Last year was filled with epic triumphs for hybrid athlete Terra Jackson. After enjoying an eight-year stint in obstacle course racing, which included more than 20 Spartan podium finishes, the American discovered hybrid strength/speed events such as DEKA FIT and HYROX, where competitors alternate between running and completing functional fitness stations for time. Within a year, Terra had set world record times in DEKA FIT and DEKA STRONG, notched up World Champion titles for both events, sealed a sixth-place finish at the Go Ruck Games, won HYROX Madrid and came 6th at the HYROX World Championships (with a few other podiums in between).
To find out more, Terra kindly let me quiz her on everything from her athletic background and training to why rest days are non-negotiable and how her move into hybrid events helped heal her relationship with food and over-training.
[TW: disordered eating is discussed]
You compete in DEKA and HYROX events – what’s the difference between the two?
DEKA FIT is more ‘all levels’ friendly. They have three different distances, from the DEKA STRONG, which has no running, to the DEKA FIT, which totals 5K. The [fitness] movements are adaptable, but you won’t be included in the leaderboards. As you get into the DEKA MILE and the DEKA FIT events, the event duration increases, so it’s more important to have a basic fitness level. The stations include weighted lunges, rowing, box stepovers, sit-ups, ski erg, farmers carry, assault bike, med ball over shoulder/wall, sled push/pull and ram burpees.
HYROX is a whole other beast. You do not want to go into a HYROX event without a decent fitness base. It involves 5 miles of running and 8 rigorous stations. It’s not for the faint of heart and will push even the fittest people to their limits! Stations include ski erg, heavy sled push, heavy sled pull, burpee broad jump, rowing, farmers carry, lunges, and wall balls. The stations take 3-4 times as long to complete as DEKA FIT. They are both heavier and have more repetitions. If you want to dip your toes into HYROX (which I highly recommend), Doubles is a great way to get started. You and a partner will run the entirety of the course together and divide the stations as you see fit.
If 5 miles of running seems like a lot to start with, there’s also a relay option where you and 3 friends divide the race between your team however you wish. Each person completes two runs and two stations. Each run must be performed before the station the person is completing. HYROX also offers the PFT (physical fitness test), which is similar to DEKA STRONG in that it’s performed in affiliate gyms and takes less time to complete than a normal event. Both events are great tests of strength, speed, endurance and grit!
You’ve had a great year with podiums, world record achievements and world championship titles – congratulations! How do you feel 2022 panned out?
It’s kind of weird for me to read this question back because this season was so surreal for me. Last year’s racing was like something out of a dream. I really focused on my goals, worked on myself outside of physical training (mental toughness, nutrition, recovery) and I think, most importantly, stopped holding myself back. I feel like I was able to really believe in myself as an athlete rather than feeling like I was in a sport that didn’t quite fit me. I’ve been an athlete my whole life and struggled with imposter syndrome, namely because I didn’t fit the body mould of a typical endurance athlete. Hybrid racing has really helped me embrace my body as an athlete’s body, and I’ve been able to kick a lot of the ideas around how a body needs to look to perform. The sport is new, and the level of competition is starting to rise as we introduce amazing ladies from different backgrounds to it. I’m excited for the sport and for myself to continue to grow and improve!
Rewinding, tell us about your background before DEKA FIT and HYROX and what prompted you to move into hybrid events?
I grew up in sports. I was very overweight as a child, despite playing sports year-round. In the summer leading into my 7th-grade year, I had to get a physical [screening] to continue to play sports for my school. At 11 years old, I was just over 180 pounds. I think that just shook me because between then and the start of track season, I lost nearly 80 pounds. I started running that spring and never stopped.
I ran through high school and got the opportunity to run track and cross country at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. At this time in my life, I was plagued with disordered eating (like many women in this sport) and struggled to see steady improvement, which I attributed to my weight. After college, I needed something to keep me competitive, so I happened across a local mud run, and I was hooked. I always preferred being on the trails to the road, so it seemed like a fun event that I could excel in. For the next 8 years, I was deep in the Spartan race scene, racing all over the United States, and in one of my last races competed in Abu Dhabi after being invited because of my participation in the Spartan games.
I think I always wanted to be part of a sport like HYROX/DEKA FIT, but nothing like these events existed. I knew my strength in OCR was really good, but over the years, the strength component seemed to fade, and I just wasn’t fast enough on the trails to compete anymore. So the idea of almost equal parts [speed and strength] really excited me.
Did hybrid racing come naturally to you, or were there elements you needed to work on?
Hybrid racing came naturally to me. I have decent foot speed and decent strength, and I think by putting them together, it creates an event I really excel at. Natural ability is a big part of the equation; once you have that, it’s about sharpening your craft. Some people think admitting to having natural ability takes away from their hard work, but in reality, no one exceptional gets there off hard work alone. There is a basic skill set that is innate; you need to compete at a high level that no level of hard work will be able to overcompensate. I know I’ll never be a 2:30 marathon runner – I’m practical, and that’s why I was excited to transfer over to a sport that better fit my natural abilities.
As for improvement in hybrid [sports], I noticed – surprisingly to me – that the strength [element] was killing me! I thought with my size, I would naturally be able to keep up, but it was an area I knew I needed to improve. But the capabilities were there. I am constantly on the numbers for myself and my competition to identify my strengths and deficits. This is one thing I really like about hybrid events; there are many facets to improve upon, multiple strategies, and different training methods. The sport is not only exciting to watch, but it’s exciting to train for.
How do you personally train to improve your racing speed whilst nailing the strength elements of events like DEKA FIT and HYROX?
I cycle my training, like most athletes. I can’t be race-ready all the time, and trying to be, I think, ultimately makes you race-ready none of the time. Coming off a big race like the HYROX world championships, I typically take two weeks off and really start to analyse performance and where I need to improve. For me, that was strength. So, after my two weeks off, I dedicated 12 weeks to a strength cycle where I went mainly into maintenance cardio – only running 3 days a week and no other cardio training. I was able to maintain my running very well. As I have a solid foundation, it’s not going to fade overnight, but I think I managed to hold all my running fitness off just two run workouts a week and a moderate-distance easy run.
After my strength phase, I went into an 8-week race-specific phase where I started putting it all back together. With my new strength, to my surprise, I didn’t feel like I missed much of the cardio. I was just a little rusty in station fluidity and machine work. I hammered the next 8 weeks, then tapered to prepare for DEKA World Champs and HYROX Madrid.
What about rest days?
Every week I take one day off completely, and I follow a typical 3-week on/ 1-week de-load cycle. I don’t think what I do is extraordinary, but the amount of discipline I have during important times is a big part of my success. I work when I need to work, I rest when I need to rest, and I don’t let other things influence my plan. Over-racing has been very detrimental to my performance in the past, so I’ve learned that just focusing on key races will yield the greatest success. Sometimes that’s hard to do, though! With so many fun things going on in the hybrid world, it’s easy to get caught up in racing for fun versus racing with a goal. Either is fine, but you have to curb your expectations if you’re going to race a lot and not follow a plan.
What does a typical week of training look like for you in race season?
My plan will change depending on what phase of training I’m in. Right now, I’m in a race-specific phase, so I’m in the thick of the rough stuff. I’ll have three strength maintenance sessions a week, 4-5 hybrid-specific compromised workouts, 1 row-specific workout, 1 ski-specific workout, 2 run workouts and a long run. All accumulating to about 12-15 hours a week. This seems to be the top-end my body will allow. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. I’m very body aware, and I don’t do workouts for the sake of doing workouts. I’m calculated and purposeful in everything I do in training, and I’m in the process of becoming equally mindful with my nutrition. I need a training plan and structure; with it, I don’t deviate. Without it, I run myself into a hole, trying to do too much. My goal is to train optimally, and that doesn’t mean as much as possible. I want to compete for the long haul, and my body has a lot of years ahead.
I take Thursday off every week. I try to de-load every 4th week, although that sometimes gets a little thrown off with racing. At the end of the race year (May), I’ll take off 10-14 days to physically and mentally regroup, and typically 5-7 days about halfway through my season. Non-negotiable. Additional rest days would be assessed after competition.
In one of your social posts, you mentioned that taking the emotion out of your training has helped you reach your goals. Can you elaborate?
I have worked on healing my relationship with both food and exercise a lot in the last 3 years. Part of my disordered eating/behaviour was overexercising to burn excess calories. I did a lot of workouts that didn’t serve a purpose other than burning calories. If I had a bad day, I would run. If I was stressed, I would work out. My program lacked structure and discipline. I didn’t allow myself to rest, went hard when I didn’t need to, and as a result, couldn’t go hard when it counted and constantly felt tired and burnt out.
I think the exercise portion of my disordered behaviour was the last part I fixed. I justified in my head that if I’m doing more, I want it more than anyone else, thinking that working harder and more is always equivalent to being better, and that’s just not the truth. My mindset has completely shifted into training optimally versus training as much as I possibly can. Don’t get me wrong, I train a lot, but every workout has a purpose and is working towards a goal. I don’t add more because I’m feeling good, I don’t skip recovery weeks because I feel as though I don’t need it, and I try to limit non-training-specific stress in my life. Part of being disciplined is knowing when you need to pull back and rest. Every athlete is different, but I feel like I have found what’s optimal for me and from there, I can make little tweaks to improve further.
You’ve also talked about the mental challenges you’ve faced during events. What do you do to ensure your head stays in the game?
I actually had a session with Addie Bracy (mental performance consultant), who works with athletes and their mental game. As I’ve said, I know the numbers for everyone, so when I felt like I wasn’t where I should be in the race in respect to the competition, I was mentally shutting down. I struggled with really bad pre-race anxieties that would start weeks before the competition. A little nerves are good, but the amount of stress and value I was putting on these races was unhealthy. There’s passion, and then there’s obsession. In the grand scheme of everything, one race is one race, and when you place so much value on an outcome that is in no way guaranteed, it’s ultimately not going to benefit your performance.
In workouts and races, I do a lot of chunking (segmenting), and with hybrid events, it’s easy – I work through one station at a time and stay present in the station I’m at. I take stock of where I’m at, I’m aware of where everyone else is, but I try to stick closely to my race plan until it’s time to really empty the tank, which is typically the last third of the race. I do everything possible to have a good race; all I need to do is show up and go.
Do you have any strategies or pre-race rituals for staying calm and focused on race day?
Honestly, not really. I’ve tried to get away from the ritualistic stuff before races because I feel like it was too heavily tied to my mental state. So if everything didn’t go according to plan, I was already not in a good place before even starting. But as for good practices, I like to try to get a little extra sleep race week, embrace the taper, avoid stressful situations, eat well and hydrate. But that being said, I ran my PR at HYROX Madrid, where nothing pre-race was normal. I spent several days on my feet enjoying my holiday and had very poor hydration (which is likely why I cramped so bad and was sore for 4 days!). In the past, I would take stock of all those factors and basically tell myself I wouldn’t have a good race, but now I’m able to not let factors I cannot control/didn’t control affect my mindset in the race.
What are your hopes and plans for 2023?
Well, I’m shifting my training to focus more on HYROX until May. It seems like it will work out that I’ll concentrate on Deka in the fall and HYROX in the spring, which is nice! My biggest goal is to work towards the HYROX World Championships in May. I’m hoping to move away from the amount I’m currently working to focus on training like a professional athlete, but I know that’s not entirely practical. Hopefully, building an online presence with my training will allow me to travel to more races and spend less time on my feet when not training. I’m going for the gold at Worlds, reaching for the stars! I am also travelling to the European and US championships, so I would like to have a top 3 finish in both of those.
What are your favourite items of kit for training, and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Right now, I religiously use Riverbend CBD for my recovery practices. I am a terrible sleeper, and this has helped me a lot with more regular sleep. I also just started working with PWR lift which is helping me get more protein in my diet without thinking about it too much. One of my major focuses for this next cycle is nutrition – I want to work on those 1% things to better improve my performance.
I am also sponsored by Myzone, which helps me monitor my training heart rate and keep my workouts at the appropriate intensity.
You can follow Terra’s training and competition via her social media: www.instagram.com/terranovatrainerr and www.facebook.com/terranovatrainer.