds of Workout B
- Run one interval, running 2/3rds of the distance you ran in Workout B
- Complete a set of burpees, with 2/3rds of the reps you used in Workout B
- Repeat three times
Notes about the Burpee Run
I’ve dubbed this workout the “Burpee Run” for lack of a better term. I consider this the “pay to play” workout, and it works very well. Since we know that in the race we’ll have to:
- Run the distance of the course, and
- (probably) complete around 60-90 burpees in 30-rep increments,
I designed this workout to replicate those demands specifically. It’s deviously simple, but it works. The thing to note is you don’t want to jump into the deep end on week one. Like a distance runner, progress the distance linearly over the weeks as you get closer to the race, with the goal of completing the entire target distance before the event.
A sample training cycle for someone with 8 weeks to prepare for a Spartan Sprint might look like this:
|Day 1 (mid-week)||Day 2 (weekend)|
|Week 1||½ mile run, 5 burpees x3||½ mile run, 10 burpees x3|
|Week 2||½ mile run, 10 burpees x3||½ mile run, 15 burpees x3|
|Week 3||½ mile run, 15 burpees x3||¾ mile run, 20 burpees x3|
|Week 4||¾ mile run, 15 burpees x3||¾ mile run, 25 burpees x3|
|Week 5||¾ mile run, 20 burpees x3||1 mile run, 25 burpees x3|
|Week 6||¾ mile run, 25 burpees x3||1 mile run, 30 burpees x3 (target distance achieved!)|
If you’ve got longer to prepare, or if you’re completing a longer race (such as a Spartan Beast or Super), adjust accordingly. For Spartan Supers I will work up to 2+ mile intervals on this workout.
Notes about the resistance training sessions
The strength training sessions are designed to be done as a circuit, with no breaks. Make sure to warm up properly, especially on the deadlift day.
Concerning the deadlift, the goal will be to work up to completing a bodyweight deadlift for 4-6 reps for all 5 rounds. Similarly to the running, don’t jump right into deadlifting your bodyweight if you aren’t used to it. I would recommend starting light (say, 50% of bodyweight), and working up by adding 10lbs each week. Don’t go to failure on your deadlifts.
If you notice aches or pains crop up, take it easy. Skip a session or lighten the weights. You’re building fitness either way. The quickest way to dash your progress would be to get injured in preparation for the race.
Optional additional workouts
Before we close, I’d like to mention that you should individualize the plan above to suit your own goals. This specifically applies to the weaknesses you may have identified as part of your planning process. Here are a few suggested modifications based on your individual needs:
Modification 1: If you’re strong but need to work on running
If this describes you, I would suggest adding a third running day, where you eliminate burpees or other distractions. I would suggest doing runs on non-consecutive days, and if your schedule allows it, just run the split with 5 workouts per week. However, if you’re already strong, feel free to eliminate one of the circuit training days in order to make space for the additional running.
Modification 2: If you struggle with pull-ups
The best thing you can do if you have trouble with pull-ups is to run a pull-up-specific program, such as the Armstrong Pull-Up Program. This program consists of five mini-workouts that are intended to be completed Monday through Friday each week. If you choose to go this route, I would suggest eliminating pull-ups from the regular circuit training days and simply focusing on them in their own, stand-alone session.
Modification 3: If you’re in good shape but struggle with strength
If you’re in shape but struggle with basic strength, eliminate one of the circuit training days and replace it with a full-body traditional lifting session. A basic, linearly progressed, 5×5 barbell training program once per week will improve your strength rapidly, especially with all the other work you’ll be doing throughout the week.
Modification 4: If burpees destroy you
If you have a hard time with burpees, one of the best ways to improve them is to run a mini-program created by Johnny Pain, creator of the Greyskull LP. His burpee program was called the Villain Challenge, and it involves quick, intense daily sessions of burpees. The program starts easy but gets tough as you progress. Don’t worry, you’ll be a burpee pro in no time, and you should enjoy some improvements in VO2 max and body composition as a result!
The last few weeks before the race
In the last few weeks before the race, I often drop traditional training methods in exchange for getting as specific as I can. Unfortunately, the Spartan Race course cannot be replicated in a gym! Here are some ideas for your last 2-4 weeks of burpee runs (time permitting):
- Deliberately seek out hills. For instance, near my house, there is a soccer field with hills on either side. Rather than running on flat ground, I deliberately run to the soccer field, down into and out of the hills on the way out and the way back. That gives me 4 reps of hill sprints every time I run!
- Look for opportunities to add monkey bars. Playgrounds and soccer goals serve well as makeshift monkey bars.
- Add a 30-60 second bear crawl into the middle of your run.
Now, get training!
Now you’ve determined how much time you have, assessed your areas of opportunity, and learned which workouts to do. Now that you’ve learned how to train for a spartan race, it’s time to get to work! See you on race day!