by Nathan Oliver
For a lot of first-time racers, deciding to run a Spartan Race is an overwhelming undertaking. Thoughts race through your mind - “How long is the course?”, “How high are the climbs?”, “Can I do this?” A lack of experience makes it very difficult to reach decisions with any kind of confidence. One of the more difficult choices without that base of knowledge is, “What do I wear?” Luckily, deciding what to wear to your first Spartan Race is much easier than climbing that first massive hill.
The first, and most important note on clothing is to wear anything but cotton. Cotton is a horrible choice for any race where you’ll get wet and muddy. Cotton absorbs water, whether from the dunk wall or your sweat, and once cotton gets wet it takes forever to dry. You will carry that water for the rest of the race, and it will be cold and heavy; neither of which makes for a fun experience. Fortunately, most modern exercise apparel is made from synthetic blends that dry quickly. You will definitely appreciate that shortly after your first water encounter.
If you are researching what to wear to a Spartan Race, you probably haven’t bought specific OCR shoes yet. That’s okay. There is no rule that says you must get a new pair of shoes, especially when dipping your toes in the OCR waters (pun intended) for the first time. There are always several racers who show up in old tennis shoes. However, if you are shopping for gear that will help you manage the muddy and sometimes icy chaos rather than adding to it, you will find that OCR-specific shoes are the way to go.
In my experience, shoes are the one piece of equipment that really makes a difference. My first race was on a rainy, cold day in Temecula (later coined “Hellmecula” by the folks who raced it), and it was so muddy that people were going down the mountain trails on their butts. I was lucky enough to have an experienced racer as a friend, and he was kind enough to get me off on the right foot (ok - last pun, I promise).
My friend suggested a pair of Asics Runnegades, which were less than $50 at the time. I was extremely glad to have listened to him. While those racers rubbed their rear ends raw mud-sliding down the hills, I was able to stay upright, aided by the shoes’ huge lugs. Sadly, the Runnegades are discontinued; but with a little digging, I’m sure you can find a shoe that will work well without breaking the bank. So many OCR-specific shoes are available now that it’s only a matter of time before today’s $120 models go on sale to make room for the newest version. It’s hard to pony up another fifty dollars after spending a hundred plus on a race entry; but if there’s one place it’s important to invest for race day, it’s your feet. It is the only piece of equipment you’ll feel with every step.
Regardless of what kind of shoes you get, you should be looking for a few specific traits in an OCR shoe. Some of these will depend on your geographical location and in what season you are racing, but most shoes will cover the bases for new racers. The most important aspect is the fit. This is hard to judge when bargain shopping online. Whenever possible, try out the shoe beforehand. Sometimes this means visiting an outdoor outfitter and trying on the same brand, since many designs from the same company fit similarly. Otherwise, you should order shoes with plenty of time to find the perfect fit before your race.
The second most important element in an OCR shoe is the lugs. When you’re trudging through the muck, having nice long lugs can be a real benefit. Some racers find that long lugs make obstacles like the slip wall more difficult, but I’ve always found that having control on the trails outweighs any single obstacle. You will be doing a lot more running than anything else.
The third aspect of a shoe that you will want to be aware of is the way it drains. Some obstacles will require you to submerge you shoes, and some models don’t do a great job of allowing that water to escape. This is a common issue with trail-focused running shoes. A shoe’s drainage is difficult to judge without doing a test run, but most OCR shoe reviews will give you some idea of how well the shoe drains.
Everybody needs something to wear around their nether regions, so figuring out what kind of bottoms to race in is critical. A pair of compression shorts or pants makes a big difference. Compression reduces muscle fatigue, prevents strains and soreness, and promotes better muscle oxygenation (better blood flow) to your muscles. For the fellas, it also keeps your bits in place. In colder weather, a pair of good compression pants helps keep you warmer, especially after a water obstacle. Just like a wetsuit, compression pants retain a thin layer of water that your body will heat up and, in turn, will provide insulation.
There are racers that race solely in compression shorts, but for those of us who are a bit more modest, a pair of outer shorts is a nice addition. One of the benefits is that unlike most compression shorts and pants, they’ll come with pockets for your gels, chews and mustard packets. Just make sure the pockets are zippered or you’ll be hauling mud after the first Dunk Wall. A good pair of compression shorts/pants, like the ones made by 2XU, is usually worth the money, but when it comes to an outer layer, affordability is an important factor. You’ll be dragging them through the dirt and rocks; they’ll get snagged on barbed wire and caught on brambles. The TBMPOY Men's 7'' Quick Dry Athletic Shorts with Zipper Pockets are fantastic and are inexpensive enough that it won’t crush your soul when they inevitably get torn. MudGear also has Men’s Freestyle Shorts with zip pocket. They’re not compression shorts, but they have a firm and comfortable knit liner. Many racers cut the liner out to pair their Freestyle with MudGear’s Base Layer Boxer Brief.
There is no way I can mention MudGear without highlighting the product for which they’re best known. MudGear’s compression socks are fantastically snug, and they’re made of a heavy-duty material that you can use race after race. I still use socks that I purchased five years ago, and despite having put them through the ringer, they’re still in fantastic shape. If I had to recommend any one brand for any one piece of gear, it would be MudGear’s socks. Regardless of brand, compression is important for the reasons mentioned earlier, and a nice high sock will keep your shins and lower leg from scratches and cuts as you scramble through overgrown trails.
If you’re the kind of racer who likes to go shirtless, this choice is easy. For the rest of us, picking the right upper body clothing is an important decision. Even if you're built like a Hemsworth, The Rock, or Adonis, you are probably going to get plenty of scratches, scrapes and abrasions. So, it is important to pick a top that can handle the abuse.
There are always a lot of compression tops on the course. They’re great because they stay close to the body and away from snagging on barbed wire. MudGear makes a great fitted race jersey in short sleeve and sleeveless versions. However, tight fitting and compression tops do tend to accentuate a belly. If you are concerned about how you’ll look in race photos, it might behoove you to choose something a little looser like MudGear’s Loose Tech Tee. Just don’t venture into “baggy” territory. Picking your shirt off barbs or getting it snagged on a bucket is not fun.
Speaking of those race photos, remember that light colors are best for showing all the dirt and mud. Meanwhile, dark colors say, “I work hard and play even harder.”
Many racers appreciate sleeveless tops. Shoulder mobility is extremely important in a Spartan race and having a free range of motion on the climbing obstacles, especially the Multi-Rig, Twister, and Monkey Bars is crucial. Even your Spear Throw will benefit from having extra maneuverability, and it could be the difference between keeping you out of the penalty area and suffering through burpees.
On the other hand, some racers prefer having at least a base layer that protects their arms from harsh weather and even harsher obstacles. MudGear makes a Padded Arm Sleeve, which is a great piece of equipment to protect from scratches and bruises during walls and crawls. You might choose to only wear one on your predominant arm, giving you that Winter Soldier look.
Spartan is going to give you a headband with your racer number, so make sure to wear that; it is much easier to find your race photos that way. If it is a blisteringly cold day, you might opt for a headband underneath the Spartan one. Junk makes great headbands in a variety of styles and colors, from Miyagi-do to basic blue. Otherwise, the spartan headband is enough to show you mean business.
You may enjoy wearing headphones for training, but it is dangerous to wear them during a race. Missing the call of someone trying to pass you or a volunteer explaining the obstacle is inconsiderate, but not hearing the warning of someone falling from Twister is dangerous.
Keep these functional fashion tips in mind as you prepare to run your first Spartan Race. The clothes you choose to wear are important, but don’t get too hung up about finding the perfect gear. Your first race is going to be an experiment; and only an elite few will be vying for the podium. So, enjoy the race while taking notes of what worked and what didn’t. Continue that evolution until you find the gear that works best for you.
This article was provided by guest author, Nathan Oliver. Nathan has served on the Spartan Media Team, worked on the television program "Spartan: Team Challenge" for NBC, and has been a professional writer for 13+ years. Follow Nathan on Instagram, say "hi" when you see him at races, and reach out directly with future article ideas.