How to train safely for endurance races
By DAVID REESE, Montana Health Journal
Every year for the last three years, thousands of people have flocked to Bigfork, Montana, for the annual Reebok Spartan Race.
Held on steep, mountainous terrain overlooking Flathead Lake, the race leads participants on a grueling endurance test of physical fitness. The races have surged in popularity over the last six years, with endurance races like the Spartan, Tough Mudder, and others drawing thousands of participants, Many of the participants form teams and begin their training for the race months before the starting gun sounds. But for others, whose physical fitness levels may not be as high, are endurance races safe?
“The races get people out and get them physically active,” Brad Roy, Phd., said. “They’re fun, if you train appropriately.” What concerns Roy, the director of the Summit Fitness Center in Kalispell, is the weekend warrior who says “I’m going to do this next week,” and set out to “get in shape.” Endurance races like the Spartan Race can demand physical activities that are not found normally in physical fitness training.
Activities like rolling on your stomach under barbed wire, carrying 50-pound bags of sand up steep hills, or shinnying up a rope should all be practiced or emulated in some way before attempting an endurance race, Roy says. “You have to have things in your training program that mimic that. If you haven’t, your risk of injury is higher,” he said. “You have to ask yourself ‘have I really trained my body to do that?’ You want to plan well in advance of the race.” Finding a fitness regimen is one thing; doing the right fitness is another. Roy said doing too much too soon can risk hurting you. “You have to have a progressive program,” he said. "Training too hard for too many days “just tears your body down,” he said. “You need to really understand your body or have someone who can help you.” Group fitness programs aren’t always the answer to endurance race training.
A Spartan Race participant celebrates after an obstacle in Bigfork, Montana. Photo by David Reese
While the social aspect of group fitness is fun, “One size does not fit all,” Roy said. Along with the right kind of training is the right way to train. Proper technique is crucial in learning how to do an activity. “If you don’t do it with the right technique, you risk injury and you may not get the benefit you’re seeking,” Roy, who is also the editor of the magazine of the American College of Sports Medicine, said. Nutrition must be considered in preparing for an endurance race, Roy said. He recommends a whole food approach to diet whenever possible, and staying away from sports drinks and meal replacements. “It all comes down to balance,” Roy said.
Endurance races of today might be a bit like the marathon craze that swept the nation in the 1970s and 80s. The races enticed people to become active, “but you had people doing them who shouldn’t have been doing them,” Roy said. “There’s that same tendency.” But, he added, endurance races are popular. “These things are taking off for a good reason,” Roy said. “They’re fun.” The Competitive Edge program at the Summit Health and Fitness Center helps people achieve fitness goals, whether they are for weight loss or endurance training. The Competitive Edge program takes a high tech approach to fitness, and can analyze oxygen use under physical stress, as well do video gait analysis for runners.
A woman takes on a rope challenge at the Spartan Race in Bigfork.
Grey Ruegamer, a former National Football League athlete, directs the Summit’s Competitive Edge Program. Ruegamer agrees with Roy’s assessment that the races are fun for a reason: he himself wouldn’t want to run a 13-mile race, but he’d be excited about doing an endurance challenge with dozens of unique obstacles. “Our bodies are built for endurance, but not everyone trains for endurance,” Ruegamer said. Ruegamer helps people define their fitness goals and devise a program that fits with them.
Ruegamer first breaks the process down into how people move, and works to build ways of helping them move more efficiently. Ruegamer said he encourages people to develop a fitness regimen specific to training for their athletic goal: whether it’s elk hunting or endurance racing.You have to have a fitness strategy and a way to measure the results, he said. “People often mistake activity for fitness,” he said. “That’s not necessarily going to get you to a goal.” Nor is the approach that “going as hard and as fast as you can and you’ll be good,” he said. Derek Ochiai, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Nirschl Orthopaedic Center, said prospective race participants should have a good assessment of what their fitness level actually is. He recommends first doing some similar races, but that are less intense. Also, he said, observing the race for the first year and not actually doing it can give participants a more realistic assessment of how far away you would be from being able to safely participate.
“If you are an average couch potato, this activity would not be recommended,” he said. There are two main types of risk involved in an endurance race — overuse injury and acute injury, Ochiai said. Overuse injuries stem mainly from doing an activity that is more strenuous than you are used to. These would include shoulder tendinitis, shin splints and stress fractures. Acute injury may involve injuries such as broken ankles, shoulder dislocations or wrist sprains from falling or getting caught in equipment, Ochiai said. “This type of race is not something you do when you lead a sedentary lifestyle,” he said.
Therefore, Ochiai said, the training itself may be perhaps the greatest health benefit derived from participating in an endurance race. “I am a big believer in the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, and if doing this race is a goal, then get in shape to do it, which will give you the health benefits,” he said.
“And I would hope that these races can motivate other people to make exercise a part of their lives. “The team aspect can help inspire and motivate. It can also lead people to overpush themselves and lead to injury.” •
Competitors in the Spartan Race in Bigfork climb a hill in the 2014 competition. David Reese photo