Training Smarter and Staying in the Race

Training Smarter and Staying in the Race

By: Spartan SGX Coach Mike Ryan, Spartan Race Sports Medicine Expert

Before you can get to the finish of a Spartan Race, you need to get to the starting line. Too many novice athletes injure themselves by training like maniacs before race day. In a perfect world, training harder would always make you stronger. But this is not a perfect world, and training too hard can break you.

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In my 26 years in the NFL, as a certified athletic trainer and physical therapist, I learned firsthand that an injured, sidelined athlete is not a happy athlete. More importantly, as a six-time Ironman triathlete and veteran Spartan obstacle racer, I learned that the vast majority of the muscle and tendon injuries one sees in obstacle racing can be avoided easily.

There are huge benefits to staying injury free:


  1. You can keep training – Staying injury-free allows you to keep challenging your body and mind in the gym and, later, on the course.
  2. You will save time – Uninjured athletes have more time to train, race, recover and live life because they spend less time at doctor’s office, in rehab and getting tests.
  3. You will save money – Medical care is expensive. Enough said.

Too often people tell us to “be smarter” without saying what that really means. So here are six ways to become a healthier—smarter—athlete.

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1. Find Balance: Your body loves to be balanced. A balanced body is one that moves in the same manner on one side of the spine as it does on the other.

The best way to promote “bilateral symmetry” is to practice single leg balance drills on various surfaces. To give yourself a greater challenge, vary the surfaces on which you practice the exercises. The softer the surface, the harder the drill.

To increase the intensity of the exercises, close your eyes while balancing. An example follows:


  • Level 1: Stand on one foot on a hard surface for 30 seconds. Alternate legs for a total of 2 minutes.
  • Level 2: Stand on one foot on a soft surface (grass, sand or foam) for
    30 seconds. Alternate legs for a total of 2 minutes.
  • Level 3: Stand on one foot on a hard surface for 30 seconds with your eyes closed. Alternate legs for a total of 2 minutes.
  • Level 4: Stand on one foot on a soft surface (grass, sand or foam) for
    30 seconds with your eyes closed. Alternate legs for a total of 2 minutes.
  • Level 5: Stand on one foot on a hard surface while holding a hand weight on the side of the raised foot. Alternate legs every 30 seconds for a total of 2 minutes.
  • Level 6: Stand on one foot on a soft surface while catching and throwing. Alternate legs every 30 seconds for a total of 2 minutes. Keep your eyes open!

2. Connect with a trusted mentor: An advisor tells you what you should do, but a mentor has already done what you want to do. Finding a Spartan Race mentor is easy.

Seek out a certified Spartan SGX coach who can equip you with all the wisdom and structure you need to train harder – and smarter.

3. Know your pain: All pain is not created equal. Learning to wisely “listen” to the body is a skill that successful athletes embrace and enhance over time.

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For example, knowing the difference between muscle fatigue and muscle injury pain may mean the difference between a next great workout and a more serious injury. Generally speaking, muscle fatigue will disappear within 10 minutes of training. A muscle injury pain will be localized, and you may see swelling; symptoms may worsen with stretching; and it will typically not resolve within 24 hours. See tip #5 below for how to treat a muscle injury.

4. Mobilize your tissue: Flexibility exercises might not be as exciting as pure strength moves in the gym, but it is crucial to the prevention of injury. It is vital that you increase the mobility of your muscles and tendons (their ability to move, and their range of motion) as they gain strength.

Add a yoga class to your weekly workout regimen, or another similar flexibility class, to help you stay limber.

5. Ice it: It is essential to control inflammation for many reasons. When it comes to running, pushing, lifting, crawling, climbing and pushing, swollen tissue is common.

For individuals with no circulation problems, if a muscle or tendon injury is warm to touch, red in color or painful to move, ice is the best option. It reduces the swelling and the pain.

The general rule for timing an ice treatment is:


  • Ice bag, ice pack or ice bucket – 15 minutes max
  • Ice massage – 10 minutes max

Don’t apply the ice for more than the specified time. Wait at least an hour before you apply the ice again.

6. Stay active during recovery: As I used to tell my NFL players, “Recovery is all about active rest.” You do not see racehorses immediately brought into the barn after a hard run. They cool their bodies and muscles down with movement, massage and hydration. Successful athletes, young and old, do the same thing.

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Good examples of active rest include yoga, an easy swim, stretching exercise, low-intensity cycling, hiking, massage and walking.

It is impossible to know in advance exactly what you will find on the race course—Spartan prides itself on surprising racers—but if you follow these guidelines, you will improve the odds of remaining injury-free during your training and finishing the course on race day.

Learn more about Mike Ryan, PT, ATC, SGX: MikeRyanSportsMedicine.com

Learn more about Spartan SGX training.