Spartan Obstacle Specialist (SOS): Joe wants you to train for this

SOS Training Group Picture

When Joe De Sena started the Spartan Race series, he believed that he was creating a race that you could not train for, and given the surprises he came up with at every Death Race, this was probably true. However, as he developed his Spartan Race philosophy, he realized that in order to achieve his goal of creating a cadre of super-humans, or, rather, to get people off their couches and become more physically adept, he was going to have to offer training. This has led to the introduction of the SGX program, which trains coaches in the ways of Spartan fitness. In conjunction with SGX, this year Spartan has introduced SOS, Spartan Obstacle Specialist training.

SOS is aimed not only at coaches and elite athletes, but also at weekend warriors and novices. When I first heard about the program, it appealed to me, a middle-of-the-pack athlete, because more than once I have approached an obstacle at a Spartan Race wishing that I could practice that obstacle. Practice makes perfect, right? If I could practice an obstacle, I would know how to get through without earning myself thirty burpees. At SOS, athletes learn not only the best approaches to the obstacles but also how to train so that the obstacles become easier.

Last month, sixteen athletes, mostly coaches and trainers, arrived for SOS training at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, probably New York’s most comprehensive sports facility (it has everything from ice rinks to rock climbing walls to beach volleyball courts). We were met by Joe DiStefano, Director of Fitness and Training, and Andy Yaun, known in Spartan circles as “Dr. Spider”, and we were given training manuals, which we had also been provided in digital format.  The day was broken down into mastering different tasks, each linked to specific obstacles. We began with running; it is easily forgotten that most of a Spartan Race is not spent climbing, jumping, or throwing spears but rather running between these tasks. We went through running drills and spent some time working out kinks in our feet with tennis balls (think foam roller treatment, but smaller and more painful).

Next, we split into smaller groups, with one group learning the best approach to climbing an eight-foot wall, and the other learning the best way to climb a rope. While Chelsea Piers has great facilities, one thing they did not have was a wall to climb, though Joe explained that at future SOS sessions, there would be walls for practice. Nevertheless, we used a wall (not the kind you climb over) to work on approaching a wall and to perform the sort of strength exercises that would help make vaulting over the wall easier. At the rope, Andy had each of us climb the rope using both the J-Hook and S-Wrap methods.

Climbing a rope is something that I could do in elementary school, but it has been much more difficult for me at Spartan Races, where I am usually tired by the time I get to the wet, slippery rope climb. I have seen plenty of YouTube videos explaining the virtues of the various climbing methods, but there is nothing like a hands-on tutorial, and I do not have regular access to a climbing rope. Getting to the top was especially satisfying for me, but the SOS Training did not stop there. The brains at Spartan have analyzed the movements involved in rope climbing and figured out why people have trouble with it. Their analysis is more complex, but it boils down to the fact that the rope climb usually appears late in the race, when an athlete’s grip strength is exhausted. Racers try to rely on their grip and their upper body strength, when instead a properly executed J-Hook would allow a racer to use the rest of the body’s muscles. Joe and Andy have timed how long each set of muscles needs to be activated and figured out how long you need to be able to work each set to fatigue in order to climb the rope, calculations they have worked out for each of the obstacles.

Spartan Manual Sample Page

A page from the SOS manual

SOS is not just about providing simple instructions; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the movements involved and the strength required to complete a Spartan Race. Among the findings was the calculation that, in order to complete a Spartan Race successfully, athletes need to be able to hold a deep squat for three minutes, a high plank for two minutes, and a dead hang for one minute (30 seconds if you weigh more than 200 pounds). These baselines are helpful to the coaches being trained, but they also provide a useful guideline for novices who are trying to gauge their fitness levels before their first races.

Deep Squat Spartan Obstacle Specialist

Holding a deep squat for at least three minutes is a prerequisite for success at Spartan Races

The one Spartan Obstacle for which this breakdown approach does not apply is the spear throw. “You want to know the best way to practice for the spear throw? Get good at doing burpees” said Joe DiStefano. The spear throw has a 90% failure rate, and (burpees aside), the only way to train for the spear throw is by throwing lots and lots of spears. We were given the chance to do this by taking what appeared to be broom handles put through an oversized pencil sharpener (pointy, but not too pointy), which we then threw at a target marked on a large foam pad. While the exercise lacked the satisfaction of watching a spear stick in a bale of hay, it was gratifying to watch my “spear” hit the target with greater accuracy as I tried over and over and over. One participant had no problems hitting the target every time, but we later learned that he has a spear throw set up in his backyard. Practice really does make perfect.

Spear practice at Spartan Obstacle Specialist

Practicing the spear throw

After several other sets of strength exercises tied to a wide range of obstacles, the last obstacle we practiced was the monkey bars. We were introduced to various techniques, given the chance to try them, and this eventually devolved into the obstacle course equivalent of a dance-off (who can get to the end of the bars in the fewest touches?), captured in these videos

The SOS Training will be coming to all the major US markets soon, especially in locations where Spartan Races are taking place. You can find the schedule here. Currently, the cost is $395, which struck me as high at first, but it is competitive with, say, the cost of an on-ramp program at a CrossFit box. The SOS applies to the Spartan Delta , so if this is something you are trying to achieve and SGX training does not fit your needs, this course is a good substitute. If you are a coach who is trying to get athletes ready for a Spartan Race, the SOS training also helps you give those clients a leg up.

My final impression was that Spartan Race is clearly about more than just providing an opportunity for a day of adventure, competition, running up mountains and over fire. Spartan Race takes the physical education side of their mission very seriously, and they are working very hard to get that message out to a wide range of athletes.

SOS Training Group Picture

At the end of the day, we were ready to race.

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Christopher Stephens

Christopher is an attorney, a middle-of-the-pack triathlete, a marathoner, an open water swimmer, and a recovering Jeopardy contestant. A native New Yorker, he trains in the rugged wilderness of Central Park and can sometimes be found swimming in the Hudson. He also bakes pies. Delicious pies.
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