The New Spartan Trail Series & The Lore of Cross-Country
When you think of the new Spartan Trail series of races, it’s good to have some historical context.
Exactly 200 years ago adolescent youth began to record trials and tribulations of off-road escapades in the dark and swampy moors of England. They hurdled logs, vaulted hedges, and partook in running ‘out-of-bounds’ in events so scandalous that authorities did everything they could to curb their efforts. With self-appointed nicknames such as ‘Trojan’, ‘Adonis’ and ‘Challenger’ (and some more sophomoric ones like ‘Miss Prettyman’, ‘The Perfumer’, ‘Smut Fancier’, ‘Frog’s Spawn’, and ‘The Beaver Hunter’), these rebels sought to mimic the fancy fox hunts on horseback of the glamorized, privileged elite.
As generations passed, “hunt the fox” (or ‘hare hunting’… hence the name harriers) on foot segued into the various forms of athleticism that became steeplechases, fell running, “hashing”, mud running, cross-country, and trail running. Even modern day obstacle course racing can harken some early influence to these efforts.
Impressively, the European form of the sport has stayed true to the early ideal. The ‘Cinque Mulini’ in Italy has runners run through a working water mill as part of their 10 kilometer course. Manfred Steffny, a German Olympic Marathoner from the 1970s even gave this account from a Belgian event:
“We sink in almost to our ankles at every step; the mud tries to suck our feet in tight. A fence and stream have been jumped, then there’s a gurgling, bubbling marsh where one sinks almost to the knees. At last, there is something like a path. Suddenly a railroad embankment appears. It’s no mistake; the flags indicate that it’s part of the course . . . I have already fallen in the mud. Shirt and pants are completely filthy; a crust of mud is stuck fast to the cheek, and in my mouth I have the sweetest taste of earth that just won’t be spit out.”
Sounds a lot like a Spartan Race, right? This new style of trail running seeks to bring back the mud and guts made famous by the earliest form of the event. And even from the beginning, cross-country was a team sport: pitting local clubs or nations on the international stage against each other. It was also in the Olympics––featured three times in the early 20th century and removed after a truly grueling event in France where only 15 entrants were able to finish (out of a field of nearly 40 starters).
The Spartan Trail Series: For this new edition of the sport the hills will be steeper, the ditches wider, the adrenaline more frenzied. A Spartan series is promised, with an October event to debut the concept. And for the average Spartan, there are a host of articles coming to prepare for the challenge. Training plans, how-to walkthroughs, previews of the series and more will be on the agenda. It’s time to run in the footsteps of history: hunt or be hunted.
Training For An All-Terrain Human
The new Spartan trail series of races will be tough: 10k and 21k-length events. Here’s how to excel in it.
Trail running is the closest thing to all-terrain running in a natural environment that there is. From a dirt road or single-track to route-finding on a mountain…essentially anything goes. But a good trail runner also needs to have proficiency in other training disciplines to be successful. To build proficiency, consider this: any other type of running done outside the trail will be of use whilst in nature. In fact, any bodily fitness gained will be of use.
Most beginners start at their local track––and running on the track is the most clinical of the running disciplines––every runner has to spend time on the track working on their technique. It’s a sterile and controlled environment, which permits introspection of breathing, form, flow, stride, and tempo. The pacing, grade, and surface on the track is static, whereas nature can be variable. From there, many athletes transition to road racing, which begins to introduce more variance in course and conditions, including having to run with other people. It’s also the most popular form of running. But true cross-country running introduces hills and uneven terrain, which begins to demand a wider range of cardio-muscular conditioning.
Extreme cross-country running incorporates water obstacles, mud, and fences thrown in—what can be considered an old-fashioned steeplechase on steroids. This mountain running format also emphasizes sections of straight uphill running followed by rapid descents. Here, pacing is key, and the subtle differences between trail running and road running are exposed: on a trail, there is a correlation between high heart rate and a short stride––usually climbing steep hills. Conversely, on the roads, there is a coupling of high heart rate with a long stride, which comes into play on flat sections. To train all intensities on both roads and trails, the body should not be conditioned to just one mechanical-cardio relationship. On rough terrain the focus should be on flexibility, agility, ground feeling and problem-solving. Gradually increasing speed off-trail will thereafter make fast running on the trail no issue.
In terms of fitness, running off-road is a concentrated, total-body workout—it develops power endurance, agility, balance, and core strength to a degree that cannot be easily achieved indoors or on the roads. It’s the practical application of all of a runner’s core strength and conditioning. This is because a trail will induce far more natural intervals than could a structured workout. This diversity provides a much better training effect than running on a treadmill or on city sidewalks. Negotiating a windy, hilly, narrow footpath at speed creates real-time problem solving opportunities: trail running is about mental fitness, too.
Most runners who try trail running are worried about injuries, specifically twisting an ankle; tackling spine-tingling downhills and lung-bursting climbs; coordinating their way through rocks, roots, and mud…all without looking like a marionette. But athletes have a much greater chance of subjecting themselves to overuse injuries from repetitively running on hard pavement than injuring themselves on the trails. People do fall in the woods… but they only make a sound if others are there to hear them. The secret to fast trail running is preserving good form and running fluidity.
To combat injuries, most athlete approach their trail running in terms of training cycles: identical to how Spartans incorporate all forms of fitness within a gym.
Here’s what a 10-day training cycle might look like to prepare for this new Spartan trail series:
Spartan Trail Series: 10-Day Sample Training Cycle
Day 1: Long hilly trail run at an easy pace.
Day 2: 30-minute recovery run plus bodyweight strength routine.
Day 3: Rest and core with 30-min bike.
Day 4: 40 to 60 minute fartlek run [fartlek is Swedish for speed-play, a form of running fast for short periods and relaxing the tempo in equal time, like 1:00 hard and 1:00 easy].
Day 5: Easier long run plus core work.
Day 6: Hill workout with intervals of sprinting up-hill with good form and walking the descents.
Day 7: Sandbag strength routine.
Day 8: 60-90 min run on the trails.
Day 9: Strength routine at home or gym.
Day 10: Interval training, running for time. I.e. 5 x 1200-meter repeats in 5:00.