Tackling a Spartan Race at Age 50: Overcoming Some Hurdles

Written by:
Blake Dalton
August 13, 2022

A key feature of Spartan races is hurdling. Not like track hurdles, but having to jump or scramble all manner of objects and obstacles in an often muddy environment. As I worked through my training plan to get myself ready to tackle the literal hurdles in the race, I encountered some figurative ones too.

First, running. The first time I hit two miles, my quads felt like lead. It wasn’t a big deal, since I knew the quads aren’t a bad place to feel sore when running. Nonetheless, I felt frustrated. I used to always be able to finish a run with a satisfying sprint. But this time I couldn’t quite find the power, efficiency, or something. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I just knew it was something I had to try to fix. I also noticed that my left knee hurt. Shit! Now this IS a big deal. Many years ago, an inexperienced dancer dove right into my left knee during a dance rehearsal. Apparently I still had ligament damage here.

So I analyzed and asked myself “What am I not doing?” in my daily training routine. Keeping up the Pilates did seem to help me overcome the quad ache. But, while I was pondering the knee conundrum, I realized I had neglected my good buddy, the foam roller! Hooray for convenient low budget massage! 

I focused on my hip stability and of course quads, quads, quads. The quad training helped immensely… and wait a sec... where did the knee pain go? Whether the knee just needed some time to get used to the running, or the glucosamine time to build up a little, or the foam roller… or most likely a combination of all these protocols. Hell yes! 

On the mobility front, I added in a lot of freestyle polling staff exercises to mobilize the arms, the wrist and the shoulder girdle and hips and spine. I also added in some modern dance floor work mobility exercises in the evening, These helped with stiffness in my low back and hips.

Now that my knee was feeling better with improved joint mobility, I was ready to tackle the burpee. Why burpees? I remembered from the last Spartan race doing 20 burpees for every obstacle that you could not overcome. Of course I now find out from my friend Tom that, for this Spartan race, it is 30 burpees for every missed obstacle. Okay, no worries. I would start small with just 10 repetitions. No problem, right?

Problem! I struggled hard even to make 10. What the heck? I used to love burpees. I would add wrist and ankle weights and do the fancy modern dance burpee!

Now I was back in troubleshooting mode. So what was the issue? It wasn’t lack of cardio. I got my ropes and kettlebell swings for that. It didn’t feel like my lungs were giving out. And then it dawned on me. It was the damn quads and the rest of my legs! But what about all my squats and lunges and deadlifts???? 

My movement felt like it was in slow motion, like moving through oatmeal. That was the answer: slow twitch muscle fibers. I realized I had not done as much quick explosive movement recently. I have not been training any fast twitch muscle fibers.

 

My NASM training taught me about fast twitch versus slow twitch muscle fibers and about the different energy systems the body uses at different phases of exercise. 

With this in mind, I re-evaluated my training plan. I had been focused on working up more distance because we will cover over 6 miles. Although Tom reminded me that it will be broken up into sections with probably no longer than a mile or so in between obstacles. I had built up to running 2 miles twice on some days with a couple of other workouts in between.

Instead of adding more distance, I added more sprint days. I built up to 30 burpees by adding them before or after my workouts and runs. I had days where I did shorter sets of burpees with weights on. I had more sprint days! I worked box jumps higher and higher, and then lower jumps with weight. 

I kept up with my diet and also added creatine to my supplement plan. This supplement is believed to help the muscles replenish their supply of ATP, which they use up quickly in high intensity exercise. Studies have shown that creatine is helpful for increasing muscle growth and improving function for high intensity exercise. Like glucosamine and chondroitin, it has a low incidence of side effects.

As I continued to train with these tweaks, I noticed that I was adding leg muscle and seeing a difference in that smaller right calf.

Occasionally during this training period, I had some days of feeling a bit too tired. I would randomly get stressed and moody. And I noticed muscle fatigue. These were some signs of overtraining.

Therefore, I decided to return to my Tai Chi movement. It’s gentle spirals that help loosen the joints. I also meditated to calm my mind and coupled it with Chi Gung breathwork to support a relaxation response, lower cortisol levels, and help the parasympathetic nervous system heal and soothe the mind and body. 

With my training plan tweaked, I felt good when I finally made it to the weekend training with my team. We had a group of fun, friendly folks that encouraged each other. We did mini Spartans by running 4.5 miles. I managed to mostly keep up with the avid runners in the group. 

During the rope climbing obstacles, my upper body strength got me up since my leg technique was a little shaky. I felt totally fine walking around carrying heavy things. The sprints were fun and satisfying. The wall climbing was helped by my parkour background. My modern dance partner work was useful in helping my teammates traverse the walls. I felt ready for the high jumps. The monkey bars weren’t bad, but noticeably different from doing chin-ups. Swinging efficiently across a long line of bars required some real technique.

One of my friends in the group was inspiring me. She had an aerial dance background and moved like a squirrel. She was the one to be inspired by. 

All in all, I felt confident that I was with a great group and ready to meet the challenge.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

Blake Dalton

Performance Specialist
Blake Dalton is an experienced performance specialist, Pilates Instructor, and personal trainer who delights in the study of movement and how he can use his practice to improve the lives of others. He works at Activcore in Atlanta, Georgia, located just 2 miles from Emory University. His love of movement brought him to the study of martial arts and modern dance. It was here Blake discovered his second love the love of teaching and sharing.
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