Obstacle Course Racing

Over the last few years the craze of obstacle course racing (OCR) has swept the nation. The prevalence of events such as Spartan, Tough Guy and of course the monolithic Tough Mudder, have caused the jump of OCR from being a small fringe sport to worldwide movement.

Look around the start line of any big OCR now and you will see people of all shapes, sizes and abilities. At the front there are your die-hard athletes; these guys came here to compete, to smash the course and leave everyone else in their wake. Towards the back you’ll generally find the newer racers, the groups of people who signed up together for a laugh and generally a lot of nervous-looking people.

This is one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with OCR; none of these things matter. When I took part in my first race, a Tough Mudder, I didn’t even consider myself a runner, let alone a distance runner. I was strong, and my gymnastics background would help me through some of the obstacles but the thought of running 12 miles seemed ridiculous, and to be honest I’d got myself a bit worked up about it. However, despite a lot of grizzling and a whole load of cramp, I got through it, with the help of my team. The feeling at the end of an OCR is unlike anything I’d experienced before. You’re exhausted, muddy, bruised, usually bleeding from somewhere but you feel like a champion, even if you didn’t finish in a great time, every person that crosses that finish line feels invincible.

Since my first race I’ve been hooked; myself and my team have all become better runners and better racers. We’ve had triumphs, from finishing as one of the top teams in races to simply completing an obstacle many of us had failed on the previous year. We’ve also had a few struggles to overcome such as injuries mid-course, lost shoes in bogs and a lot of complaining about getting electrocuted.

So here’s my little guide on how to get the most out of an OCR, whether you’re a veteran, or just starting out.


Step 1: Choosing your battle
This is going to sound a little obvious, but put some thought into the race you are going to enter. Particularly if this is going to be your first race. The distance in course length can be vast – from 5km “sprints” to 20km+ events, and that’s just the more mainstream ones. Some races have introduced marathon-length courses. So if you’re currently struggling to run round the block, don’t go signing up for a half-marathon length Tough Mudder in two weeks’ time. Play a bit to your strengths. Also, decide if you’re going to run solo or as part of a team as both have their pros and cons.

As a solo runner it’s you against the world; you can go at your own pace, ease up or push on when you want to. Obstacles are also quicker as you do not have to wait for the others and can also dart quite quickly through packs of other runners. However, on some obstacles you may need to ask another competitor for a hand or a boost up. You also don’t have that support around you if you start flagging, when you’ll need someone to gee you up or say something funny to take your mind off how much your legs hurt.

There are two main types of team at OCRs – teams that split up on the course and teams that go round together. Team running together can be great; there’s camaraderie, a bit of banter, and as mentioned above, that extra push when you need it. Obstacles may take slightly longer but it’s worth it to have your mates cheer you on as you dangle from the monkey bars. However, as mentioned above as well, you’ll only ever be as fast as your slowest runner, and should one of you pick up a niggle or have to slow dramatically, this will have an impact on the rest.

The distance in course length can be vast. Some races have introduced marathon-length courses. So if you’re struggling to run round the block, don’t go signing up for a half-marathon length Tough Mudder in two weeks’ time.

Step 2: Self Assessment
Assess the length and demands of the race you have chosen. Examine your current level of fitness, including things such as current distance you can comfortably run, hill running (as course designers love to let nature hurt you) and your strength/bodyweight ratio. Identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can plan your training appropriately.

Step 3: Timing
If you’re already a pretty active runner or strength athlete, give yourself about 6-8 weeks of specific obstacle race training to prepare to take on the race. If you’re new to running or fitness in general, you’ll likely need 12-16+ weeks to train. The more training time you can put in beforehand, the more you will actually enjoy the race instead of going along to try and survive it.

Step 4: Running
Like it or not, you’re going to have to put some mileage in. These are predominantly running races after all, the other stuff is additional. Lack of running training will make the race infinitely harder. Make sure you train with a mixture of distance and shorter-paced interval runs though, as OCRs are broken up and not steady-state. Also, if you can, do some hill training. You will hate me at the time, but you’ll thank me when you’re on the course skipping past the other people wheezing and trudging slowly up some colossus of an incline.

Step 5: Strength Training
You don’t need to be a musclebound Superman to tackle the obstacles involved in these events, but it does help to have a good competency at bodyweight exercises. Exercises such as press-ups, pull-ups, squats, squat jumps, planks and travelling planks will all aid you well. A lot of races like to get you carrying things (such as logs, sandbags, buckets of gravel) or dragging things (tyres, cinder blocks) so anything you can do to prepare you for that will be a bonus too.

You don’t need to be a musclebound Superman to tackle the obstacles involved in these events, but it does help to have a good competency at bodyweight exercises.

Step 5: Fine Tuning
So your running is up to scratch and you’re feeling strong and fit, time to get you match sharp. OCR will test your agility, co-ordination, athleticism and your grit. Try adding in some activities such as climbing, bouldering or even learn some basic parkour.

Go to a local children’s park when empty or quiet and practice climbing, crawling under and jumping off things. Jumping off things is a really good thing to practice particularly towards the end of a training run. Get used to landing softly and with minimal impact, there’s few things worse than getting near the end of a race and damaging a ligament or tendon jumping off a wall and having to limp the rest of the way back.

Finally try some trail running. Run through natural terrain where you will have to avoid rocks, logs, jump over or run through streams. It also gives you a chance to try out any trail shoes you may have bought to run the race in and make sure they’ll be suitable.


Example Workout

Circuit training is a great way of preparing for an OCR, especially if you combine cardiovascular fitness and strength work in it. Here’s a basic workout that you can modify to your needs; this would be good for a shorter-distance OCR training session.

  • Warm-up (Gentle jog, jumping, lunging, arm swings and gentle stretches)
  • 10-15 minutes of easy running

Complete the following circuit 2-3 times, resting only as much as necessary:

  • Run 400-800 meters at about 5k race pace
  • Perform 10-20 bodyweight squats + 10-20 push-ups
  • Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
  • Perform 10-20 walking lunges + 1-minute plank
  • Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
  • Perform 2-8 pull-ups + 1-minute jump squats
  • Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
  • Perform 20-30 burpees
  • Finish with 15 minutes of easy running followed by dynamic stretching to help yourself cool down properly.

Start at the lower end of the numbers and build yourself up through the weeks. Adjust the running speed and distance to prepare you for the distance of your race. Try different exercises in between, anything you can think of to challenge you.

Race Day!
Do the warm up – most races now do a dedicated warm-up beforehand to gee you up and get the muscles working. These are great but don’t forget to stretch any problem areas you may have fully. If you have a particular warm-up routine you like doing, maybe chuck in a few of your own stretches to the group warm-up.

Safety First – Almost every obstacle will present you with some way of hurting yourself. Tackle obstacles slowly and carefully, especially obstacles that follow anything to do with water as they will be slippery. Listen to the marshals around the course and if you hurt yourself badly don’t try to be a hero and carry on. It’s not worth causing long term damage.

Enjoy yourself – These races are designed to test you, but also to be fun. Get involved in the chants/Hoorahs! at the beginning, cheer on and encourage others as you go round, give someone a hand over a wall. Leave everything on the course, OCR is a great way of seeing what your body is actually capable of; really push it and see what you can do! So grab some buddies (or not), pick a race, and put in some groundwork. Let’s get going!


Image Credits
COMCAM Sailors Take On Tough Mudder | taken from – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/5790667476/
Author: DVIDSHUB https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

mud swiming | taken from – https://www.flickr.com/photos/glennharper/6227179887/
Author: Glenn Harper https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/