Understanding Multi-Sport:  Obstacle Racing Versus Triathlon

by Jason Jaksetic, Spartan Fitness Writer/Editor


There was a distinct moment in the 2011 Vermont Beast in Killington, Vermont, where I knew that obstacle racing was a far different animal than triathlon.  Nearly four hours into the race I was swimming – clod in trail running shoes and wearing a hydration pack- exhausted beyond all end.

I used to be full-time triathlete in my athletic endeavors until discovering obstacle racing, so I know the fabled lore of the three-sports-in-one.  There are many mythic stories through triathlon’s history and many have to do with the sports origin.  One group associated with ‘inventing’ triathlon was a group of athletes out on Long Island who wanted to combine their favorite summer fitness activities.  The first triathlons had the swim last.  The rationalization was that after run and bike, and working up a great sweat, a swim was the ultimate way to end.  However, the flaw in this plan was it was throwing exhausted and tired athletes into open water situations – and swimming form was really hard to keep after wearing oneself out on the run and bike.  In short, swimming, kinda sucked at the end.

Well, the race directors, didn’t get that memo when designing the Spartan Beast in Vermont.  Or, maybe they did?  If they wanted to surprise me, catch me off guard, they surely accomplished this.  I was forced to adapt to something I had never planned for.  I mean, who does that???


And here is where, while both multi-sport sports, triathlon and obstacle racing differ.

When doing a triathlon you know the deal.  You will swim a set distance, you will bike a set distance, and you will run a set distance.  You can even check out the entire course (unobstructed of any obstacles) the entire week of the event.

And even in this case, there are still plenty of race day surprises.  But the basic movements, the weight bearing motions, can all be rehearsed endlessly, pretty much exactly like they will be on race day.  Your swim form, bike form, and run form, will play out as well as your fitness allows you.

Obstacle racing turned out to be a bit different.  There I was in shoes and struggling to tread water weighed down in gear.  No wetsuit allowing me to swim past swim buoys.  This was an obstacle to figure out, not an exercise I had rehearsed.

The beautiful relationship these sports share is that they compliment each other rather well.  Swimming, biking, and running are perfect ways to prepare for obstacle racing.  They will sculpt your musculature and build your endurance.

In turn, while lugging a 40 pound sandbag up a ski slope trail might not directly relate to the specific situations you will encounter in a triathlon, you’ll be building mental tenacity, while building brute strength and endurance, and building stabilizer muscles that will support your swimming, biking, and running engine.

Either way you look at it both sports are doing multiple sports.  Hence the word multi-sport.  Whether the winter biathlon, or the summer triathlon, the magic starts when one sport seamlessly blends into another.

In obstacle racing, that happens about twice every mile.




Fartlek:  Integrating “Speed Play” into Your Training


Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness
– Don Marquis

How do you ensure to have a most pleasant interval of running?  Put it in-between two intensely unpleasant intervals of running.  It’s all relative at times, and one can only understand this through experimentation – in changing it up.  Too often runner neglect the usefulness of variety in their training intensities within a singular workout.

Often, you need to run 1-2 miles on your tradition routes before you can really gauge your energy levels.  Maybe at mile 2 you decide to just hang on hoping to make it home.  Maybe at mile 2 you are feeling like taking things to the next level.  When the case is the latter, you can always throw in some speed play into your training session as a means to add some variety to your experience, and speed focused conditioning for race day.

Fartlek — (“speed play” in Swedish) a training method that combines aerobic training (continuous efforts) with anaerobic training (interval efforts). Traditionally it is associated with running, but it can be integrated into any style of training and geared toward strength, endurance, or speed conditioning. The reference to ‘play’ indicates that these types of workouts can be tailored uniquely to the athlete in a way much less structure that traditional interval training.

By adopting ‘on’ and ‘off’ tempos and linking them to durations of time, you have the gist of a Fartlek workout.  1 minute on, 1 minute off.  2 minutes on, 2 minutes off…

Do ladders (counting up or down) or do pyramids (counting up and down) – you have some freedom to choose based upon who much time you have, and how much energy you have in the tank.

The following would be an example with how you can experiment with tempo on a temporal basis, integrating your 10k race pace and a 2 to 1 work to rest ratio.

2 minutes 10k pace

1 minute Recover

4 minutes 10k pace

2 minutes recovery

6 minutes 10k pace

3 minutes recover

This same method can be seen in the following 10-minute intervals with burpees.  Suddenly you are livening up your run workout, while simultaneously introducing fitness conditioning while simulating the run to burpee to run body movements so frequent in a Spartan Race.

1 minute of burpees

30 seconds of easy jogging

2 minutes of burpees

1 minute of easy jogging

3 minutes of burpees

1 minute and 30 seconds of burpees


If you are a math geek, you can see the permutations are endless.  Often enough, doing math is just the distraction one needs when things get particularly tough in a training session.  The trick is to not beat yourself up about ‘how you fartlek’, but to just use this broad technique to dial in your own running masterpieces of Spartan WODs.

Get Spartan WODs in your inbox.

Get registered for an event.


Don’t let swimming be an obstacle

Swimming Laps 101: 9 Things to Know

by Erica Smith, Professional swim coach


Swimmer here.  I’m here to break the unfortunate news to you that swimmers (as we call ourselves–those of us who have the distinction of having been competitive swimmers in high school and/or college), are holding you in judgment for the suit you wear, the goggles you wear, and the way you conduct yourself at the local YMCA or community pool. As soon as we see you coming, we’ll start sprinting butterfly or doing extra-splashy flip turns to discourage you from sharing our lane. It’s not just swimmers behaving badly–I swear runners have taunted me in similar ways when I venture out of my territory and onto land.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can work out in peace without being taunted or judged by swimmers. First off, don’t ever show up wearing a scuba mask or ancient-looking goggles. I like Blue Seventy goggles–all models make excellent open water goggles, and you can wear them to the pool. Don’t wear swim trunks or a triathlon suit–you’re going to have to get yourself a real swimsuit made for pool swimming. Now, emerge from the locker room and walk across deck with confidence. If the lap lanes have speed designations (Slow-Medium-Fast), make sure you don’t overestimate yourself. Using fins doesn’t count towards your perceived speed. It’s taboo among swimmers to wear fins for an entire workout, and everyone knows WHY you’d be doing that.

Once you choose the appropriate lane, there are a few basic but very important rules you must follow:

1. If you are joining a lane with one swimmer, you must alert that person to your presence before you begin swimming, and ask whether your new lanemate prefers to “circle swim” or “split the lane.” Using proper swimming lingo will earn you points. Circle swimming means that you will swim counterclockwise, always hugging the laneline to your right. Splitting the lane means that you and your lanemate will each choose one side of the lane, and you will hug the same laneline going up and down.

2. Never, ever, ever veer into the middle of the lane for any reason. Pay attention to where you are in the lane at all times. Now is not the time to practice eyes-closed navigation drills. No one wants to get a concussion during a swim workout.

3. If joining a lane with multiple swimmers who are already circle swimming, you need not alert anyone to your presence, but you must join the lane in a way that does not interrupt anyone else’s workout (see guidelines below). If you join a lane with two swimmers who are splitting the lane, you must ASK both swimmers whether they will circle swim to let you join, BEFORE you begin swimming in that lane.

4. Never push off the wall right in front of a swimmer who is approaching the wall to make a turn. This is exactly the same as if you were running on a narrow track, and a slower runner stepped in front of you and forced you to stop.

5. Never push off the wall RIGHT on the feet of the swimmer right ahead of you. Always wait at least five seconds or until the swimmer ahead is past the flags.

6. Never touch the feet of the swimmer in front of you for any reason. It’s your fault for either pushing off the wall too soon, or not choosing the right lane. If you are doing a faster workout, you’re going to have to stop at the wall, wait until there’s enough space in between the two of you, and then start again. No one is looking for a negotiation about accommodating your workout.

7. If you do accidentally make contact while swimming, pick your head up to apologize. Or wait to apologize at the wall, whenever both of you stop.

8. If you are stopped at the wall to rest, make sure that you stay off to the side so that the end of the lane is clear for other swimmers to make turns. If you are blocking the wall with your body, don’t be surprised if a swimmer flip turns and their feet fly mere centimeters from your face. You’re not supposed to be there.

9. Hand paddles can be helpful for learning proper catch position in freestyle, but you should avoid using them in a crowded lap swim lane because of the likelihood of contact with other swimmers. It IS possible to break fingers or cause bloody gashes through contact with hand paddles.

Following these guidelines should ensure that you have a pleasant and fruitful experience at your local pool. Your new swimmer friends will appreciate your efforts!


Erica Smith was a NCAA All-American swimmer and is now an open water swimmer, writer, and professional swim coach specializing in open water training and racing.  She can be contacted at smitheureka@gmail.com.