We all want to know: What makes the best-of-the-best Spartan athletes out there tick? How do they keep their edge? In our Train Like A Champ series, we dig into the details of the training, nutrition, mindset, and more that keeps our most epic athletes on top.
Spartan Robert Killian (@robert_killian), a World Champ and OCR icon, doesn’t concern himself much with reaching the podium while in season; his eyes are squarely set on Tahoe, (a.k.a. the World Spartan Championship in North Lake Tahoe, this September 28th and 29th).
The former Army Green Beret, husband, and father of two is arguably the most successful and consistent Spartan competitor to date.
As the excitement about Tahoe builds, we sat down with Killian for the exclusive details on his training, recovery, how he lives like a Spartan, and so much more.
A Q&A With Spartan Robert Killian
SPARTAN RACE: What got you hooked on obstacle racing?
SPARTAN ROBERT KILLIAN: I was almost there after my first race in Breckenridge. I’m always asking myself, “What’s the next hardest thing I can do,” and when I got done with Breckenridge Spartan I couldn’t walk down stairs for like a week. If there wasn’t a handrail, my quads were so destroyed I just couldn’t, I would buckle. I was saying to myself, “Man, this is the next thing.” I’ve done Ironmans, marathons, and winter biathlon, but I thought this was very similar to what we were doing with obstacle courses in the special operations community in the military.
Check out what a FULL week of Spartan World Champ Robert Killian’s Workouts Looks Like
I think my true “oh, wow” moment was in Palmerton in 2015. I was actually an elite athlete, I just didn’t know what to do. My whole strategy was standing or running behind Cody Moat and Ryan Atkins the entire race just so I could see what their technique was on the obstacles. I didn’t care if I won and all of a sudden I found myself in first and I was like, “Well, what do I do?” I didn’t know the technique for the rope climb or that you can roll during the barbwire, and they just smoked me in the barbwire right at the end. They got me!
But, yeah. I think after that the excitement of racing that close to athletes like that did it for me.
View this post on Instagram
🇺🇸 Honoring those who have fallen is a reminder of why our Nation is strong, built by the foundation of courageous men and women that have served before us. Let us remember they lived and died to protect the freedom we enjoy, the prosperity we share, and our future way of life. —— #killianit #memorialday #rltw #dol #warriorethos #suasponte #nationalguard #thecalguard #usarmy #armedforces #salute #neverforget #respect —— *Note – As of November 2008 – Veterans and active-duty service-members not in uniform are authorized to render the hand salute during the playing of our national anthem. Passed into federal law under the Defense Authorization Act of 2009. —— 📸 @natephotographer
SR: With all of your experience training, competing, and working in the military, what have you learned the most about your body and fitness?
RK: My threshold or the amount of pain that the body can kind of go through, recover from, and keep going afterward. I had broken the record for the most podiums in one year, and I think I did 24 or 25 weekends, and some of those were multiple races per weekend. So, probably over 30.
But to that end, I feel like there’s a shelf-life to that. Then, I was like, “Wow. This is kind of crazy.” And now I look back and I’m like, “Man, how the heck did I do that?” You know? I cannot recreate it for the life of me.
SR: What things do you consider when designing your programming?
RK: It has fluctuated over the years. The first year, I wasn’t sure of the venues and what type of training to do, but now I’m on my fourth year and I’ve pretty much honed it in. A lot of it actually has to do with my competition.
I base my training off of where I know other guys may be lacking and really try to exploit those weaknesses. We’re all so close in the top five and those little differences matter.
It’s also about fixing my own weaknesses. For me, it’s climbing. I can breathe well and train at altitude, but climbing has been one thing that I’ve been getting beat on.
Another thing, especially since Tahoe last year: downhill. I’ve been doing a lot of downhill focus this season. You would think, “Oh, running downhill is just gravity,” but you’ve got to train specifically for it.
SR: Do you feel your training is unorthodox in any way?
RK: I feel like a lot of stuff we do in OCR is unorthodox. Spartan racing is unlike any other training, in my opinion, because the conditions are always different. That’s why no single person has won any of the U.S. Championship Series twice yet, because every course has been tailored to one person’s strengths and that person usually wins
It’s a lot of functional fitness, though. You have to be able to carry heavy weight and still run fast.
One of the things I do that’s kind of unrelated is biking. I do a lot of it, even though we don’t do it in obstacle course racing. I believe it’s a great no-impact way to build your quads. It also doesn’t really tax your cardio very much if you control your cadence and build power, versus just spin as fas as you can.
I also started training that’s venue-specific, so I’ve got certain venues now that I’ve raced, and I know how to train specifically for those. I’m really trying to recreate the same conditions that I would during race day or training. The races should be an easy day; the training is where you should really suffer the most and put in the most pain.
SR: What do you think about when you’re training?
RK: If it’s a boring, flatter trail run: music. But, in the special forces unit I was in, we had to stay current on a foreign language, so I’d listen to French lessons all the time. I found I learned more doing that than I did from the actual classes that I was taking.
If I’m in the mountains, though, I’m completely focused on running because it’s so technical. If you take your mind off of what you’re doing, you’re going to break an ankle or get injured.
SR: What does your recovery protocol look like? How do you know when to keep pushing your body and when to pull back?
RK: I’ve been using heart rate variability and have my statistics for two full years. There’s a certain amount of strain in the different workouts I do, and that gives me an idea of how much I need to recover.
I go through little micro-cycles of strength and endurance, and then maybe not so much endurance until I need it. So, I think training periodization is important as well.
Just logging miles is just a small fraction of it all; doing well with nutrition and sleep is a huge part of recovery. I may not be working out all day, but I’m always doing something, whether it’s stretching or working on the Hypervolt massage or foam rolling.
View this post on Instagram
A #medalmonday for the books as I'm starting to fill up space on my office wall. Looking back, so much went into each and every medal earned. I'm so grateful for the memories made in the past 3 years of OCR and even more blessed for those to come. —— Four big races left in the season for me and only one in the United States. I'm beyond excited to be representing USA at the @spartanracegreece Trifecta World Championships, @spartan Iceland Ultra, and….drum roll @spartanracejp Stadium as the defending 2017 @spartanrace Stadium Series Champion!! —— 2015-2018 -Spartan Sprint, Super, Beast x 75 -@spartangermanyaustria Trifecta Weekend Champ x 2 Tirol -West Virginia Trifecta Weekend -Spartan World Championship x 4 -@tough_mudder World's Toughest Mudder x 3, 8 hour Toughest, and Tougher Series -Adventurey LLC @ocrwc x 2 and US Champs -@greenberetchallenge Team and Operator's Course -@battlefrogofficial 15k -Spartan US Championships Series x 3 and North American Championship -@usaocr Official USA National Championship -Spartan World Team Championship x 2 -Dallas @operationvalor Chris Kyle Memorial -Spartan Stadium Series Champ -@uspentathlon Laser Pistol National Champs- -Spartan Honor Series Ft.Carson and Ft.Benning -Spartan Mountain Series Champ -Spartan Ultra Beast Tahoe, Dallas and Iceland Ultra Worlds —— #killianit #earnednotgiven #medaladdict #keeppushing #neverquit #getoutsid #usaocr #spartanproteam #teamyokohama #ascentprotein #locklaces #tailwindnutrition #darntough #2xu #teamfitaid
SR: How would you describe your diet?
RK: People give a lot of advice about nutrition, but unless you’ve tried something, seen a dietitian, or gotten your blood tested to see what you’re specifically deficient in, as long as you’re eating, any diet is a good diet.
I stick to whole foods with the least amount of ingredients possible, like fruits and vegetables. Not pounding a lot of unnatural processed foods is key.
On Race Prep
SR: How do you eat before a race?
RK: For Spartan racing, your glycogen stores are your primary source of fuel, and that means carbs. There’s just too much science behind it.
Everyone talks about the ketogenic diet, but I’ve gotten my blood tested at the University of Boulder Sports Performance Center numerous times, and I only use my fat stores for maybe the first three minutes of my workout. Then it predominantly crosses over to glycogen stores for the next hour and a half.
So, having a full tank of glycogen stores is the best bet for obstacle course racing. I usually do some oatmeal or half a banana pre-race, just to have something in my stomach. I can’t take any more than that or I feel like I’m going to throw up. Then, I just hydrate. Afterward, I use a micellar casein protein before bed.
I just started using a pre-workout, but don’t typically use caffeine. If I wake up, and my heart rate variability is really high and I’m primed for a great workout, then I take about 150 milligrams so I can get the most out of the day. But I try not to let my body get used to it, so that before a race, or even during it, I really feel the effects.
SR: What do you do to mentally prepare for a race?
RK: I do a lot of visualization and look at the course map. If they have open-house available, that’s definitely a must-do to get some extra confidence.
The night before, I definitely like to take an ice bath, watch a movie or something, and then get as much sleep as possible. And I usually eat pretty early, like 6:00 o’clock, the night before, so I get a full 12 hours to digest.
On Living the Spartan Way
SR: What inspires you?
RK: Being a good role model by getting my kids active and involved in doing stuff outdoors, and not having so much screen time. I like to get them out to the races, and I think it’s a big part of their life now that it’s become a profession of mine. I like instilling goal-setting, and that you work hard and do everything to accomplish those goals. Teaching that process is really gratifying.
View this post on Instagram
Your kids only get one childhood. Make it memorable! So grateful to share my passions with my family and have them there to support. —— Livs already busy bragging she got to hold the big trophy; that sister / brother love 🤣 —— #killianit #spartandad #lilkillians #medalmonday #spartanrace #spartanpro #bearolemodel #everysecondcounts #keeppushing #neverquit #getoutside #ocr #medaladdict —— 📸 @theocrreport
SR: Do you have a mantra or words to live by?
RK: For me, the ‘never quit’ mentality is a big thing. If I say I’m going to do something, I hold myself to it even if I’m injured, even if somethings not great. I think that’s one of the things I’ve always believed. I may not be the strongest or the fastest, but I’ve got the most grit.
I’ve been through worse, I’ve been through combat, I’ve been shot at, I’ve had worse times. I feel if you’ve been through traumatic experiences, you always look back and appreciate more of what you’re doing now because it’s not as bad as that.
SR: What about being a Spartan competitor carries over into other aspects of your life?
RK: I think with Spartan, once you get out there and achieve the goal you set, it correlates to anything in life that is a struggle. You’re not really sure how to do it, but you figure it out, get over it, and keep going.
I feel like it’s just working your mind and being outdoors. You’re not sitting behind a screen or behind a desk. You’re out there being, like Joe [De Sena] says,’ more human.’
I feel the camaraderie. If you ever see someone who’s done a Spartan Race for the first time, or if you have a friend and you guys went and did it, that’s all you talk about for a week straight after that. That excitement translates into friendship, team building, and camaraderie, and that’s important outside of racing.