Spartan Race. Warrior Dash. Tough Mudder. These names and more have become synonymous with Obstacle Race Training (ORT). They have exploded in popularity in the last several years and for good reason: it’s different! It’s not every day you get to run through the hills, dive through muddy waters, throw a “spear” at a target, climb monkey bars over ice cold water, and, just maybe, get a little electrical shock before you cross the finish line. It’s not for everyone but you’d think it was if you’ve ever attended one of these events. People come by the tens of thousands to participate or watch. Despite their popularity, very few people seem to “train” for obstacle race events, instead seeing them as a “let’s just go do it” type event. Big mistake.
Some of these events are very short (some as short as ¼ of a mile) while others are half a marathon. Yet, for some reason, people seem to train harder for a “5K Color Run” than an Obstacle Race. After participating in several of these events I can attest that you better train before showing up. The great part about registering for these events is the emails you receive telling you how to prep for the race. After reading through these emails I’ve concluded there are 3 major training requirements for nearly all Obstacle Races:
Running is going to be the easiest part. You just need to build up your long distance cardio. Very little sprinting is required but that relates to jumping (in the next session). You don’t need to run fast but you need to have the cardio capacity to keep going after climbing over an obstacle or carrying a heavy, wet 40lb sandbag. If you have access to trails I would take those for your long runs on the weekend. Perform shorter runs during the week and focus, not on distance, but on running quality. Everyone is different so I’m not going to tell you how to run. Different strokes for different folks. The only advice I will offer when it comes to your running is to work on taking light, fast steps. Why? Runners who increase their step count by 5% see a 20-25% reduction in joint pain. So, if you take 100 steps in 1 minute then you only need to increase your steps by 5. Small change, big benefit.
Here’s a sample running program to follow leading up to your Obstacle Race:
Day 1 (week day): 1-2 miles
Day 2 (week day): 3-5 miles
Day 3 (weekend): 6-8 miles (longer if competing in a Tough Mudder or Spartan Race) and try to perform this run on a trail instead of side walk
Last piece of advice on running; do NOT use a treadmill!
This might come across as the most difficult aspect of training because there are few facilities we you can train for the type of jumping you’ll perform at an Obstacle Race. Most of the jumping occurs when you reach and obstacle and you’re trying to jump into a climb. You won’t have to stand still and jump like a box jump exercise but that doesn’t mean performing those type of exercises won’t help. Plyometric/Explosive exercises require similar muscle groups and similar timing. Having a stronger lower body helps but have a powerful lower body is even better.
Remember, strength is how much weight you can move while power relates to how fast you move the weight. Here’s a list of the best exercises to help with your jumping obstacles:
- Box Jumps: These are great to help you get over your fear of jumping (yes, some people are afraid to take their feet off the ground). In addition, it’ll teach your body timing. The ability to jump is a combination of muscle strength and timing contractions of your muscles. Start with a low box to develop confidence and gradually work your way up. TAKE YOUR TIME! Performing 50 box jumps in a row is pointless (as well as a quick trip to the emergency room for a torn Achilles tendon).
- 2-Handed Kettlebell Swings (Russian Style): This is one of the best explosive exercises you can do with weights while not moving your feet. Proper swings will develop the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, low back) which relate to jumping power. Perform 10-15 reps in a set. Focus on heavier weights once you have proper mechanics on the swing
- Hang Power Cleans: The majority of the hip driving power for a jump doesn’t start at the ground in a deep squat but in a ¼ squat from standing. Picture a basketball player going for a dunk. They don’t go into a deep squat but a shallow squat/hinge position before leaping into the air. Hang power cleans do a great job replicating this movement. Like the kettlebell swing you’ll want to get your mechanics down for this movement before increasing the weight. Perform no more than 1-5 reps per set and take long breaks. The focus is on power, not cardio.
- Hurdle Jumps: You won’t need an actual hurdle but any object that you can jump over (not on). This will be the most dangerous of the exercises since you will be leaving the ground and possible trip over the object (hey, you have to fall to learn to get back up). I would strongly suggest finding an ORT facility (or Ninja Warrior facility) where they have padded mats and objects so you will reduce the likelihood of becoming injured. This will, arguably, be the most fun part of training.
Believe me when I say that you will be climbing, a lot. Everything from ropes to monkey bars will be in your path and you better have a strong upper body to handle it. Don’t worry; you always have the option to skip an obstacle but where is the fun in that? Plus, there’s always friendly fellow racers who help complete strangers get through obstacles, so you’re in good hands.
If you can’t perform a single pull-up then you’re in trouble. If this is you then follow the steps below before continuing onto the more advanced climbing options:
- Step 1: TRX Incline Rows (goal: 3 sets of 15 reps)
- Step 2: TRX Inverted Rows (goal: 3 sets of 10 reps)
- Step 3: Chin Hold (goal: 60 seconds) –> use a band to assist until you don’t need it
- Step 4: Negative Pull-Ups/Chin Ups (goal: 5 sets of 5 reps with 5 second negatives on each rep)
- Step 5: Band Pull-Ups/Chin Ups (goal: 5 sets of 5 reps) –> continue until you can perform this step with NO bands
For those of you who can already knock out a decent number of pull-ups, rotate these exercises into your training:
- Weighted Pull-Ups/Chin Ups
- Rope Climb (leg assisted/unassisted) –> many of the ropes you climb will be wet and muddy so train both with and without leg assistance
- Monkey Bar Swings
- One-Arm Bar Hangs (you better have a strong grip!)
That’s it! Keep the training fun and entertaining but challenge yourself. The race is far more enjoyable when you can keep up with your friends and get through the obstacles (instead of skipping them).
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!