Some races might involve jumping through fire or scaling walls like a ninja, but no matter the course, you can expect to get down and dirty and make it through the miles with friends. Whether you’re a fitness newbie or a seasoned weekend warrior, follow these tips to get through your obstacle adventure safely — and with a smile on your face. Not only will you check a major goal off your list, you’ll have the muddy selfie to prove it.
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9 Training Tips for Your First Obstacle Course Race
1. Dress the part.
Leave the cotton T-shirts and baggy sweats at home. Chafing, water-logged shoes and the threat of scrapes and bruises are just par for the course. But you can minimize the not-so-fun stuff by wearing the right gear. “Breathable, sweat- and moisture-wicking clothes are essential,” says Kyle Railton, official Tough Mudder training coach. “These fabrics pull sweat away from your body and will dry quickly if you get wet — which you will.” Look for compression or tight-fitting clothes, as those will stay close to your body as you move and lower the odds of getting snagged. Julia Falamas, director of operations at Epic Hybrid Training in New York City (home to the Epic Obstacle Circuit class), suggests capris or full-length pants for an extra layer of protection, or fitted shorts and knee-high compression socks in warmer months.
For shoes, choose a pair you’re willing to part with (brand new running sneaks don’t belong here) as many races set up donation areas. Ones that have good grip, are lightweight and don’t retain water are your best bet. Finally, consider investing in fingerless gloves to help prevent rope burn and splinters, and a bandana to get a slightly less obnoxious amount of mud in your hair.
2. Treat training like race day.
Sadly, a few easy jogs in the park won’t quite cut it. The key is incorporating exercises that replicate what you’ll be doing on race day. “It’s best to prepare your body for anything, as race organizers are constantly changing the courses and adding new obstacles,” says Rebecca Golian, certified Elite Spartan Race competitor and director of Obstacle Course Race (OCR) training at Chelsea Piers in New York City. “There are staples that tend to be at every race in some form or another,” so you’ll want to incorporate those elements into your workouts. Two to three days a week, Golian suggests working pull-ups or hanging knee raises into your routine, which will come in handy for rope climbs. Another popular obstacle: scaling walls. To prep, Railton recommends zombie crawls: Lying face down, use your upper body to crawl across a smooth surface, such as a gym floor (as pictured above). Use your legs as little as possible, as a focus on upper-body work is key.
3. Be sure to balance.
Cardio and strength training are both called upon during an obstacle race, so each should be a focus in your race prep. If you’re a fitness rookie, Railton says you should get equal amounts, and pay extra attention to any deficiencies you might have. “Some people really need to work on their mobility and flexibility, while the next person requires a more intense strength training program,” says Golian. “Focus an extra day each week to working on your weaknesses, whether that’s strength training, cardio or mobility.”
4. Customize your cardio.
Put that marathon training log away — this isn’t the time for those long, steady-state runs. “Intervals are one of the most effective ways to hit your cardio goals,” says Railton. “By combining high and low intensity circuits, interspersed with periods of rest, you’re training your body for what [an obstacle race] will actually be like.” Think about it: It’s unlikely that you’ll be running for more than a mile in between obstacles (though this will vary based on the distance of your race), so you’ll want to mimic that experience. “Mixing in slow distance runs, short intense circuits — like sprinting hills or stairs — and trail work through hiking or trail running will prepare your body for the distance, the short bursts of power and the uneven terrain you’ll encounter,” explains Golian.
5. Variety is the spice of…training.
“There’s a misconception that conquering an obstacle course takes brute strength above all,” says Railton. “Strength helps, but that alone won’t get you to the top of Everest 2.0 or across Balls to the Wall, [two popular obstacles in Tough Mudder]. Agility, balance and understanding momentum are just as important.” To master those skills, get off the treadmill and out of the weight room. Exercises like ladder drills, cone sprints and box jumps all work muscles that aren’t typically called upon when logging cardio or strength training, says Liz Barnet, Mudderella training expert.
6. It’s OK to walk.
For many, completing the actual obstacles is the goal in these races. So don’t stress if walking in between obstacles is what gives you the energy to conquer them. “Many races aren’t timed and are more about the experience with your friends,” says Barnet. That said, do what feels right for you. “If your training has included a lot of distance running, go ahead and jog to that next obstacle,” adds Railton. “Feeling like you need to rest your legs? Walk it out.”
7. Off days are just as critical.
It’s easy to feel the need to go all-out every single day, but doing so can be more harmful than helpful. Each expert suggests a minimum of one to two rest days per week, but if you’re feeling pain — not soreness — during a workout, that’s a major sign you need to back off and recuperate more.
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“Two days before, start drinking a lot of water and focus on increasing your electrolytes intake.”
8. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
While half-marathons and marathons have numerous water stations, many obstacle races only have one — or sometimes none, explains Falamas. So toeing the start line hydrated is key. “Two days before, start drinking a lot of water and focus on increasing your electrolytes intake,” she says. “You don’t realize quite how much you lose when you sweat, and too many athletes cramp up. As a preventative measure, make sure that you’re hydrating really well.” Railton notes that most courses will provide some type of fuel, though, so check the website to see what will be available — GU, energy chews, etc. — and practice using it so you know how your stomach will react.
9. Try a different carb-load.
Big bowls of pasta or pizza pies are a typical pre-race dinner for those gearing up for an endurance event. While you definitely shouldn’t shy away from carbs — “they’re essential to replacing lost glycogen stores after intense workouts,” explains Barnet — that doesn’t mean you have to get the refined, white variety. Instead, she suggests foods like sweet potatoes, squash, beets, wild rice and quinoa for a nutrient-dense meal. On race morning, “eat something satiating enough that you won’t be worried about when you’ll get to have lunch, but that won’t weigh you down,” she says. “After all, you have obstacles to climb!”