SOS in Seattle 03/12/2016
I attended the Spartan Obstacle Specialist course in Seattle in March. This is an addition to Spartan Race’s SGX training program, which used to be aimed exclusively at coaches but with the SOS now is also trying to
make money off of include athletes without coaching aspirations. Conveniently, this course is part of the training trifecta side of the Spartan Delta where it can be used in lieu of the SGX certification.
What was my motivation to visit this course?
I’m not a fitness professional, I’m not a pro team member (or really a member of any team at all), I’m not a coach, just an amateur athlete. However, I spend a significant amount of time, effort, and money preparing and participating in OCR. This brings me to two reasons:
- Being German and a Nerd, I’m automatically a stickler for details and always looking for ways to improve and fine tune myself and my performance.
- Due to the sheer volume of races I do I also frequently receive questions about obstacles and training. My ultimate purpose is to better the life of others a little before I check out, so I was hoping this course would somehow help me to answer those questions better. If someone can finally complete an obstacles or overcome a fear in part because I was able to assist them in whatever insignificant way, then sign me up.
Here is what Spartan has to say about the SOS course on their SGX website about the “why” of this course:
“Spartan Obstacle Specialist (SOS) is a new obstacle-specific training course crafted by Spartan’s Director of Fitness and Director of Education. The first course of its kind, SOS is all about the obstacles.
In the one-day live course, you will learn the techniques needed to dominate Spartan Race obstacles. And you will uncover and learn how to overcome the often subtle weaknesses that cause big-time limitations on the race course. Fitness professional? Take this course and learn how to bring obstacle-specific training to your box, gym or studio.”
“Learn obstacle-specific techniques you need to dominate your next Spartan Race. This course is all about the obstacles. Pair it with the online Spartan SGX workshop to become a Spartan coach.”
I did sign up to pair the SOS with the SGX because I wanted to know what SGX is all about.
(Attention: Sarcasm follows) Maybe I should do a CrossFit Level 1 cert right after, so I can update my Instagram bio to “Coach”. If anyone wants to pay me $150 per hour to give you physical exercises until you puke, let me know. I’ll call it “Spartan X-Fit” and you will get a certificate of completion on glossy paper. While we’re at it, I’ll even issue patches at the end. You can tell everyone a former German Special Forces dude is your coach, too. Maybe I will get Oral IV to sponsor it and everyone has to wear elevation masks for the duration of the event. The pictures you can post on social media afterwards will look sick! (End of Sarcasm)
My point is: As a rule, I do not talk about things I have no idea about. So this is one more step to reduce the vast amount of Things-Fabian-does-not-know. Since I have done so many OCRs in the last 1.5 years (35+?), my perspective is not that of an average racer. That’s important to keep in mind, because as with every educational class, background, perspective, and expectations matter.
The SOS course by itself costs $395, if you combine it with an SGX online course the package comes out to $695. There is a 25% discount for first responders, students, recent graduates, and a few others.
While this is a pretty steep price tag for a 6hr class, there is more: They make you bring your own tennis ball, which will be used to cover the tip of your “spear” at the course. Since you’ll typically throw indoors against a wall or something like that. In my humble opinion: If people pay $395 for a 6 hour class, they can expect the host to invest $1 in a tennis ball… They did have to buy broom handles as spears and buckets, so why didn’t they buy tennis balls as well? I don’t care about spending another dollar, but I care about the time I need to spend on buying it. Not cool SGX people.
Audience & Location
Almost everyone was from out of town and traveled significant distances, one person even from Canada, to attend the course. From teenagers to housewives, from athletes to coaches, it was a very mixed group of people of all ages and sizes.
During introductions, we covered pretty much every possible motivation to attend the course you could have: Coming back from injury, coaching client, perfecting obstacle technique, improving from middle-of-the-pack to a better finish time, etc.
Rival Fitness was centrally located, close to a park and with space to do runs/carries outside to a nearby park. The facility was modern and clean, but also a bit small for our class of 14 people. Unfortunately there was also no real rope climb: Several ropes had been attached to monkey bars but those were too low to do anything more than just getting on the rope. There was no way to even perform a single pull upwards.
Matt “The Bear” Novakovich was our coach. He’s a Spartan Pro Team original and has been around for so long and performed so well that he doesn’t need any further introduction.
After a round of introductions he gave us his background to illustrate the evolution of an athlete and how the functional fitness that prepares you for OCR translates to other sports as well. One of the key things was that performing incline workouts on treadmills offer high intensity with very little impact which leads to great results with low risk.
He also stressed that people neglect to consider that “fitness” isn’t necessarily knocking out a WOD the fastest or with the most reps or the fastest 5k time. The example he used was, knock out 30 burpees and then run a 5k, or run a 5k and then do the WOD. The combination of these very different physically exhausting activities is what should be considered, which is what makes OCR such a great measure for overall fitness. Afterwards he also explained his nutrition strategy (basically gels, caffeine and snickers) and answered questions. Having the opportunity to simply chat with a Spartan Pro was definitely something very valuable to several people there. Admittedly, I was spoiled since the filming of the NBC Spartan TV show had me running around with those guys for a week (Heyyyyyy Ryan!) so I didn’t have really any open questions at that point.
Thankfully, Matt preferred a very hands-on and active way of teaching what’s in the Handbook (more on the handbook below). Instead of grinding through the pages and talking about how to climb over a wall etc. he explained and demonstrated the obstacle and then had us do it. In some cases he made suggestions and corrections. Personally, I did adjust the way I climb smaller walls a little due to his input.
Matt is also known for his spear throw practice and consistency of hitting this obstacle, even though it has an extremely low success rate across the board (elite and open racers). He suggested to throw the spear more like a dart, instead of throwing it in a fashion similar to a javelin. The difference is that the dart method only has a delicate and light hold on the spear, while the javelin method closes the whole hand around the spear. It is important to keep in mind the mixed audience of the course. While this might have helped people there, I had to remind myself that I very rarely miss my spear throw and therefore shouldn’t change what works for me. Ironically, one week later in Vegas my spear ripped through the bottom part of the hay…
I won’t detail all the exercises we did, since it all was pretty straight forward. We did an easy run and later a bucket carry outside, which also helped to make the course more engaging.
One thing I was later confused on: Matt mentioned readiness tests in the course, but the handbook doesn’t show any of these unfortunately. For example, if you can hold a dead hang for a minute, then your grip strength should be sufficient to make it through the Monkey Bars. For a coach, having this kind of readiness test for every obstacle as indicator of a client’s fitness would be good value I imagine.
The 59 page handbook is sent out as PDF file in advance, no printouts are made available at the course. On one hand I can see why no handouts are made available (smartphones/tablets are everywhere, going green, etc.), but on the other hand we all have to sign paper waivers at each and every Spartan Race which still seems wasteful to me and other races have moved on to electronically signed waivers a long time ago…
It breaks down obstacles into 5 categories, for example the Inverted Wall is classified as climbing obstacle and the Multi-Rig is classified as swinging/crawling obstacle. Each obstacle is further broken down into the individual steps it takes to overcome it as well as exercises which would prepare an athlete for them.
At the end of the handbook, there is an exercise index which details the execution of those exercises.
Depending on your level of athleticism or experience in coaching, you might find the handbook to be little more than superficial. There is no secret sauce, no insider knowledge, no “pro tips”. It is merely a collection of simple explanations and exercises. For some the brevity might be welcome, for others who expect more details this will disappoint. As usual, adjust your expectations.
For example, the description for the Balance Beam is basically: “Walk along the beam.”
I’m not kidding. No mention that you should look at a point further out on the beam instead of your own feet. No mention that a slight bend in your knees lowers your center of gravity and makes you more stable. No mention that your feet should ideally be in parallel with the beam, not pointing left or right off of the beam. No mention that merely standing on one foot or walking a slack line can train your balance.
But this is possibly just me and my higher or possibly misplaced expectations. However, if you include an obstacle in a handbook, you should provide some value to the reader. Telling someone to just walk does little to make them more proficient at overcoming this obstacle.
If you want to get an idea what the handbook looks like, go to this Spartan website and click on “Get Your Guide”:
The PDF you will receive is 15 pages which could be straight out of the handbook. I guess halfway through developing this guide somebody realized they can make money off of something as simple as this. I’m not judging, it’s just a bit…odd.
Value: Is it worth the $$$?
That depends on your expectations and your position.
Are you a coach and you feel like you are now better able to train you clients? Can you expect more business since you can advertise this Spartan certification? Did the course and handbook save you hours of research or even trial and error? Great.
Are you a beginner/intermediate athlete and want to get in touch with a pro athlete or SGX coach to improve your technique? Here you go, even though there are cheaper/free ways to do that online or at race venues.
Are you a seasoned OCR veteran, looking to squeeze out those extra seconds on obstacles or lower your risk of injury? Then this is probably not the right course for you.
Walking away from the course without a certificate or Delta piece in hand felt a bit unsatisfying. As always, this stuff doesn’t really matter. However, walking away empty handed and (for me personally) without very little real take away knowledge-wise, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Spartan couldn’t ship that stuff to Matt or the gym in advance? To clarify, I think Matt did a good job teaching the class, I’m just not happy with the course content itself. Had he not provided some information out of his personal experience with training, nutrition, and exercise, then I would have probably felt pretty ripped off. Once again, my expectations were apparently just misplaced.
So what does it mean, when somebody says they are a certified “Spartan Obstacle Specialist”?
Frankly, it means they were physically present and awake for the full duration of the course. Nothing more, nothing less. A coach might get additional perspective on how to get clients ready for an OCR, but I believe that actually doing a few races and research on the internet or simply talking to experienced racers could provide the same value. Beginner athletes might get some helpful pointers and receive a list of exercises that will help with obstacles.
The thing is, there is so much information available online, there is little theory you could only learn by attending SOS. Plenty of pro athletes have their own blogs, podcasts, Facebook athlete pages or write articles for sites like Obstacle Racing Media. If you do your research and aren’t afraid of simply talking to them at races or online, then you should get all the info you would ever need without paying for the SOS. If you need more guidance, I would recommend signing up for something like Yancy Camp or Dennis Welch’s Endurance Project (Disclaimer: I don’t have a coach and am not/was never signed up with either of them, but I have friends who swear on those programs).
Matt did talk about running and made it clear that it’s the highest priority for OCR. However, I have the feeling that the SGX program as a whole underemphasizes the importance of running in OCR. Every pro athlete will tell you that running is the one crucial skill that you can’t compensate for with obstacle technique or strength. Since I haven’t done the SGX course yet, I will hold off judgement on that. Since this course is about obstacles specifically, it wouldn’t be fair to hold a lack of running info against them.
Ultimately, I’m willing to admit my expectations were too high and I do not seem to be in the target group for the SOS course. I’m glad I did attend the course and I’m looking forward to SGX, simply because I’m a very curious person and always hope to find new nuggets of information that will make me a better athlete, friend, and person. The SOS wasn’t the right place for that but at least now I know.