From the Tough Mudder Run to the Spartan Race, obstacle course style races are gaining traction at lightning speed and are more popular than ever before. Many people think of these races as an ultimate test of fitness which challenges all components of the body.
“Compete against yourself. #Challenge accepted” is what you will see if you log on to the Spartan Race website, and what a suiting motto it is. With varying degrees of distances and difficulties, there is a course there for any level Spartan. One thing is for sure, all of their races will challenge you and push you further than you thought you could go.
Some of my personal favourites include ‘The barbed wire crawl’, where you crawl commando-style through mud whilst barbed wire dangles closely overhead–don’t look up now! The ‘slippery wall’ which sees you try to scramble up a 45 degree wall covered in soap and water; and finally, my favourite, ‘The spear throw’, in my opinion, has to be done whilst shouting “I am Sparta!” at the top of your voice!
As you can see from the Spartan Race, crawling, climbing and throwing things around are to be expected, so if you are currently thinking about competing in any of the obstacle races out there it can be difficult to know how to properly train for them. That being said, let’s take a look at how to prepare yourself in order to dominate any obstacle race you compete in:
Whilst an obstacle course requires you to be able to complete a large number of challenges, you will spend a lot of time running from one obstacle to the next. In most cases you will have to run approximately 5 miles, maybe more, so bare that in mind when planning your training sessions and realise that it’s very important that your cardiovascular conditioning is up to scratch before the race.
Whatever you do, do not underestimate this aspect of the race, because your endurance can make or break the final outcome of your race. In fact, endurance should be your utmost focus when training for a race like this.
Obstacle courses are also run on uneven ground and on a variety of different terrains. In order to prepare yourself for these types of conditions you need to be able to run freely on uneven surfaces. Ditch the treadmill and get outside! Find a local hiking trail and start running. Start out small, 1 or 2 miles at a time, and try to add distance or speed every time you train.
Many of the obstacles found on the course will require you to shift your body weight. High walls, monkey bars and rope swings are a few of the challenges that will test your body strength. Strip back the weight training to the basics. You want to be performing functional training, which means performing exercises that mimic real life movements. Exercises such as deadlifts, squats and power cleans are all functional type exercises, and the strength you build from them will give you a great advantage on the course.
Grip strength is another thing that you should work on. Most, if not all of these obstacles will require the use of your grip. Swinging on monkey bars, climbing ropes and pulling yourself over high walls are all examples of obstacles that will certainly test your grip endurance. To train your grip make sure you perform lots of pull ups and exercises with bars. Use lots of variations of grip to really target all the muscles in the wrists and forearms. One way you can directly train just your grip is to place a dumbbell between your legs, or use a weight chain belt, and hang from a bar for as long as possible. Your forearms will be burning after a couple of minutes!
Speaking of pull-ups, you need to start doing a lot. Make sure you are doing them at least every other day. You also need to start doing lots of push-ups, burpees and dips. In fact, any kind of exercise that requires you to lift your body weight. If you can only do a few push-ups at first, then do them every day, or every other day, and try to add a couple each time.
If you are struggling to complete a pull-up, there are a couple of training methods you can use to quickly get you strong enough to do them. The first thing you should try is using an assisted pull-up machine or lat pull-down machine and building your strength up slowly. Another way in which you can build up to a pull-up is by starting with negatives. In order to perform a negative, you start in the contracted part of the exercise (the point in which you would have pulled yourself up), then lower yourself down as slowly as you can. The best way to get into the top part of the movement is literally to hold the bar and jump up to it. Practice this until you have enough strength to complete one full pull-up, and then try adding negatives until you can perform more. In fact, according to the Ideal Fitness Journal, this type of eccentric training creates a greater force on the muscle with less energy expenditure due to the “decreased rate of cross-bridge muscle detachments.” This results in a muscle response with significant strength, size and power improvements.
But I digress slightly, the important point I am trying to make here is that if you have enough strength to lift your body weight over and over again, you should have enough strength to complete the obstacles without any issues.
Agility and Balance Training
An often overlooked part of an obstacle course is agility and balance. There are hurdles, rocks and mud-pits that you will need to jump over, while keeping your balance. When you are doing your training make sure you implement Jump Squats, Calf Raises, and High Knees. In addition, practice jumping and landing, this will help strengthen the tendons in your ankle and knee joints which will help you avoid injury and instability.
A study conducted by the Journal of Athletic Training points out that “Clinically, balance training is an effective intervention to improve static postural sway and dynamic balance in both athletes and non-athletes.” The study goes on to conclude that “… balance training can be effective for postural and neuromuscular control improvements.”2
A good tip to improve your balance is to try using a wobble board and stability ball to perform some exercises such as bodyweight squats. They are great little inventions that can really test your balance, and they will help you strengthen your core and get full control of your body. In fact, a trial conducted by the Canadian Medical Association Journal which looked at the effectiveness of balance training for the prevention of sports related injuries concluded that “Balance training using a wobble board is effective in improving static and dynamic balance and reducing sports-related injuries among healthy adolescents.”3
So hop on that wobble board!
This can be a tricky one as the obstacles you find in these races really are one of a kind, and it is near impossible to replicate some of them yourself. That being said, there are some obstacles that you can prepare for without needing any equipment.
Crawling, for example, is a skill that is required in almost all of these races (more often than not with some kind of barbed wire or fire hanging overhead) so make sure you are good at it. Get down super flat to the floor. That means legs, hips and elbows all down on the ground. Keep your knees as close to the ground as you can, and bring one of your legs forward whilst simultaneously bringing the opposite elbow forward. Now use that leg and elbow to drive your body forward, and repeat with the other side.
Get yourself outside and in a park! You should look at a park as a mini obstacle–you will be surprised with how many different exercises you can do with some of the climbing frames, the possibilities are endless. Most parks will at least have monkey bars so you can practice your swinging and climbing. Just be sure not to kick the poor kids out so you can train.
Bringing It All Together
When it comes to training for an obstacle race, you need to make sure that you implement different types of training because your body will be challenged in many different ways. Try to implement a combination of exercises that work your strength, stamina, balance and agility.
Mix up your workouts and try to imitate some of the obstacles that will be found in the race as best you can. Challenge yourself in each workout and always strive for progress.
Remember that obstacle courses are not only about physical capabilities but also mental endurance and strength. Make sure you invest some time in preparing yourself psychologically for the race as there will be times that your mental strength will pull your body through!
And most importantly, enjoy yourself. These races are not only meant to be tough on the body and mind but should be fun for you and your friends.
- Bubbico, Aaron and Kravitz, Len, Ph.D, October 2010 “Eccentric Training”, Idea Fitness Journal, Volume 7, Number 10.
- Astrid Zech, PhD,* Markus Hübscher, PhD,† Lutz Vogt, PhD,† Winfried Banzer, MD, PhD,† Frank Hänsel, PhD,‡ and Klaus Pfeifer, PhD, Aug 2010 “Balance Training for Neuromuscular Control and Performance Enhancement: A Systematic Review”, J Athl Train. 2010 Jul-Aug; 45(4): 392–403.
- Carolyn A. Emery, J. David Cassidy, Terry P. Klassen, Rhonda J. Rosychuk, Brian H. Rowe, “Effectiveness of a home-based balance-training program in reducing sports-related injuries among healthy adolescents: a cluster randomized controlled trial”, CMAJ March 15, 2005 vol. 172 no. 6 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1040805