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

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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Beyond The Trifecta


The Spartan Trifecta, completion of a Sprint, Super, and Beast, in one calendar year is a proud accomplishment for many OCR athletes. However, now that it’s been around for a couple years, many athletes are looking to go beyond the trifecta. Others have found their own variant of the Trifecta called the Mountain Trifecta, which is the completion of a Trifecta on all mountain courses or an EffNorm Trifecta, which is the completion of a Trifecta on all Norm Koch courses. Recently, Spartan announced the Delta, which requires the completion of 9 different events, which is great, but what if you like other events more than Spartan, do not have the several thousand dollars to commit to a Delta, or do not live close to a lot of their events?  If you are still looking for a new type of challenge that spans beyond the reaches of an all Spartan world, here are a couple suggestions you can use to push your body to new limits through multiple events.

Pushing yourself to new limits is all about getting out of your comfort zone.  If you are always doing the same race series, you probably are not getting that far out of that comfort zone because you know all the obstacles and you know what to expect.  It is time to try something new where you do not know the name of every obstacle or the ability to recite the hype man’s speech by heart.

WEEKEND CHALLENGESChallenges Completed on Back to Back Days

The Ancient Warrior Challenge: This is a good option for beginner OCR athletes looking for a new challenge. This simply requires completion of a Warrior Dash and any distance Spartan Race in one weekend. This is definitely a good challenge for those wanting to dip the toe in the world of back to back racing.  Get in touch with your ancient combat spirit with this challenge for beginners.


SOF Weekend or the Modern Warrior Challenge:  Special Operation Forces (SOF) is a broad term that encompasses all of America’s Special units including but not limited to Navy SEALs, Special Forces, Marine Special Operations, Air Force Special Tactics Squadron and more.  SOF weekend is the completion of two different special operations military events in one weekend. An example is doing a BattleFrog on one day and the Green Beret Challenge or a GORUCK the next day.  BattleFrog is inspired by Navy Seals and Green Beret Challenge along with GoRuck are inspired by Army Special Forces.  GORUCKS also occur at various times, which allows for the possibility of doing BattleFrog and a GORUCK within the same day.

Muti-Lap Mudder: This requires a Tough Mudder event that spans two days. The idea is to complete as many laps as possible on each day. Saturday the course is typically open longer so more than likely you will have time to finish two or maybe more on Saturday.  Sunday there is typically only time for one lap.  Either way, with a 3 lap minimum covering 30 miles or more, this is a challenge for those looking to extend their training volume or prepare for one of the longer OCR events.


The Touch of Death: This one is tricky because it requires completing multiple events and then hoping that a couple of them eventually meet the criteria for the Touch of Death. While no one hopes that OCR series go under, it is a fact of the business that several events have shown up and disappeared just as quickly. To qualify for The Touch of Death, it requires completing three events that eventually go under. This shows that you have the mental fortitude and physical strength to stick with OCR despite the rise and fall of companies.  So if you were at Super Hero Scramble, Hard Charge, Atlas Race, Hero Rush or any of the other events that folded, then congratulations, you have the Touch of Death.

The 24 hour Triple Crown: With only a handful of reoccurring 24-hour races for OCR in the world this is a challenge worthy of any ultra-distance athlete.  This can be accomplished all in one year if you are aggressive or spread out over several years.  While most people are satisfied with one 24 hour race in their lifetime, the Triple Crown requires completion of three different race events.  So if you did World’s Toughest Mudder three times, that still counts as only one for the Triple Crown.  To earn this accolade, you are going to have to branch out to events like 24 Hours of Shale Hell in Vermont, Battlefrog Xtreme 24 in Florida, Enduro 24 in Australia or Viper 2 Four in Malaysia.


US Ultra-OCR: Let’s say the 24-hour Triple Crown is currently above your reach, but you still want an ultra distance challenge.  The US Ultra-OCR requires the completion of four ultra-endurance competitive OCR events.  Finishing events like Spartan Ultra-Beast, World’s Toughest Mudder, Battlefrog Xtreme, BFX 24 or Shale Hell (8 hr or 24 hr version).

World Championship Contender: Instead of arguing, over which world championship is the most legitimate or which is the hardest, why not put your money where your mouth is and race them all.  Currently, this requires the completion of the OCRWC, Spartan World Championship, BattleFrog World Championship and World’s Toughest Mudder.  Want to up the difficulty? Do them all in one calendar year.

The Pentagram of Suffering:  To reach the pinnacle of pain, completion of five selection type events is required.  This includes, but is not limited to: GORUCK Selection, Death Race, Fuego y Agua, SISU Iron and Agoge.

If you think these challenges are still below your level, try adding your own requirements like trying to qualify for the OCR World Championships at every event included in the challenge or trying to podium at every event included in each challenge.

If you like these ideas, then comment below or on Facebook to tell Matt B. Davis to get off his ass and make virtual race medals (in addition to the Cranky Bastard) associated with completing these feats of strength.  Post on which ones you like the most so Matt can get busy designing the race medals and you can get recognition for your accomplishments that span multiple companies.

Joe Desena Talks Spartan Delta

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On today’s show, we talk to Joe Desena about the Spartan Delta.

What is it? Why did he create it? Who is it designed for? How do you earn one?

We attempt to answer all of those questions.

First up, however, is a new feature which will run from now through SuperBowl 50. Carlo Piscitello joins the show to discuss the previous weekend’s NFL playoffs and makes predictions for the upcoming weeks games. Enjoy.

Today’s show is sponsored by

Rugged Maniac – CODE ORM5 gets you $5.00 off registration to all 2016 events. 

Mad Anthony Mud Run-February 27th-Only $50 until February 10th.

Show Notes

The Pis and Cox Show

Spartan Delta

Podcast where Joe launched Agoge

You can use the player below to listen or use the iTunes or Stitcher buttons at the top of this post.