Tough Mudder. Warrior Dash. Savage Race. Perhaps you’ve heard of these and other events called “obstacle runs.” Instead of a traditional road course, obstacle runs have all sorts of monkey wrenches thrown in—participants must jump over fire pits, navigate live electrical wires, swim through freezing cold water, ascend rope ladders, and engage in other challenges that sound like Marine Corps basic training, minus the screaming drill sergeant, and with beer at the end.
If it sounds like fun, it is. Obstacle runs have grown in popularity nationwide since they first hit the scene in 2009. The granddad of obstacle events, The Warrior Dash, has seen almost 750,000 participants in the three years they’ve been in existence. (Obstacle runs have grown in creativity, too: Witness the Bubble Run, in which participants are sprayed with soap bubbles and must navigate a pit filled with foam.) Maybe you’ve run one, or have that one friend who’s obsessed with them. You know, the one who constantly posts Instagram shots of herself, covered with mud, smiling, and sporting plastic Viking horns.
How to Train
But while obstacle runs can be a blast, they do require a bit of training. Being able to run a little over three miles (most are based on a 5K) isn’t enough. Obstacle runs are a tough combination of challenges to both your cardiovascular endurance and your strength—your body needs to adapt to utilizing both systems at the same time. You’ll need a lot of strength—especially core strength—to take on the various challenges the course will provide. Plan on training for about 10 weeks before your race. The more prepared you are, the more fun you’ll have—and the safer you’ll be.
The key is to incorporate full-body, motion-oriented maneuvers that will translate well to the live experience of an obstacle run. Try a mixture of the following:
Burpees: You’re not gonna like this, but burpees are a must. The evil little exercises are a one-stop shop for benefiting cardio, endurance, coordination, and strength. If you add a jump at the end, you’ll build an extra spring in your step for jumping obstacles. Begin in a squat positing with your hands on the floor in front of you. In a quick motion, kick your feet back into plank/pushup position. Don’t stop! As soon as your pushup position is achieved, quickly return to a squat, then jump as high as you can with your hands skyward. Do as many of these as possible in a row.
Bear Crawl: The Bear Crawl will increase your stability, really work your core, and improve your ability to move in the awkward positions required for wire crawls, mud crawls, and cargo net climbs. Get on your hands and knees. Dig your toes into the ground and lift your knees off the floor. Your body will be in a similar position to the top part of a push-up, but with your knees slightly bent and your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. Try to keep your rear end as low as possible. “Walk” by moving your right hand forward at the same time as you move your left foot forward, then move your left hand/right foot forward. Do this for 20 yards.
Squats/Frog Jumps: Squats are good, but frog jumps are better. A combo of the two is best for strengthening leg and butt muscles and prepping them for the hops and jumps required by obstacle racing. For the basic squat, stand with feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and your weight in your heels. Put your hands straight out and with palms facing the ground. Lower your butt toward the floor. Your hip and knee joints should be working—don’t bend at the waist. Make sure your spine remains straight and shoulders square. Squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then return to starting position. Do 10 to 15 reps.
For the basic frog jump, start in about a three-quarter squat position, with feet more than shoulder-width apart. Crouch down and then spring forward as far as you can. Try to land softly on the balls of your feet, and do not allow your knees to roll over the tops of your toes. As you land, simultaneously return to your three-quarter squat. Try to do about 10 of these in a row.
Run outside. When you are working on your cardiovascular fitness for an obstacle run, do your best to run outside. It’s especially good if you can run on trails. When you run on natural terrain (as opposed to a treadmill), your body must work to stabilize itself; in doing so, it strengthens areas like the ankles and knees. You’ll need that strength and stability when tackling obstacles like the cargo net. Even adding in a single day of outdoor cardio can help you be ready for the race. (I can attest to this. When I suffered a series of severe ankle injuries while playing college basketball, my physical therapist told me the best thing I could do to strengthen my ankle was trail-run and hike.)
Sprint/interval training is the best way to get ready for the starts and stops of an obstacle run. It provides a surefire boost for your cardiovascular endurance as well. If you are a beginner, or haven’t done any of this type of cardio in a long time, start slowly and build up. Try a classic 60-40-20 split: after warming up with at least two minutes of jogging, sprint 60 yards, walk back to your beginning point; sprint for 40 yards, walk back; sprint for 20 yards, and walk back. Rest for one minute, and then repeat. Work up to four reps.
Mix and Match. A good rule of thumb is to mix-and-match these elements throughout your training period to keep your body guessing and to prepare it for the twists and turns of an obstacle run. Try trail running for 45 minutes to an hour, stopping every 15 minutes to throw in a set of 10-15 pushups and 10-15 burpees. Or end your interval workout with a couple of 20-yard bear crawls. The variety will help your body prepare for the big race, and will keep you from getting bored with your workout.
Getting yourself in good shape has to be your number one priority before running any obstacle race. Since 2011, at least four people have died due to heat stroke or drowning in races like these. Several other people have been paralyzed, and three women sued after sustaining serious injuries from sliding down a tarp into a ravine during the Extreme K Mud Run. An April 2013 Outside Magazine article indicates these types of serious injuries are on the rise as the races gain in popularity.
Here are some guidelines to follow to decrease your risk of injury:
- Find out who is organizing the race. While some of the more established companies like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash have developed safety practices, smaller, one-off races have little or no safety oversight.
- Stay hydrated. Remember that dehydration can occur even in cooler temperatures and/or in races with a water/swimming element.
- Follow the footwear, gear, and clothing advice of race organizers.
- Do your research. Find out exactly what obstacles you will be tackling to make sure they are within your capabilities.
- Follow the rules of each obstacle, regardless of whether others are encouraging you to do otherwise. A Michigan man was paralyzed in one race when he dove head first into a mud pit, although the instructions indicated otherwise.
- If an obstacle looks chaotic or disorganized, take a step back, wait, and watch to figure out the best way to approach it.
- Finally: Don’t be afraid to opt out of an obstacle—or even the entire race—if something scares you or doesn’t feel right.
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.