by T.J. Murphy
Why throw in a sprint/entry-level version of a Spartan Race into a triathlete’s calendar? Potential reasons abound (like 1. something different 2. a new challenge for someone who got into triathlon for challenge and racking up Ironman finishes is not as challenging anymore 3. Obstacle-course racing has a fun we’re-all-in-this-together team element that has appeal) but there’s one that seems especially smart for the triathlete who is in triathlon for the long haul: The nature of obstacle course racing requires a broad set of athletic skills, including agility, coordination, mobility and power, which makes the training a lot different than the main course of standard triathlon triathlon training, vis-à-vis hours and hours of training the aerobic energy level swimming, biking and running.
So for the triathlete primarily concerned with performance and durability in their age-group lifestyle, it’s the training for the Spartan event that could be most valuable. Racing is sort of the fun thing to do at the end of it.
It’s reverse thinking on the traditional flow of runners into triathlon: A good number of war-torn runners vector into triathlon to decrease the pressure that running has on beat-up knees. Daily pounding on the pavement can serve up a cycle of injuries that brings a special madness with it. The promise of triathlon is that you can enjoy as much and probably more hours of training without beating the hell out of the knees.
The reverse thinking of training is this: The training for a Spartan race essentially requires you to filter out the cause of any chronic injury or tingle of a chronic injury, then address the cause with a true fix. Not a band-aid fix like a handful of Advil and an ice bag, but by fixing the problem once and for all by studying motor patterns, locating faults in mechanics, then developing a framework to fix those mechanics so that you can run, jump, climb, bike, swim, roll—whatever—without pain and without inducing wear-and-tear injuries.
This past weekend I interviewed Dr. Kelly Starrett, NYT bestselling author of Becoming a Supple Leopard and Ready to Run, on what is certainly an epidemic in youth sports: ACL tears. “The frequency of injury in kids is up something like 400%,” Starrett told me over the phone. While some degree of these are what Starrett labels “catastrophic”-type injuries that are going to happen no matter what an athlete’s mechanics are (“Get run over by a 300-pound NFL lineman who is going 100mph, for example”), many of these injuries are avoidable if they had better mechanics and proper strength.
Mechanics, motor-patterns, muscle-recruitment, moving from one good position to another—these are the key phrases Starrett uses to describe both frameworks to prevent injuries as well as being critical to the rehab process. If a physical therapy program fails to address the underlying mechanics that caused the injury, then an athlete’s risk of re-injuring the joint may be just a matter of time.
If a triathlete is using poor mechanics in his or her swimming, biking and running (or all three), a chronic-overuse injury is almost guaranteed to happen.
Starrett’s basic prescription is to always be hunting for tweaky movement patterns and faults and then working toward fixing those patterns and strengthening good mechanics under load in a gym, ideally with a coach who knows what to look for. The good coach will be able to spot an injury months before it slimes its way to the surface just by watching an athlete perform fundamental movement patterns like a squat or deadlift (e.g. the knees cave inward while doing a squat, could be a strong signal that they cave in each running stride or turn of the pedals, the fault creating sheer in the knee joint that patiently grinds toward an injury and not to mention is leaking away power and performance the whole time).
So training for something with the sweeping all-around-athlete demands of a Spartan event invigorates the process. The urgency for detecting and erasing a motor pattern that caves the knee inward becomes, well, more urgent when you know you’re going to be jumping onto and off things and climbing walls and all of that.
So the idea then is to put one’s training under a new load of sorts that 1) exposes poor mechanics and 2) uses tactics, tools and strategies on how to fix them.
What’s a first initial step? Generally speaking, the squat is a good place to begin. Squatting is a fundamental, functional movement pattern that the human being is designed to do, something that we do in modern times with chairs and couches and sitting in cars a lot have messed up. For Starrett, who works with a wide-range of athletes, from NFL ballplayers to the professional ballet dancers to Tour de France cyclists, one item on the menu following a knee surgery is going to be squats, daily. Bodyweight to start but slowly progressing to using load. It might take up to a year to fully recover from an ACL surgery, but by squatting frequently and correctly, day after day, the athlete is not only recovering from the surgery but preventing another one—by replacing faulty mechanics with new, improved ideal mechanics.

So in my training for a November Spartan Race, and wanting to reprogram myself as an athlete from top-to-bottom, I will start with squats. More on squats in this column next week.

LAVA is the magazine of Serious Triathlon, investigating and reporting on new frontiers in training, tech, nutrition and race performance.