7 Tips to Train for an Obstacle Race

Jake Miola

Jake Miola


Obstacle races continue to be the fastest-growing segment of endurance sports. This year more than 2 million people will climb walls and monkey bars, plunge into icy water, and crawl through mud at races such as Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Race.

Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena, a former Wall Street institutional broker who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in one year, believes obstacle racing isn’t a version of running but a new endurance sports category.

“We view it as a sport and we think that’s why this is exploding,” DeSena says. “When you look at what you’re doing—running, jumping, climbing, crawling, perhaps throwing a spear—it’s a far more natural sport than football, basketball, or baseball.”

Obstacle races require both strength and cardiovascular endurance, combining running with climbing ropes and walls, slithering under cargo nets and barbed wire, carrying sandbags and logs, leaping over fire, and crawling through claustrophobia-inducing tubes and freshly-dug tunnels.

Since many recreational athletes fall into two camps—distance-running enthusiasts and anaerobic strength training folks—they sometimes lack the overall fitness to navigate an obstacle course without walking parts of it.

Runners have no problem covering three to 15 miles, but can be slowed by the challenges. The gym rats push through the obstacles easily, but can have trouble running long distances.

Instead of training by breaking workouts into separate strength and cardio days, think of obstacle training in terms of integrated workouts. That way you’ll be prepared to fly through any obstacle course, no matter how twisted the challenges. Here’s how:

1. Warm your core.

An active warm-up such as the Core Performance Movement Prep routine is important before an obstacle race or training session since you’re using your entire body, often in ways you don’t expect. Front and side bridges, glute bridges, walking lunges, and lateral lunges not only prime you for movement, they’ll boost performance and help prevent injury.

2. Be a kid.

In an obstacle race you’ll be called upon to navigate monkey bars, balance on beams, climb walls, and traverse ropes. Chances are you can find all of those things at your local playground. This is a great excuse to play more with your kids. Don’t have kids? Borrow some nieces or nephews. No kids available? Head to the playground early in the morning before families arrive.

3. Choose your own adventure.

Safety is always the primary concern, of course. But there’s no reason you can’t run up and down that mountain of mulch available to the public at your local park. Those huge concrete culverts along your running trail waiting for installation? Why not bear-crawl through them as you will in a race? Instead of avoiding muddy trails after rain, embrace them.

4. Run off road.

Obstacle races take place off road. So why train on concrete or asphalt, which is harder on your body anyway? Even in urban areas, you usually can run on the grass along sidewalks, through parks, on gravel or packed sand, and along waterways. Challenge yourself to run as much as possible off road, leaping over sidewalks and other paved areas.

5. Run intervals.

You’re probably already doing this for your running program, but it becomes more important in obstacle racing, which combines intervals of running and obstacles. After a warm-up run, alternate between intervals of work and rest (e.g. three minutes of running at 80 percent followed by three minutes of walking or light running).

6. Run hills.

Unlike the steady, paved inclines of many road races or the run portion of most triathlons, obstacle races feature short, steep, off-road climbs. Here, too, your local park can be a perfect training ground. Sprint uphill and take twice the time to walk down. Repeat several times. Be sure to keep your stride compact to prevent hamstring pulls.

7. Mix it together.

Obstacle race training isn’t just about running, of course. Simulate the rhythms and challenges of a race by stopping every half mile to do a dozen push-ups, pull-ups, or burpees. You can perform 30 mountain climbers or bodyweight squats. Or do a combination of two or three exercises after each half mile. The key is to make it continuous, mimicking a non-stop obstacle race.

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