Obstacle Courses Take Running to the Next Level

February 2, 2018 Tommy Parrish, MS, ACSM-CCEP


If you're not daunted by a workout that includes challenges with names such as Goliath and Everest, have no problem getting muddy or jumping over a fire pit, and pushing yourself to physical and mental limits is your idea of a good time, then obstacle course racing is for you. But this grueling effort takes stamina, determination--and plenty of preparedness to ensure you're ready on race day.

These races, in which participants traverse an obstacle-filled course anywhere from 3 to 26 miles long, have grown in popularity since the sport's three major race presenters were founded—Warrior Dash in 2009, and Spartan Race and Tough Mudder in 2010. In 2015, about 4.5 million people entered an obstacle course race in the United States, according to USA Today.

"As marathons and half-marathons have become a fitness mainstay, obstacle course races are kind of a next-level opportunity for people to challenge themselves," says Tommy Parrish, MS, ACSM-CCEP, director of the Covenant LifeStyle Centre in Lubbock. "There is of course the physical element. Unlike marathons that are strictly running races, obstacle course events challenge stamina and whole-body fitness as racers try to climb rope walls, crawl under barbed wire and carry sandbags up hills, as well as run from obstacle to obstacle. There is also the mental test, as participants must find the fortitude to tackle each obstacle, telling themselves they can do it."

Because obstacle course races can be extra challenging, some extra training and preparation is a good idea, whether you are a novice or well-conditioned athlete in another sport. Parrish offers some suggestions to help you get ready.

  • Talk to your doctor. "These races require a great deal of physical effort, so before entering one you should ask your doctor about any possible risks, or precautions to take if you have any medical conditions," Parrish says.
  • Know what you are getting into. The websites for the major races have videos and descriptions of obstacles, so you can get a feel for the race; Spartan races have even been televised. There are also different course lengths; some are shorter 5K distances for beginners, while elite competitors can run longer races. And some races are noncompetitive, so if you don't want the pressure of a timed race, you have that option.
  • Hit the dirt. "For the running portion of your training, don't limit yourself to roads or sidewalks. Because obstacle course races are set on trails, you'll want to practice running on different types of terrain, such as grass, sand or dirt," Parrish says.
  • Train for the obstacles. "The major race organizations have a lot of training videos and advice on their websites to help you prepare for specific obstacles; you may even be able to find a trainer specializing in obstacle course races in your area to offer personalized coaching," Parrish says. When it comes to exercises that are helpful for these races, Parrish recommends a regular schedule of calisthenics. "Squats can help build leg strength to climb walls, while tricep dips, push-ups and pull-ups work the arms and chest in case you have to, say, lug a tire. Bear crawls can prepare you to climb under obstacles or through mud, and there are usually hills involved in these courses so don't forget to include those in training runs. These are body-weight exercises, so they can be done anywhere."
  • Take extra care of yourself. "You're asking a lot of your body, so make sure to eat a balanced diet of carbs, healthy fats and proteins for the fuel you need for training and racing," Parrish says. "Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night and build rest days into your training program, so your body has recovery time between workouts."
  • Dress for success on race day. You'll be getting wet and dirty, so skip the new shoes and fancy workout gear. Avoid baggy clothing and cotton and opt for fabrics that are quick-drying and hug the body. And don't forget a change of clothes, plus soap and a towel, so you can clean up after you cross the finish line.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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