The world's best obstacle racer is not human. I was certain of this 47 seconds into a conversation with Jonathan Albon, the "man" who has demolished actual human beings in obstacle races on several continents over the past few years.
Albon made his name in obstacle racing in the UK before solidifying himself as the world's best with his OCR and Spartan World Championships last year. He claims he was born and raised near London. However, it's obvious that he is an alien life form from a more evolved planet, sent to earth specifically to embarrass slower, weaker humans on the silly little obstacle courses we've designed.
"I always trained to be the fittest human I can be," Albon says, which is exactly what a visitor from another planet might say when trying to blend in with our species. "So I think about what the ultimate human would be like from the stone age—someone who can sort of do everything—run pretty quick and carry heavy things."
Albon got started in obstacle racing after reading a newspaper article about a Tough Guy race, a UK racing franchise that calls itself "one of the hardest races the body can take." He entered the competition. "That was the only obstacle race at the time," he recalls. "So I thought it would be fun to jump over the fire, run through the mud and probably get hypothermia. I just wanted to see if I could complete it."
Albon enjoyed the experience, but it required more running than he was used to. When he started, approximately 1,500 people were in front of him. He proceeded to overtake almost the entire human field to finish 76th overall. He had discovered a special ability and he ran with it, literally.
When more obstacle races became available, Albon entered them. He won his next race. Then the next one. And pretty much every race after that. Heading into last year's world championship races, Albon hadn't lost an obstacle race since he started participating in the sport on a regular basis.
On Oct. 3, Albon will defend his Spartan title when the world's best racers compete head to head in Lake Tahoe in the Spartan Race World Championship, a 12- to 14-mile gut-check through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I will also be plodding through the course, but well behind Albon. Since Albon is far and away the best obstacle racer in the world, I recently sat down with him in hopes of gleaning some tips for my race prep. I also wanted to share his superhuman expertise with other STACKletes who are thinking about tackling an obstacle race.
Here are 17 tips taken from my chat with Albon as he entered the height of his Spartan World Championship training.
1. Cross Train
Albon puts himself through heavy doses of nearly every type of training imaginable to ensure he's able to maneuver, jump, climb, swim and crawl his way through grueling obstacle courses. His average week includes sessions of strength circuits, running, swimming, climbing, hiking and cycling. But Albon credits his ability to outlast every other competitor to his background in a challenging contact sport he played during his early years.
He says, "I think automatically I was quite competitive at this because I had competed in roller hockey from the age of 6 through 20. Hockey itself is quite intense interval training, because you get out there and sort of slash around for two minutes and then you get off. Especially roller hockey, which is a little more intense than ice hockey because it's a smaller playing surface. That probably helped me get in quite good shape and used to getting knocked around. I took that into my running, so I don't mind the type of running where you get knocked about like you do in obstacle racing."
2. Stay Fueled
There's nothing worse than bonking on the side of a mountain, so Albon takes his nutrition very seriously. He has aligned with CLIF Bar and he takes advantage of their product line on a daily basis, making sure to eat a CLIF Bar before every race and workout. The bar's 45 grams of carbohydrate and bevy of vitamins and minerals ensure that Albon's fuel tank is topped up before he hits the hills. They taste pretty good too, making them an easy pre-workout option. "They go down great beforehand," he says. "It's almost like breakfast for me."
After a workout, Albon makes sure to eat a CLIF Builder's Bar because of its 20 grams of high-quality protein, which help rebuild and repair his muscles. The bar's carbohydrates replenish his energy stores to make sure he is ready to go for the following day's training.
Albon always has CLIF SHOT Bloks on hand during long runs, in case he gets into trouble and needs a quick dose of simple carbs to replenish his glycogen and electrolytes to prevent cramping. During races, he downs a SHOT Bloks along with water periodically so he never gets close to running out of fuel.
3. Be Light on Your Feet
Albon is 5-foot-10 and 143 pounds, which turns out to be the ideal build for an obstacle racer. As is true for all endurance events, every unnecessary pound is additional weight to lug over the course. Think about lugging that extra weight up a rope, over a climbing wall or up a steep hill. The lighter man or woman will usually win that challenge.
"I'm quite a light guy, and my strength-to-weight ratio is quite high, Albon says. "So that's good for the majority of obstacles, because I can lift myself very well. I may not be the strongest guy but I am very strong for my weight."
The combination of endurance training and high-intensity circuits in the weight room helps to develop this beneficial high strength-to-weight ratio, but nutrition plays a big role as well. Albon focuses on eating healthy on a regular basis, and he does not succumb to the temptation of gorging himself after workouts or competitions, which can undo the training effect that just took place.
4. Put in the Mileage
A strong aerobic base is a key to success in any endurance race, but for Albon, who spends anywhere from three to four-and-half hours on longer courses like the Spartan Beast, it is absolutely essential. The best way to build this base is to get out and run at a steady state for a long time.
Albon runs pretty much every day unless his body is extremely beat up; he averages 60-90 miles per week. "Most of it is up and down in the mountains, so it takes quite a long time," he says.
Most humans must keep their mileage lower than that, but make sure you get in at least one long run (60-90 minutes or more) per week to help train your body to be efficient over long distances and to deal with constant movement for an extended period of time. Shorter runs and interval training can make up the rest of your running during the week.
5. Train for the Terrain
Spartan Races and other obstacle race take place on courses that are 100 percent uneven terrain. Trails, muddy fields and rocky hills are the most common surfaces. This poses a challenge for many, but it provides Albon with a way to separate himself. "I seem to be quite strong on the unbeaten track, and mud and water don't seem to affect me," he says. "This gives me a natural edge as a result."
Your typical jog around the neighborhood is not going to get the job done. Most of your running should take place on uneven terrain to strengthen the supporting muscles of your ankles, knees and hips and to improve your running efficiency in this environment.
"Practice makes perfect with anything," Albon says. "So definitely get out on trails, and not just any trails, the most uneven trails you can find. Also, a lot of people can run quick on uneven terrain, but a lot of people can't be efficient. So they can take a lot of energy to be able to run on uneven terrain. You need to be able to bound from rock to rock a bit, which makes it more efficient."
If you can't find a decent running trail nearby, use the tree lawns and medians along your normal running route. Stepping up and down over curbs and running on uneven grass is better than pounding the pavement. Bonus: It's a lot easier on your joints as well.
6. Get Strong
Obstacle races require full-body strength to navigate the various obstacles. That's what separates them from traditional endurance events. As a result, you need to hit the gym a few times each week. Your training should be high intensity with little rest between exercises to keep your heart rate elevated and to simulate the intensity of a typical race. You will need to be strong when you're fatigued.
Albon strength trains three times per week, performing either self-created bodyweight circuits or CrossFit workouts at a box near his residence in Bergen, Norway. "I use lighter weight than the other CrossFitters there because I don't really see the benefit of being humongously strong or humongously big in this sport," he says. "I'm just trying to work on base strength and endurance as well."
7. Recover Right
Recovery is an often overlooked element of training programs, which is why overuse injuries are one of the most common ways athletes' endurance training gets derailed. Avoid this by scheduling recovery days after especially hard workouts or long runs. Foam rolling and cold therapy (yep, post-workout ice baths are a must) can accelerate the recovery process.
Incorporating active recovery is also a great idea. This can take the form of light stretching, cycling or yoga. Of course, Albon's active recovery is at superhuman levels. "I go out and cycle when my legs need to recover," he says. "Like this morning, I went out for an hour just to spin my legs and let them recover for the weekend. That was like 25 kilometers (15.5 miles), and sometimes I'll do 50 klicks (31 miles)."
8. Get a Grip
Most obstacles involve some sort of hanging, climbing or grabbing onto odd objects, all of which challenges your hands and forearms to their limits. Thus, grip strength is a key for succeeding in obstacle races and avoiding the dreaded Spartan penalty of 30 Burpees if you lose your grip and fail an obstacle.
Albon takes part in weekly bouldering sessions to strengthen his grip. He says this form of climbing strengthens his fingers, hands, wrists and forearms in ways similar to how they function in a race.
If you don't live near a bouldering course, you can simulate its effects with some of the following grip-building exercises:
- Towel Pull-Ups
- Timed Hangs From a Pull-Up Bar
- Deadlifts (higher reps will torch your grip)
- Rope Climbs
9. Hit the Pool
Albon doesn't consider himself a strong swimmer, but he prepares for courses that involve open water with weekly swim sessions lasting 40-60 minutes. In addition to enhancing his swimming ability, hitting the water provides him with an additional cardiovascular workout, which develops full-body strength without any pounding on his body.
Many obstacle races involve some sort of swimming segment, so honing this skill will come in handy on race day.
10. Let it go on the Downhill
Running downhill is usually viewed as a cakewalk, but doing it effectively on a steep slope with loose ground underfoot is a skill. Elite racers make up considerable time letting things fly on the downhill. I know this firsthand from watching guys blow by me as I awkwardly and slowly maneuvered down the slippery slopes at a Spartan Sprint event in Malibu a couple years ago.
"The key is putting your arms out to the sides and focusing on having a smooth flow," Albon says. "It's a balance between letting your legs go and maintaining control, which comes down to how many steps you are taking. Not too long ago, I realized the best downhill runners were taking about three times the number of steps I was to cover a 10-meter section. I was just being deliberate with where my foot was going to land with each step without getting out of my comfort zone. Whereas, the best downhill runners just let it go and take a lot of smaller steps to reposition themselves whenever they need to."
11. Survive the Uphill
Here's some great news: there is a no-fail way of getting better at running uphill. The bad news? It involves running up a lot of hills.
"Running uphill a lot really does help," Albon says. "Some of the best fitness benefits you can get come from hiking at max heart, and those sessions have such little impact on your body, you could do it all day if it didn't tire you out so much. You can also add weight to your back to really develop that extra leg strength that hill running requires."
That's that hard part. Now for some strategy. Albon points out that many inexperienced racers unnecessarily burn themselves out during uphill portions of races because they haven't figured out how to pace themselves. "You have to know what grade you are capable of running and what fatigue level is going to result from it before you get going up a hill," he says. "So many people that run uphill end up completely gassed and set themselves back by staying at that pace for too long. Once they start hiking at that point, it's too late. You should start hiking earlier and save yourself from being completely exhausted so that when you get to the top of the hill, you are able to take off running instead of having to recover."
12. To Conquer the Rope Climb, Focus on Your Feet
The Rope Climb has been a nemesis for many ever since grade school and still haunts them to this day. Most new racers are intimidated by the challenge and assume they lack the necessary upper-body strength to pull themselves up the rope. But according to Albon, climbing a rope is about your feet.
"It's all about learning what kind of locking mechanism you use with your feet with the rope and what works best for you," he says. "Practicing that over and over again is key so that once you're on the rope, you can lock in and take the strain off your upper body."
Find a rope and start practicing, but don't make the crucial mistake that ends up spelling defeat for many racers. "A lot of people will walk up to the rope and climb up thinking it will be that easy on race day," Albon says. "But in the race, they are going to have cold wet hands, they are going to be tired and they are going to struggle. You need to practice climbing under fatigue as a result. Include multiple rope climbs over and over again in your workouts when you are already tired. Your technique will automatically improve because you are going to have to find a better way to do it when you get tired. It's about seeing those adaptations and doing it from the start the next time you come up to it."
13. A Better Way to do the Monkey Bars
Just as fatigue helps you find a better way to climb a rope, it helped Albon find a better way to fly through the monkey bars obstacle. "You can see when people do the monkey bars, they start with their thumbs underneath," Albon says. "Slowly, as they go along and start to fatigue, their thumbs automatically start to go on top of the bar. They got tired and their bodies adapted and found a better way of doing it."
Albon recommends using this better thumb placement on the monkey bars (or any extended hanging obstacle) right from the start.
14. Hercules, Hercules (Hoist)!
The Hercules Hoist has left many racers frustrated and performing Burpees as a penalty for failure. Racers must lift a heavy cement block system several feet in the air using a rope-and-pulley system. It is one of the more strength-focused obstacles. Racers use a hand-over-hand motion to pull the rope through the pulley and raise the block to the top.
"I struggle with that one because I am lighter and don't have the added body weight to help me pull the rope down," Albon says. "But it also comes down to a lot of grip strength, because you have to hold the rope long enough until the weight hits the top."
In addition to using his grip strength, Albon has learned a special technique to help him hoist. "If you wrap the rope around yourself once and then pull your whole body down so you land on the ground, you can get the weight up," he says. "Then, re-wrap yourself for another pull and go down again. That should save your grip strength a lot more at the end than just holding it the whole time."
15. Gear Up Right
Wearing the right gear can be the difference between an enjoyable Spartan Race and a miserable experience. "I generally prefer bare hands, but when it is really cold, I make sure to wear gloves with a good grip and a hat," Albon says. "Once you start getting cold problems, issues like cramps are more likely, which makes a quick pace impossible."
Albon opts for shorts and a compression shirt. Regardless of the temperature, he prefers bare legs, because they dry better. "When they have tights on them, they get cold easier," he says. "The wind sort of whips at the tights, and your body doesn't know how to react to having something on it."
For his feet, Albon goes with irocks from VJ Sport, which he says have the best grip he's ever experienced when running down muddy trails. Inside the VJ irocks, he sports lightweight socks that won't soak up water.
16 & 17. Have Fun—But Keep the Post-Race Celebration Brief
Yes, despite the physical demands and discomfort, Spartan Races are a whole lot of fun. Make sure you enjoy the process and fruits of your training as you crawl through the mud and push your body to its limit. "If you have fun with something, there's a better chance you'll do more of it, and you'll want to do better, which means you'll improve," Albon says, "So making sure you're enjoying what you're doing is key."
However, Albon goes on to warn against a tempting and frequent endurance race pitfall once you've crushed your Spartan Race. "Don't give yourself too much credit," he says. "There are people who complete a race and are just happy that they have reached their goal. Then, they lose focus and won't train for two weeks before they pick another goal or think about what's next. I've always gone through life looking at the bigger picture, or bigger goal, and just rolling straight through it. The moment you stop and say, 'Well done, me,' is when you lose two weeks of training and end up taking a few steps back.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock