Training so You Can Love Your First Obstacle Course Race
A complete guide to preparing and enjoying your first race for fun or competition
My first obstacle course didn’t turn out how I planned: I tore the ligaments in my knee in the first mile, then hopped for an agonizing 12 miles more. Not the smartest idea. Yet, since then, I’ve done 11 more courses in five different countries with 23 different teammates. From struggling to finish, I regularly end up in the top 10%.
I love the adrenaline rush from racing and the picturesque environments where races are often held. As odd as it may sound, I reach a state of tranquility amongst all the carnage. I’ve brought many friends to their first-ever races where they hate me at the starting line for convincing them to run. At the finish line, I have a smug grin as they ask when we can do another one.
Many people are put off by the most extreme obstacles they’ve seen, such as electric wires, tear gas tunnels, and ice baths. But the truth is, we live in a world where events require high health and safety standards. If there was any significant danger in the obstacles you see in these races, then they wouldn’t be there!
That’s part of the excitement: sure, you must train physically, but the mental side is the hardest. What follows is all the advice I give my friends to help prepare them. You may also feel a bit apprehensive as you approach the starting line, but I know you’ll also be grinning and happy when you’re given your medal at the end of your first obstacle race.
What Kind of Experience Are You Looking For?
For anyone outside of the obstacle course racing world, there seems to be only one logical reason people compete: they’re masochists.
In reality, there’s a huge variety of reasons why people participate in a race. You can go through the day with no pain at all if you choose to or push your body to its limit. The most important thing is that your effort matches your training and intention.
Here are some common reasons for doing an obstacle race:
- Physical challenge
- Mental challenge
- Charity fundraising
- Bonding with friends/colleagues
- Adrenaline seeking
- Snapping a picture for social media
- Improving fitness
- Feeling a sense of achievement
- To win
If you’re just running for a fun day out with some friends and to get a picture for Instagram, you don’t need to break yourself. You can take the course leisurely and soak up the atmosphere. But you’ll need to train harder and make more sacrifices if your time matters more to you. The worst thing to do would be to put yourself through the misery of extreme training when you don’t care about the time it takes you to complete the race.
Choose the Right Race
Now, hopefully, you haven’t already signed up for the aptly named Spartan Death Race after being inactive for the past ten years. There’s little point in targeting a race that’s well beyond your current capabilities. You won’t enjoy it and it may just dishearten you.
Take two races I’ve done:
- Wolf Run: The time on the course isn’t tracked and the course is only ten kilometers with mainly natural obstacles such as bogs and few hills. Most people running are in a large group, doing it for fun.
- Spartan Beast: Time is tracked and there are penalties for failing obstacles. The course is over 25 kilometers with constant hills and over 50 obstacles which rely heavily on full-body strength. Most runners are in small groups or running solo.
In the Wolf Run, I ran with several first-time runners who were of average fitness. It was the perfect race for them to start with, with less pressure and a fun vibe. For the Spartan Beast, I ran with one first-time runner who had run three marathons before that. Although it was his first obstacle course race, he had an extraordinarily high fitness level and I struggled to keep up.
To choose the right race, consider these variables:
- Distance: How much do you enjoy running? There are courses which are mainly running with a few obstacles and others which are the opposite. Beginner races can be thee kilometers or less and the most elite can be upwards of 50 kilometers.
- The difficulty of obstacles: Some races have obstacles that require true physical strength and agility whereas others are more for fun.
- Competitive or collaborative: Certain courses are designed so you need the support of others to get through. If you aim to bond with people then these may be a better bet for you. When you are competitive minded, you probably want to make sure the race is timed.
- Penalties: On the failure of an obstacle, you may need to do an extra task such as burpees or take a longer route. If you don’t think you’ll be in great physical condition, it’s a good idea to avoid races that enforce these rules.
- Cost: The bigger brand name companies will charge far more for their races. It’s not a cheap hobby and if you aren’t too serious, it’s better to choose a more budget-friendly alternative.
- Extras: I would be lying if I said I didn’t do some of my races because of the badass rewards. I almost exclusively wear finisher t-shirts to the gym these days!
For most races, the majority of the time on the course is spent running, jogging, or walking. This part doesn’t usually make people’s highlight reels so it’s easy to underestimate.
Because of long-term injuries, I struggle with long-distance running but the way to prepare for an obstacle course isn’t the same as a regular race. From training for the specific needs of a course, I’m can easily pass people who are faster in a road race.
A series of intervals
Generally, you’ll need to run for short sprints of a few hundred meters followed by a couple of minutes wait for an obstacle, the obstacle itself, then repeat. This means there’s always time to get your breath back and you don’t need to be able to run continuously for the length of the course in training. I’ve done races that are over 20km but never ran more than 5km in training.
Running long distances is useful for cardio but doesn’t prepare you for an obstacle course. There is rarely a stretch of several kilometers without an obstacle. It is much better to practice intervals with wait times between. This replicates the situation of waiting for an obstacle before going again. You want to get to the point where you are dreading the next interval then stop.
The important bit is to ensure your muscles don’t seize up in the gaps between runs. Try to keep some movement, I use the wait times to do extra dynamic stretching during the course and massage my legs.
Train for the surface
Most courses are in fields or forests where the ground is uneven and often slippery. This can be a nightmare for your ankles if you aren’t conscious of where your feet are landing. I did one race on an equestrian course where the holes created by the horses’ hooves led to sprained ankles galore.
The nature of the running surface means it takes more out of your legs than a simple road race. The best way to practice is to find an outdoor trail and practice there rather than the treadmill or the road. It allows your mind and body to become accustomed to the greater demands. Much of the challenge is mental as the worry of potential injury makes runners slow down.
Run with your eyes slightly ahead of you on the floor at all times. The brain has evolved over thousands of years for exactly these kinds of problems. It can take in the complexity of the surroundings and adjust your course without you even realizing it. Learning to trust your subconscious is something to be done before the race not during!
If you have a history of ankle injuries, wear supports, and pick the right trainers to suit you. It’s best to consult with a professional to assess if more measures are needed in your specific case.
Fast downhill, slow uphill
One secret that allowed me to improve my time is attacking downhill sections and being more conservative on uphills. As mentioned, our brains know what they are doing with calculating running routes. If you allow yourself to fly downhill, you’ll pass your more conservative competitors. You must train this beforehand so you are comfortable executing this in the race. It feels unnatural at first as we aren’t used to trusting our bodies in this way.
In races, uphill portions can have extreme inclines. Putting all your energy into these sections can leave you exhausted without having much to show for it. It’s far smarter to save your energy to attack the downhill. We have limited energy to use during a race even with drink and snack breaks so efficiency is key. You know your own body best and when you have any concerns about potential injuries, consult a medical professional.
Train with your teammates
If you are running with a team then train together. It’s fantastic for relationship building and you get a sense of each other’s abilities before the big day. One of the hardest aspects for the beginner is how to pace the race because it’s not the same as a normal run. The mental health benefits of running with a group are comparable to group therapy.
Understanding the style of the race you’ve signed up to is crucial to determine your strength training. Companies will have examples of obstacles on their website which can help you assess.
Good race providers will design their courses to require all-round functional fitness. The standout providers such as Toughest will give alternative options for obstacles. You could take on the normal monkey bars or the flying salmon where each monkey bar is several meters from the previous!
It all depends on your grip
Every course I’ve taken has required extensive grip strength. This is your bread and butter: if you can’t hang from an obstacle, you won’t progress. What I found in my first few races is my wrists could cruise through the early obstacles but would tighten up by the end and force me into penalty rounds.
Here are some key exercises to help:
- Dead hangs: Get a pull-up bar or a strong tree branch and just hang as long as you can. I can do over two minutes now which means I have peace of mind I won’t fall on many obstacles. My training trick was to always listen to the same song and close my eyes. Instead of focusing on a timer, I would try to reach further in the song than the day before.
- Towel pull-ups: If dead hangs feel comfortable, try throwing a towel over your bar and pulling yourself up by pulling on the towel from both sides. This is less stable than the bar forcing your grip to work harder. If this is too intense, try dead hangs with the towel grip instead.
- Train cold: Some course designers are sadists and will put a water obstacle before an obstacle which needs grip strength. The cold saps your grip strength making the hurdle harder to overcome. You can prepare for this by washing your hands in cold water before attempting dead hangs or towel pullups.
General useful exercises
Anyone who has a regular training regime will be at an advantage. Continue your existing program if it works for you and contains functional movements. Consult a professional to ensure your technique is perfect if there is any doubt.
If you are currently inactive or were focusing on hypertrophy, try including some of these exercises into your routine. It’s best to start with low reps and add more reps when you feel ready. Add a weighted vest to increase the difficulty when it gets too easy. When you’re ready try adding combinations of these exercises between sprints to mimic race conditions.
- Pull-ups: The most useful exercise for our purposes. If you struggle to do a single rep then try negatives where you jump up to the bar and slowly lower down. Here’s a complete guide to pull-ups on Better Humans.
- Farmer Carries: Get two equally weighted objects and hold one in each hand then walk with straight posture for as long as you can. Several farmer carries are likely in any longer race and they can drain you of energy if you aren’t used to it. Some sections can last for over five minutes so you want this to feel like second nature come race day.
- Box jumps: High walls are a staple of courses and explosive leg power reduces the amount of work your arms need to do. There are times when you’ll need to jump a large crossing such as Toughest’s Dragon Back. Part of the challenge is mental and trust in your leap can make the difference between nailing it and a near miss.
- Crawls: Most of us never need to crawl in our daily lives so a bit of practice beforehand can stop our body’s initial revulsion to the act.
- Lunges: Steep hills can punish your legs and make the running sections hellish. Lunges are a great way to train all the muscles involved in this process.
- Squats: The classic full-body exercise can enhance all the key lower body muscle groups you need throughout a race and increase your stability when carrying heavy objects.
- Deadlifts: Items in races can be deceptively heavy and strain your back if you aren’t careful. You don’t need to aim for world-beating weights in training but focus on your technique to minimize your injury risk.
- Dips: To lift yourself out of mud or water and over a wall, you’ll need to use your chest and triceps. The most useful style of dip is to lean your body weight slightly forward. If you are more advanced, try a single bar dip to better replicate the movements needed in the race.
- Burpees: These have always been a punishment in my life whether in physical education or for failing an obstacle. They may not be fun but they are great for building full-body strength.
My first few races were done in an amateur manner: I turned up in an old tracksuit and wore old sneakers and threw away the clothes after. My lack of knowledge sabotaged my performance as my clothing weighed me down and I slipped in the mud.
The right gear can make your race more pleasant but be honest with yourself. Don’t splash out on expensive kit when you don’t know if you’ll use it again.
Whenever there’s a water obstacle, normal clothing becomes heavy and slows you down until you can dry off. Compression clothing tends to be lightweight and doesn’t have this problem.
You may be required to crawl in the course so I strongly recommend long sleeves and covering the length of your legs. Sure, it looks cool if you have a six-pack to show off, but expect little sympathy if your flesh is covered in cuts afterward.
There is little evidence compression gear aids recovery or prevents injury despite claims by manufacturers. Anecdotally, the extra pressure on the muscles makes runners feel more supported but don’t base your decision on this.
If you care about your timings and are willing to spend money then trail shoes are a must. I feel like a god as I sail through a series of muddy hills whilst everyone else was falling face first. There are several brands with good options such as Salomon, Craft, and Inov-8. Ideally, you want a lightweight shoe with a solid build and enough protection on the sole for the jagged edges you’ll be running on.
Different racers have their preferences for gloves. I’ve done some races with them and some without. The key consideration is how much you’ve trained your grip and how calloused your hands are.
For those who regularly lift weights, you might already have callouses on your palms which helps protect the skin. New racers may have more delicate hands and find a bare skin grip that leads to cuts and abrasions.
Remember you have free will and no one can force you to do an obstacle. If you don’t feel comfortable, then don’t do it. Other racers and stewards can encourage you but this is well-intentioned.
I was terrified of one obstacle which was jumping from one platform to another. I got to the top in my first race and decided I couldn’t go through with it and do the penalty instead. Every time I’ve done the race since, I’ve completed the jump, but I don’t regret pulling out the first time as I wasn’t ready.
Set your boundaries and remember you can shift these at any time, based on your own needs and preferences. There is no need to be afraid, you are doing this race voluntarily! Try watching other racers do a troublesome obstacle and learn their tips and tricks. This can give you the confidence to have a try and visualize success rather than what could go wrong.
There’s a huge variety of innovative obstacles that I can’t cover in one guide. Below are some of the tricks I learned over the years that made me more effective and improved my race times.
Some courses have quicksand-like mud which freaked me out the first time I faced it. The trick is to stay calm and spread your weight out to put less pressure on the surface. To get out, you may need to position yourself horizontally and pull on a stable object outside of the mud.
Rope climb like a SEAL
It is possible to use sheer upper body strength to climb up the rope. I did this but I realized my back was on fire for the next few days after the race and sought a better way.
The technique I use now is the one taught by Navy SEALs. It involves trapping the rope in your feet with an under and over clinch. Cross one foot across the body and push the rope to the same side then use your other foot to secure your position. Then reach as high as you can and pull yourself up and regain the clinch. From here you can squat up and save your arms a lot of work.
Barbed wire roll
A regular obstacle is a barbed wire crawl, but there is a cheat. Instead of crawling, lay down flat on the ground and roll towards the end. Keep switching which way your head and feet face to avoid becoming too dizzy. This method is much faster than the traditional way and I’ve successfully used it to overtake other runners.
By far the most painful obstacle for me in the Spartan races is the Bucket Brigade. You need to carry a 30kg bucket of gravel for around half a kilometer up and downhills. It’s exhausting work and can come toward the end of a race when you’re already tired.
The grip is essential here. Bear hug the bucket and grab one wrist with the other for support. This position is much stronger than interlocking your fingers. When you need a rest, go down to one knee and balance the bucket there rather than going all the way to the floor. This saves the energy lost in the bottom part of the lift.
Build Up to the Big Day
Obstacle course races use your entire body and it’s important to be in your best condition. You don’t want your legs feeling like jelly because overtraining the day before.
My routine is to train at only 60–80% in the final week as I don’t want to take it too easy and lose the gains I’ve made. I find the intensity depends on the exercise but I avoid going close to failure. I work up a sweat and get the post-workout high.
I also start increasing the number of carbohydrates I’m taking on and tend to have a big pasta dinner the day before the race. It’s not an excuse to go overboard but you need some reserves of energy to use up especially in a longer race.
Check the route you will take and if there are any travel disruptions planned. The last thing you want is turning up late and rushing to the start line.
The fancier races tend to have race villages where you sign in. These have different stalls with health-related products and food vans. In my experience, the food vans are filthy cheat food. I always scan this and pick out what I’m going to eat after the race. When you’re wading through the mud, a dirty cheeseburger or five can be a great motivator. When your body is exhausted post-race, pretty much anything you eat will taste incredible.
I get there very early so I can relax before the race starts. I have a playlist of music to pump me up and feel unstoppable. For me, this is rap and British grime but you choose what gets your heart pumping. “The Eye of the Tiger” is a classic pre-race song.
Warm-up thoroughly before the race starts, focusing heavily on joint mobility especially the knees.
Usually, on race day, I will only have a banana and protein bar or two a couple of hours before the race. If you mistime a jump and slam your stomach onto a wooden pole, you’ll thank me for not eating much.
Secret tip: Put your sweets in a waterproof bag in your pocket. When you feel you can’t go on during the race, a little shot of sugar can give you the boost you need.
During the Race
The biggest newbie mistake I see is starting the race too fast. People run at the pace they would as if there weren’t obstacles and hills to contend with. It’s not uncommon for me to see the early frontrunners hobble over the line while I’m finishing cheeseburger number three.
The community of obstacle course runners is amazing. Early on, I had help from passing racers who gave me a lift or told me a better technique for doing an obstacle. I try to do the same in the races myself now. Remember at the end of the day this is supposed to be fun so if someone is injured find a steward and tell them. Don’t be that guy who is more concerned with finishing #12345 instead of #12346. When everyone looks out for each other then everyone is better off.
Being a classic type-A personality, when I started running, I counted how many obstacles I messed up. Yet keeping this number in my head while traversing the course puts me in an automatic negative frame of mind. I’d focus on the three I failed rather than the 30 I sailed through. Even if you only pass one obstacle, celebrate it, it’s more than you’ve done before.
Choose your position at the starting line carefully. If you are aiming for the best time possible then get ahead of the crowds. Stick to the middle or the back of the group when you aren’t as confident.
Congratulations! You did it and now you can tell all your friends and family. Ensure you stretch afterward and get into some clean warm clothes. Get some food in your belly too, you’ve earned it.
In the days after the race, you are likely to feel sore so take it easy with training and allow yourself proper recovery time. If you think you’ve picked up any injuries, get them checked out with a medical professional or physio as soon as you can.
Obstacle courses are designed to be tough but it doesn’t mean you need to hurt yourself or hate the experience. The critical lesson is to be self-aware and know when you are approaching your limits. Put your ego to the side and try to enjoy the experience!