[Premium Content] The Ultimate Everyday Athlete’s Guide To Obstacle Course Racing
Extreme endurance athlete Kate Solovieva helps you prepare for the exhilarating world of obstacle racing.
Spartan Race. Tough Mudder. Warrior Dash. Savage Race. Obstacle races have exploded in the last five years, and I would wager that either you or someone you know has been thinking about participating. Do you want a taste of the sport? Or do you want to go all in? Do not be intimidated by the chiseled muscles on the race flyers or by the militant screams of “Aroo!”—there are plenty of different types of obstacle races out there for everyone.
The race distances will vary from a very manageable 5K to a brutal full-marathon distance. Some events carry more of a competitive spirit with chipped times, total rankings and penalties for skipped obstacles. Others encourage team spirit, costumes, and mud. Whichever you choose, your first obstacle race can either be a fun and challenging day in the sun or a really painful experience with a high risk of injury. Proper training will ensure the former and avoid the latter.
Obstacle racing is a hybrid sport: it’s CrossFit meets endurance sports meets adventure racing. As far as preparation goes, you need to have both the physical and the psychological aspects of training covered. With physical training for an obstacle race, there are two main components—cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength. Of the two, cardio is king, especially for longer distances. In general, runners lacking strength will do better than weightlifters lacking cardio. Ideally, by race day you should be able to, at the very least, run the distance of the race comfortably.Obstacle racing is a hybrid sport: it’s CrossFit meets endurance sports meets adventure racing.Click To Tweet
One way to do that is to pick a training plan aiming for a specific race distance and stick to it. For example, if you have a 5K mud run coming up, you can follow a running program like Couch to 5K. The faster you are, the easier the race logistics become. If you are walking the whole thing, you may be out on the course for hours. Just keep in mind that it’s that much harder to be in the sun for an extended period of time, let alone without proper food and hydration. Speed pays on the obstacle course again and again.
In the months and weeks before the race, aim to run two to three times a week, incorporating some intervals or hills as well as one long run into your schedule. Get outside! Most obstacle races take place on trails, so match the terrain of your training with the terrain of the event. Include a body weight circuit at the beginning and at the end of your run. Or stop and do burpees after every mile you run (this will come in especially handy if you are doing a Spartan Race).
While strength is really important, being able to bench press a million pounds is not going to do you any good in an obstacle race. Your focus should be functional body strength in relation to your size and weight. Learn to maneuver your body weight up, over and around various barriers (jump over rocks, crawl on the ground, climb trees. Focus your training on compound movements that include multiple muscle groups. For example, work on lifting/ transporting asymmetrical objects. Know your weaknesses and incorporate skill training into your routine. If you know you have trouble with monkey bars, find the nearest playground and practice.Being able to bench press a million pounds is not going to do you any good in an obstacle race.Click To Tweet
What about the psychological training? Many races play on our fears (Tough Mudder, I’m looking at you!). Are you afraid of the cold? The dark? Tight spaces? Heights? Chances are there is an obstacle that will cause your knees to shake. It will be to your advantage to consider what your fears are and devise a strategy to face them head on. For example, many are intimidated by the ice bath obstacle because it’s so intense. If you have trouble with the cold or you want to know what to expect, fill a bathtub with really cold water, dump in a few bags of ice and submerge yourself completely. See how it feels. This will give you an idea of what you are in for.
And most importantly, the week before the race is not the time to experiment—with anything: shoes, protein shakes, energy gels, a new yoga instructor and definitely not a special diet. This rule trumps all the other rules. Your endurance training is done. Your strength training is done. You are done.
There is nothing left to gain this week that you do not already have. Trying to squeeze in a couple of long runs before the race will only result in you being exhausted at the start line. One to two days before the race, focus on active recovery, such as hiking, cycling or rowing. Try going for a 15 to 20-minute tempo run or do a short interval session the day before the race to keep the legs moving.
Pack your bag for the event. Print out and sign your race waiver. When it comes to obstacle racing attire, tight is right. Baggy T-shirts and soccer shorts may be super comfortable while dry, but will quickly drag you down when wet and covered in mud. Think fitted Dri-fit T-shirt or tank. Short shorts work, but you may appreciate a longer pant, as it provides better protection for skin during mud crawls.
Don’t forget your ID, some garbage bags for your dirty gear, a clean set of everything (yes, even underwear, socks and shoes), and a bit of cash for incidental expenses like parking or coffee (the vendors at the venue do not take plastic). It can be helpful to pack a meal or snacks for after the race.
On race day, undoubtedly you will be up bright and early. I would suggest eating breakfast only if you are up four hours prior to race time so that you have time to digest. Lean protein and vegetables work well (think scrambled eggs with tomatoes and spinach). Slow-digesting carbohydrates with some fat is another option (try a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and banana).
There are often crowds of people at the race venue all trying to park at the same time. Save yourself the headache and show up early. Wear sunscreen. It sounds obvious, but it tends to be forgotten among so many other things. Don’t forget the lips—I burned mine in a racing season and the skin peeled for days. Sexy.
While you may get away with no food or hydration for shorter events, I would suggest carrying both water and fuel for anything longer than an hour. “Hitting the wall” is largely due to under- fuelling. Think quick sugar, energy gels or dried fruit.
As for the race itself, do your best at every obstacle, then move on. I like the Three Rule for the obstacles that pose a challenge: I try to complete an obstacle three times, then I go on to the next one. Keep a steady pace. I love the advice of ultra runners: Walk up the hill, jog the flat, run the downhill. Just keep moving. Long breaks will only make starting up again more difficult.
Often times we put all of our focus and planning into the race itself and forget about recovery. A lackadaisical approach to recovery (e.g., not aiming to get more sleep, not dialing in the nutrition, taking complete rest) can significantly prolong your recovery time. In the week after your race, aim to get some movement in as soon as possible.
Focus on walking or hiking, preferably outdoors. This will decrease soreness and accelerate recovery. If you do yoga, simply moving through a gentle flow will do wonders. The key is to avoid vigorous classes; you want recovery, not a boot camp. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Hit your pillow a bit earlier than usual—this is the super ninja weapon of recovery.
And, of course, most importantly, have fun!