There is a lot of content out there about the Spartan Race Ultra: what to eat, how to mentally prepare, what to put in your Drop Bin, how much time to spend in the transition area, training plans...the list goes on.
By the time I had started contemplating an Ultra I had been participating in OCR events for a few years so I already had an idea of what the Ultra was, and I had a base of Spartan-obstacle-specific fitness/skills, and I had been exposed to enough basic information about the Ultra that I felt like I had a somewhat "reasonable understanding" of where to start to prepare for one. Sure I had a TON to learn about an endurance event: like nutrition, and mental preparedness, and how strategy differs (even down to the choice of what to wear)...but the point is, I had a good starting point.
HOWEVER. I know there are a lot of Ultra hopefuls out there who DON'T have the benefit of that background and for YOU, contemplating the Ultra can be nerve-wracking enough as it is before diving into the fray of "advice" out there on the internet. There is an abundance of articles, Facebook and Reddit threads, and YouTube videos that definitely cover topics relating to how to to prepare for an Ultra, but overall I have found the available content to be unorganized, largely biased, and sometimes even dangerously misleading. Type in a casual Google search of "how to prepare for a Spartan Ultra" and you might quickly find yourself down a rabbit hole of intense debate in a Facebook group over which new brand of OCR shoe is "best"...or whether or not the Keto diet is appropriate for endurance events...leaving the reader feeling even more overwhelmed and lost in the depth and breadth of sub-topics within the "Ultra" world.
BUT FEAR NOT! Because I'm all about frameworks. As in, when I tackle a new project I appreciate a clear list of steps and things to consider that I can assess beforehand, before diving into each topic more deeply. Think of it as sketching out the "forest" before we go into detail about all the individual types of trees IN the forest (*hopefully at least some of you have heard the analogy I'm referring to and have an idea of what I'm talking about. If not, reference the cute little graphic below that I have designed for your reference.)
Once you've got a better understanding of the overall concept and how the key pieces connect, you'll be better prepared to see where your knowledge/training gaps are...which will in turn help you know where to direct your focus. Set the stage first...have in-depth conversations about which OCR shoes are best later.
Before we get started, an important note: While I always try my best to get the best/most accurate/most relevant and helpful/actionable information available, I am not a professional OCR athlete/trainer/nutritionist. Any advice here is based purely on my own experiences, or is a recommendation based on what I know has worked for previous Ultra athletes, or is advice that comes directly from a professional (e.g., a registered nutritionist or licensed trainer -- and I'll make the source clear). This is not meant to be the end-all, be-all, definitive guide to everything you could ever need to know: I aim to make this as comprehensive as possible but at the end of the day, YOU are responsible for your own race preparation and ensuring that you are ready to take on the challenge. (**On that note, if there's anything you think of while reading/training that you think should be added to this guide, please be sure to let me know! I would love to continue to add to this and have it become a trusted and reliable resource for all athletes.)
So without further ado....let's dive in!!
THIS GUIDE WILL BE POSTED IN A SERIES OF INSTALLMENTS, WITH ONE STEP ADDED EACH TIME. IF YOU LIKE WHAT YOU SEE, SIGN UP FOR OUR EMAIL ADDRESS TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN EACH UPDATE IS ADDED!
THIS GUIDE WILL BE POSTED IN A SERIES OF INSTALLMENTS, WITH ONE STEP ADDED EACH TIME. IF YOU LIKE WHAT YOU SEE, SIGN UP FOR OUR EMAIL ADDRESS TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN EACH UPDATE IS ADDED!
There Are 7 Main Components To Prep For Your First Ultra:
First of all, don't stress about what anyone is saying regarding what your level of fitness "should" be for an Ultra or how long in advance you "should" start training, or any of those other preconceived notions by people who...at the end of the day... are strangers on the internet. Instead, focus here on being really honest with yourself. This is your race, and your goal...what works for some may not work for others, and while you can definitely find useful articles online to give insights and opinions, no one "out there" will have your full story so take everything you see with a grain of salt.
If you have completed a Spartan Beast you have an idea of what you are getting into, and that is honestly probably the best way to gauge your readiness to make the leap to the next level that is the Ultra. This is because typically the Ultra is literally a Beast that racers complete twice -- with some extra mileage/obstacles thrown in for good measure -- so there's no better way to know than to give the Beast a try and see how it goes! One additional bonus to this strategy is that participating in a Beast means you will be able to see/experience the obstacles, which may not be included in the shorter distances of Spartan Race (e.g., the Super and Sprint and Stadion)...and that can give you valuable insight into what types of skills to work on to ensure your Ultra success.
If you can comfortably complete a Beast and safely make all the timing cutoffs without an issue, and feel like you may have some gas left in the tank (even if it's only a little bit), then your body is well-conditioned for an Ultra. With a couple more months of fine-tuning and preparation (including mental prep, which is crucial), you should be ready to rock'n'roll.
If you haven't completed a Beast the advice here is much more vague, since (as mentioned above), everyone is so different. There have been multi-marathoners or triathletes who have struggled with the Ultra, due to the unique type of fitness and skill set required for this level of obstacle course race. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been Ninja Warriors who barely ran more than 5 miles during their Ultra training and finished without issue. One of the key factors in Ultra preparedness is the mental mindset and grit, and willingness to persevere through the discomfort: regardless of how well-conditioned an athlete is, if they are unable to push through when things get rough, they're not going to have a ton of fun doing an Ultra. This combination of reasons is why I recommend actually completing a Beast before determining how much additional time you will need to prepare for the Ultra.
Once you've determined where you think your current level of fitness stands vis-à-vis an Ultra, and how much work you estimate you'll need before you attempt one, the next step is to think critically about how much time you'll be able to dedicate to your training. This is another point where you need to be honest with yourself and decide realistically how much training will fit into your lifestyle: how many days per week, how long per day, etc. so that you can decide how long it might actually take you to prepare for the Ultra. If you've got a big life event coming up that will take months of intense planning, or if you're a busy parent who also works, that will obviously stretch the timeline out more.
THAT BEING SAID: there are definitely people out there who will recommend you "just go for it!" and make light of the physical demands the Ultra will throw at you, and it's true that many times people underestimate their own abilities and could probably technically finish an Ultra sooner, so maybe this whole discussion about determining your preparation timeline is unnecessary. But what can I say....I figure "better safe than sorry" and prefer to err on the side of caution when such a big goal is on the line, and I wouldn't want to see anyone rush into something and have a bad experience.
Remember: you want to give yourself enough time to go into this challenge feeling excited and ready to crush it, not anxious because you were overzealous and thought you could cram 6 months of training into 2 months because you really wanted to race at XYZ venue. I am all about encouraging you to challenge yourself and push your limits, but I also want to see you succeed at your goals which is why I stress the importance of setting expectations for yourself that are both challenging and achievable/realistic.
So just give it some thought, weigh your options, and remember that at the end of the day you are the only one who knows what's best for you. Then celebrate and mosey on over to Step 2, because then fun part is about to begin. :)
With Spartan adding more and more Ultra events each year, there should be a race date and location that works for you if you plan ahead. There is some variation regarding when the complete list of events has been posted for each year: most should be up on the Spartan site by March, but additional dates/locations are sometimes added (and sometimes switched around!) so keep your eyes peeled! In the event that a race changes date or location, Spartan offers registrants the option to switch their registration to the updated date/location.
Pictured below is an image of all the Ultra dates (worldwide) that have been announced so far for the 2020 season, as of January 20. click on image to go to Spartan site and check current Ultra dates/locations.
One reason why this step is so crucial is because it shows your level of commitment. It's one thing to think about an Ultra, or to talk about it with friends or even to sketch out a training plan...but once a date is solidly on the calendar and you've put your money where your mouth is (speaking of which: these races definitely aren't cheap...look at the expense as another way to make sure you're serious!), there's no going back. Committing to a specific date - and committing to the amount of cash required - will transform it from an intriguing idea to a solid plan and take away your ability to back out. Putting that much on the line is what brings things from a "maybe" to a "Hell yeah", and you have no choice but to step up and get your training IN GEAR.
Need more proof?? In his book Willpower Doesn't Work, organizational psychologist Dr. Benjamin Hardy argues that once you invest money in something it causes you to be more fully committed to that thing, which then starts to change your whole sense of identity and what you imagine to be personally achievable. So by paying that hefty registration fee what you're really doing is setting off a chain reaction: it sparks a subconscious shift from wanting to see yourself do the Ultra to actually seeing yourself doing it, which then kicks your brain into hyper-focus to help you figure out how to actually make it happen.
While you could do this step later on in the process, I personally prefer to have a solid date for the goal I am working towards, to keep me focused/motivated. Not to mention, if you happen to announce on social media that you are officially registered for "insert specific Ultra date and venue here" that should also be motivating: a little accountability can go a long way :)
So check out the Ultra schedule on Spartan.com and decide which one you want to go for!
Maybe you're already an awesome athlete, and your diet is already on point. That's great! Feel free to scroll right on past Step 3. BUT I would strongly advise you to give it a skim anyway: because as you've probably realized, the Ultra is not really like anything else out there these days. For example, even a triathlete might be great at swimming, and biking, and running...and that definitely takes some pretty incredible endurance, but if you have done zero work on grip strength, you'll likely regret it later.
Tweaking your training plan to include more obstacle-specific technique/agility work or endurance, and/or ensuring that you're eating enough of the right kinds of foods to fuel your workouts and Race Day, are important keys to success. Remember: almost anyone who is in relatively good shape probably can complete an Ultra, but that definitely does not mean it's a good idea, and that person would probably have a pretty terrible experience. So get those plans in place!
Whether you're training with a huge group of people at a specialized OCR gym, or working out as a party of 1, there are a ton of solid options to choose from based on your schedule, race goals, and budget.
Least customized (and sometimes cheapest!) options, that are still incredibly helpful:
Semi-personalized/specific (online programs):
💪 Virtual Coaching with Richard Diaz (with a primary focus on improving running technique. Diaz also offers in-person OCR run clinics.) (ongoing program - monthly fee)💪 Trio Fitness OCR has several options for training based on your fitness level, goals, and budget: from "The Finisher" with 3 days of training per week, aimed at the OCR first-timer...to their "Ultra OCR" program which includes 6 days of training plus 1 day of structured recovery per week. Each program is further refined to meet your individual goals. (ongoing program - monthly fee)💪 Tough Training can be done in-person (if you're local to Scottsdale, AZ) or online. (ongoing program - monthly fee)💪 The OCR Trainer we mentioned earlier (the one with the YouTube channel full of free obstacle tutorial videos) also does individualized coaching. Check out her site here. (ongoing program - monthly fee)💪 In addition to the semi-customized group training mentioned above, Endurance Project also has fully customized programming available. (ongoing program - monthly fee)
Chances are, if you're considering the Ultra you already have at least a general idea of what your body needs nutrition-wise for Race Day. But if you're looking for a refresher, we posted a series of race-day-focused articles awhile back written by OCR-specialized nutritionists at Full Pursuit Health. The series covers what the body needs before, during, and after your race (and why), as well as their recommendations for how much you should hydrate for training and Race Day.
We've also got a guideline here for how you might want to use some of the different products carried on this site (with a suggested list for each race distance at the bottom!)
And in the spirit of "full disclosure," for anyone who's interested in what I personally use for my Ultra race fuel, I outline how I pack everything for my Race Day in this article that covers everything you need to know about how to pack your Drop Bin. (Spoiler alert: my Race Day MVP is Frog Fuel - hands down!! This was a total game changer for me, and I will NOT do any kind of endurance event without it!)
HOWEVER: I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that many Ultra racers prefer to fuel by consuming stuff that is not specifically designed for athletes on Race Day: including various kinds of junk food, baked goods, and candy. And hey - if that sounds like you, more power to you! There are plenty of racers who have had Ultra success using this method, and if that's what works for you...I won't be the one to stand in your way.
As long as you are cautious, do your research, and test out what works for you and your body before Race Day, then I'm all for it. But definitely do NOT make the mistake of thinking that just because xyz athlete swears by eating 3 donuts before he races, doesn't mean that it's a good strategy for you.
Ensuring your nutrition and hydration are on point leading up to Race Day are also
...Think of your body as a fine-tuned machine, and you've gotta figure out what to put in it, and how much, and in the right combination, for the different activities you're doing. And now factor in that that is slightly different for everyone, based on your specific body type/history/genetics/race goals/type of training/etc. Even if you've done some intense athletic things in the past so you think to yourself "I got this"...if you are leveling up your training to prep for the Ultra, you will want to revisit this and ensure you're all set for the increased demands you're making on your body.
I am absolutely not a nutritionist or certified to give any type of recommendations or advice, so I will not be making any recommendations to you other than this: make sure you're on top of it. Consult with a professional if you have questions or want to ensure you're definitely getting enough of what you need, and don't minimize how important this is. The time you spend training in the weeks/months leading up to the Ultra are in many ways just as important as Race Day: because during training is when you are building the foundation of your strength/fitness.
You need to be extra sure you're getting enough nutrients/calories/energy to not only sustain you during your workouts, but also to help you recover faster, and better, and more efficiently...so that overall you can get better in a shorter amount of time. Skimping on what your body needs while you're trying to grow those muscles is hurting your overall performance in the long run because without the energy needed, you'll miss out on meeting your true potential and instead see diminishing returns. And why bother spending all that time and energy preparing for Race Day in all of the other important areas, if you're just going to shoot yourself in the foot by skipping the part about fueling your body?
Links To A Few Certified Nutritionists/Sports Dieticians Who Have Experience With Ultra Athletes:
🍌 Amy Kubal advocates for a "trend-free" approach to nutrition focused on a "real food" philosophy. (Side note: I have worked with Amy extensively and highly recommend her! She also has a strong background in working with endurance athletes who have a history of eating disorder.)🍌 Yancy Camp offers multiple levels of nutrition programming by top OCR athletes who are also registered dieticians, and has a detailed approach: including meal plans that are tweaked weekly, and grocery lists/meal prep lists provided to you by.🍌 Melissa Boufounos of MB Performance Nutrition is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist (and accomplished OCR athlete!) who was named the Official Nutritionist of the OCRWC 2018 and NorAm 2019, and has been named one of Canada's Top 100 Health Influencers for three years in a row (2018-2020). She has also popped up on Fierce Gear OCR in the past: most notably in an article she wrote called "Meal Prep & Transfer For Race Day," and in an article where Spartan Ultra World Champion Morgan McKay shares her top tips to tackle World's Toughest Mudder.🍌 Full Pursuit Health (the authors of the Fierce Gear OCR blog series on Race Day Nutrition & Hydration needs mentioned earlier) are a husband and wife team who are also active OCR athletes, and offer both training and nutrition services.
Think of this step as more of a "gut-check" than a "go-to." As in, you should not be looking to crowdsource the answers for important stuff like "Am I ready for a Spartan Ultra?" or "What should I pack in my Drop Bin?"
There are tons of people out there...with tons of opinions...and trust me when I say that most of them do not have the credentials to be any kind of authority on training or nutrition. Like I said before I would trust that type of thing to the professionals, and base your final Race Day strategy/goals/gear and nutrition of choice etc. based on how well you know yourself and what works for you, not just because you saw that "crazyracer237" on Instagram swears by racing in XYZ race wear and suggests you fill your hydration pack with straight tequila.
THAT BEING SAID: browsing a ton of different sites, social media groups, and published articles can totally give you some great ideas that you might not have otherwise thought of. In my opinion the smartest racers are the ones who always keep an open mind and stay on the lookout for new strategies/gear/etc...even after having successfully completing an Ultra. The sport is still relatively new and in the grand scheme of things not THAT many people have done an Ultra, so it's absolutely worth your time and effort to see what's out there. To use a personal example, I'm currently on the hunt for additional tips/tricks to deal with the cold...especially that Dunk Wall! (If anyone has any tips, please leave them in the comments ;) )
Having more information is never a bad thing - it can only give you more ways to think about your Race Day strategy, ultimately giving you more potential opportunities to succeed. Just be sure to take anything you see with a MASSIVE grain of salt, regardless of where you see it or how credible you think the source is. You might end up finding some of your most valuable race insights from some random thread on Reddit; and by the same token, advice that comes straight from an article published by Spartan itself doesn't mean that the specific advice in the article is what's going to work best for you.
When it comes to Race Day, there are no guarantees out there. You do the best you can with what you've got, do your research and take everything you learn/hear with a grain of salt, and mentally prepare to take on one of the biggest feats of your life.
The fact that you're willing to put yourself at that Start Line already shows you have more courage and determination than a lot of people: just by committing to being there, you're challenging yourself to level up in a big way and THAT...is pretty damn cool.
The best overall advice I can give is probably the following:
Give the Ultra the respect it deserves. It's true that there are a ton of participants who aren't able to finish their first (or second, or third) Ultra, and horror stories abound of athletes who "made it all the way to mile 28, only to be pulled from the course." But in my opinion, the large majority of those DNFs is due to athletes not being as prepared for the course as they could have (or should have) been...not because the course itself was so impossible.
Not to mention...there will also always be curve balls or unforeseen circumstances out of our control: the weather being cold enough to cause hypothermia...or a massive mudslide causing the course to be a slippery mess adding hours onto your race time, or cold rain causing obstacles to be wet and slippery, and fingers to be too frozen to grip properly.
So, be prepared. Be as prepared as you can be, but also be prepared to be flexible/adapt to the situation on Race Day, and remember that regardless of the outcome: those months of solid preparation and focus that you put into preparing for this event are never a waste. Each event is an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves: how we could be better, where the gaps in training/prep might have been, and what we will do differently to improve for next time.
The fact that you're reading this right now shows that you care enough to take the time to really prepare for Race Day, and that's awesome. Because when you're standing on that Start Line, there's nothing anyone will be able to say...and nothing that you could hear...that will give you the confidence you need to be able to complete the Ultra. That confidence has to come from inside: from the feeling that you know you did all you could to be ready for that moment.
When you feel like you are truly prepared for the journey that is ahead of you on Race Day: prepared physically...prepared mentally...and like you know what to expect, there's no better armor you could bring into battle. I hope that some of the information here has helped you to start to build that confidence: and that in the future, you'll pass along what you have learned to others looking to take on the Ultra as well.
NOW, GET OUT THERE AND FREAKIN CRUSH IT!!!
NOW, GET OUT THERE AND FREAKIN CRUSH IT!!!