8 OCR Training and Nutrition Tips from Spartan Race Pro Robert Killian
By: Mark Barroso
U.S. Army Captain and Spartan Race World Champion Robert Killian has conquered virtually every type of obstacle a race director can devise. Killian won the military division of the 2010 Ironman Triathlon, the 2015 Spartan Race World Championships and the 2016 Best Ranger Competition (a 60-hour Army-produced challenge which includes road marches, day/night land navigation and parachute jumps). The Colorado National Guard member placed third at the 2016 Spartan Race World Championship and third in the team competition at the 2016 World’s Toughest Mudder alongside Chad Trammell.
Barrosofit caught up with the Spartan Pro Team member and Ascent Protein-sponsored athlete to get some of his secrets to obstacle course racing (OCR) success. Follow these eight training and nutrition tips to improve your performance in any OCR.
1. BUILD YOUR ENDURANCE
Many OCRs, including Spartan Race, are timed races, where in certain heats, the winners win cash prizes. Killian’s tips are for athletes that are looking to do their best on a timed course, whether it’s their first or 10th race. With that said, Killian’s biggest tip is to increase cardiovascular endurance by doing a combination of long slow, runs and interval training.
“For interval training, I’d recommend not to go super short, like 400 meters, but to focus on 1200 meter intervals (about ¾ mile),” Killian says. “You’re not trying to keep a fast pace, you’re just building that endurance.”
A sample workout suggested by Killian is as follows:
SAMPLE INTERVAL TRAINING WORKOUT
Warmup: 2 mile run
Work: 4 sets of 1200 meter runs. Between each set, Killian likes to throw a spear at a target to mimic the Spartan Race Spear Throw obstacle. For racers without access to a spear and target, Killian says you can start by resting 1-2 minutes between sets, then progress to doing 10 burpees between intervals during your training program, and eventually do 30 burpees between the 1200s.
Cool Down: 2 mile run
“If you really want to kick it up a notch, wear a 10-20-pound weight vest during the warmup and cool down, “ Killian adds.
A Spartan Race Sprint is 3-5 miles (usually it’s five) and the total distance of this workout will equal about seven miles, which is ideal training distance.
“Two miles over course distance is what you need to be training at,” says Killian. “That’s the hard workout of the week.”
2. TRAIN FOR AT LEAST SIX WEEKS
Virtually any healthy person can complete an OCR, but to perform your best, Killian suggests training at least six weeks for a Spartan Sprint (3-5 mile) course and 8-12 weeks for a Spartan Race Super (8-10 miles) or Beast (12-14 miles).
“Run at least 30-45 miles per week for a Sprint-distance course over the course of five days, with an active recovery day and complete rest day,” Killian says. “For a Super or Beast, you need to pick up the mileage and consider the same type of training one would do for a marathon because some people are on the course for 3+ hours.”
To train for a Spartan Super or Beast, Killian runs 60-70 miles a week, lifts weights and rides a bike at a heart rate of 130 for three days a week.
“The biking may not be miles on my legs but it’s low impact and helps me recover so I can complete my weekly mileage goals,” Killian says.
3. DO CIRCUIT TRAINING, NOT POWERLIFTING
“In a Spartan Race, you only need to complete the Rig (an obstacle that requires traversing an assortment of ropes, poles, gymnastics rings) once and you only need to carry the sandbags for a limited amount of time,” Killian says. “You’re not lifting heavy weight for maximum amount of repetitions.”
The lean, multi-talented athlete does circuit training in the gym, performing exercises in succession with minimal rest in the 12-15 rep range. He emphasizes keeping heart rate high during weightlifting circuits since strength obstacles require a spike in heart rate.
“This isn’t CrossFit or powerlifting,” says Killian. “You’re not doing 5-8 reps of a heavy weight, taking three minutes rest. That’s more for the offseason.”
Killian doesn’t do a typical “split” where each body part is targeted on a specific day. He’ll train all muscle groups in the same workout, for example starting with a bench press, then moving on to pullups then a quads exercise followed by situps.
4. RUN ON GRASS
Most OCRs take place on mountainous, rocky, grassy terrain such as ski mountain, farm, or park, although some are held in more urban environments such as stadiums or around cities. Killian has excelled in the woodsy types of races and trains exclusively on a grass surface, rather than tracks or concrete.
“You need to build your ankle and hip stability/strength and I don’t touch a track because you’re not going to be able to train for stability on it,” says Killian. “Even barefoot running on grass will build the muscles you need to attack both the downhill and uphill terrain of a Spartan Race.”
5. LEARN TO TAPER
“Tapering is decreasing your training intensity and volume as a race draws nearer,” Killian says. “Instead of running 60 miles a week, I back it down 40 and instead of running a 6:30 mile pace, I’ll run a 7:30 mile pace.”
For strength training, if you normally do three sets, decrease the sets to two or one set, Killian adds. For Killian, tapering starts the week before a race. Two days prior the race, he doesn’t exercise at all and the day before a race, he runs 5-6 miles.
6. CHALLENGE YOURSELF MENTALLY
Every race competitor is different so they will deal with the pain, lactic acid buildup and/or soreness on the course differently. As you’ll hear in many sports such as mixed martial arts, the mental aspect in OCR training is huge. Aside from the mental challenges you’ve encountered on previous courses or workouts, always try to think of new ways to prepare yourself mentally to overcome any obstacle that might arise on race day.
“Challenge yourself, one day say ‘Hey, I’m going to do 300 burpees right now and I don’t care how long it takes,” Killian says. “That will build your mental stamina because you’re going to want to quit at 100. Once you do the 300, you’re like ‘I’ve done 300 burpees, I know can do 30 in a race.”
Having a training partner can also help build mental toughness since you can push each other’s limits, Killian adds.
7. RECOVER RIGHT
Killian’s nutrition plan consists of protein, fat and carbs such as chicken breasts, avocados, almonds, broccoli, rice and pasta. He stresses the importance of fat and protein in long endurance events since those are the energy sources your body taps into once it doesn’t have carbs to rely on. A key part of Killian’s nutrition is eating a light dinner and big breakfasts and lunches.
“For breakfast, I throw down eggs, oatmeal, Greek yogurt, and some fruit; I’m throwing down bananas and oranges all day,” Killian says. “A light dinner helps me sleep a better.”
Within 15-30 minutes of working out, Killian drinks a whey protein shake to repair and rebuild his muscles. The go-to recovery protocol is Ascent Protein Native Fuel Whey and an electrolyte drink diluted with water. Ascent Protein Native Fuel Whey is made with 25 grams of native whey per scoop, which is less processed and comes directly from cow’s milk versus standard whey which is derived from cheese.
“Ascent is the purest protein, in my mind, and doesn’t have any artificial flavors or mess with your gut like other protein,” Killian says. “It doesn’t clump as a result of the bleaching process. That’s a big thing if you’re eating whole foods. That’s why I use it.”
Killian uses both the flavored Ascent Protein products and the unflavored.
“If I’m at the gym I’ll go with the Vanilla and if I’m home or somewhere else, I’ll mix the unflavored with chocolate milk because milk, in general, after an endurance run can replenish every essential element you need.”
8. USE THE 50/50 METHOD TO AVOID CRAMPS
Cramping during an OCR isn’t the end of the world, as there’s plenty of space to stretch out and/or sit down if need be, but at the elite level, steps are taken to avoid such a time-wasting occurrence. Killian says it’s a multi-day process that consists of more than just water.
“You have to hydrate 3-4 days before a race but you can’t just drink water, you have to supplement with electrolytes,” says Killian. “If you’re drinking just water, you’re going to flush the electrolytes out of your system so you need to so a 50/50 dilution with electrolytes and water.”
Killian mixes half of a serving of Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel (an electrolyte powder) with water but suggests that even mixing equal parts Gatorade and water would work. The morning of the race, drink your electrolyte source at full strength, Killian says. Another suggestion: see how far your body can go without any fuel during training.
“If you’re really trying to be competitive, sometimes you have to go into your workout and feel how much it sucks not to have extra electrolytes,” Killian says. “That’s how you train your body.”