America is falling in love with a new species of recreational sport: the obstacle-course race. If you haven’t participated in one yourself, you may have seen your friends’ photos featuring participants trudging through knee-deep swamps, scaling 12-foot walls, and slithering through frigid water beneath a canopy of electric wires — often dressed in silly costumes and always completely covered in mud.
Since the Warrior Dash series debuted in 2009, the genre has exploded. In the beginning, there were just a couple thousand participants across the United States. Last year, though, about 1.25 million people participated in a Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash. That’s not including Spartan Races or the hundreds of lesser known races that have popped up in the past couple of years.
“These events are getting work colleagues — who might not have done this by themselves — off the couch,” says Pete Williams, NASM-CPT, an obstacle racer, personal trainer, and author of Obstacle Fit. “There’s no question that putting a photo of yourself covered in mud on Facebook is the new thing.”
Bragging rights aside, the most compelling reason to tackle an obstacle race remains the sport itself, says Williams.
The physicality required to navigate the course mimics the functional, whole-body movements made by our ancestors thousands of years ago: natural movements such as running, balancing, crawling, jumping, climbing, and carrying. “Obstacle-course racing is the perfect marriage of strength and endurance in a competition,” says Williams. In addition, participants need explosive power, stability, and psychological stamina.
For this reason, according to Williams, a good training program should focus on these elements:
- Improving core strength and mobility
- Building strength and stability across the hips, midsection, and shoulders
- Developing explosive movements, such as jumping and leaping
- Increasing endurance
- Creating seamless transitions between obstacles
In sum, says Williams, “Your goal should be the ability to launch yourself over a wall and, in one fluid motion, start running again.”
Williams designed the following workout, modified from his Obstacle Fit training program (www.obstaclefit.com), to incorporate each of the elements listed above. Practice this routine twice a week for six weeks, and you’ll be ready to rock your first (or next) obstacle-course event.
You’ll need plenty of space to run, a set of monkey bars, a park bench or other elevated surface, and a narrow curb or other makeshift balance beam.
Start with a dynamic warm-up, then repeat the sequence of exercises below until you reach 40 minutes. If you are training for a race longer than four miles, complete this workout according to the chart below.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor, toes pointed forward.
- Press your heels into the ground, squeeze your glutes, and raise your hips as high as possible. Only your shoulders and feet should remain on the ground. Hold for two seconds.
- Lower your hips toward the floor without touching it.
- Repeat 12 times.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees softly bent. Bend over to place your hands on the ground, directly in front of your toes, keeping your legs as straight as possible.
- Keeping your legs straight and your belly button drawn in, walk your hands forward into a plank position, with your hands directly below your shoulders. Hold for two seconds.
- Walk your hands back to your toes and slowly rise to standing.
- Repeat six times.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes facing forward. Take a wide step to the right keeping your toes pointed straight and your feet flat.
- Keeping your left leg straight, push your right hip back and lower into a squat on your right side. Keep your right foot, knee, and hip aligned and your weight in the heel of your right foot. Pause for two seconds.
- Push off your right foot to return to the starting position.
- Repeat 12 times. Then switch sides.
Backward lunge with twist
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes facing forward. Step your right foot backward into a lunge.
- Arch your back slightly while twisting your torso to the left and while reaching your right hand up.
- Push off your left foot to return to standing.
- Alternate sides for a total of 12 repetitions on each side.
1. Run 400 meters
400 meters = one lap around a track or about one-quarter mile. (Intensity: a challenging sprint, at a max 8 on a 1–10 scale.)
2. Middle blockers
Develops explosive power for leaping up andover obstacles.
1. Stand with feet at shoulder width. Squat by pushing your hips back and bending your knees so that your thighs are parallel to the ground. At the same time, swing your arms backward.
2. Jump vertically by extending your ankles, knees, and hips in a straight line, while swinging your arms forward and upward. Reach as high as possible, as if trying to block a volleyball.
3. Land on your forefeet, then heels, with knees bent.
4. Repeat 20 times.
3. Pushup burpees
Builds full-body strength, power, and endurance.
1. Start in a squat position and place your hands on the ground. Jump your feet back into a plank position. Keep your core engaged and avoid arching your back.
2. Perform a pushup.
3. Jump your feet forward toward your hands to return to a squat position. Immediately jump as high as you can while swinging your arms over your head.
4. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
4. Run 400 meters
(Intensity: a challenging sprint, at a max 8 on a 1–10 exertion scale.)
5. Monkey bars
Develops upper-body strength and technique required to traverse monkey bars and rings.
1. Start with two hands on the first bar in a dead hang. (Opt for gloves if you’re worried about blisters.) From this position, reach one arm forward to the next bar.
2. Swing your hips forward to generate momentum. Your hips will then swing backward and forward again. As you begin your next swing forward, reach your trailing arm ahead and grab hold of the next bar.
3. As soon as your trailing hand becomes the lead hand, let your body swing backward and forward again. Use the momentum to reach your trailing arm to the next bar.
4. Repeat for 10 rungs.
Note: If you do not have access to monkey bars, substitute pull-ups (to failure) for this exercise.
6. Park-bench routine
Builds upper-body and core strength as well as shoulder stability, which helps you pull yourself up and over obstacles.
Alternate bench pushups and bench dips for sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2 repetitions.
Bench pushups (12, 8, 4)
1. Start by facing a park bench or other elevated surface. Place your hands on the bench, slightly wider than your chest, and step your feet back into a plank position.
2. Keeping your weight on the thumb sides of your palms, bend at your elbows. Keep your body in a straight line and your elbows at a 45-degree angle relative to your chest.
3. Press your hands into the bench and extend your elbows to rise to the starting position.
Bench dips (10, 6, 2)
1. Face away from a park bench or other elevated surface. Place your hands behind you on the edge of the bench, with your palms down and fingers facing forward. Keep arms straight and chest open.
2. Step your feet forward and away from the bench. Straighten your legs so that your weight is resting on your heels and the palms of your hands.
3. Bend at your elbows to lower your body toward the ground, with triceps parallel to the ground, keeping your butt close to the bench and your chest open.
4. Press your palms down and extend your elbows to rise to the starting position.
7. Run 400 meters
(Intensity: a challenging sprint, at a max 8 on a 1–10 exertion scale.)
8. Front plank with contralateral reach
Develops core strength and improves mobility and stability in shoulders and hips, which helps with crawling and climbing.
1. Start in a plank position on your forearms, with your shoulders directly above your elbows, your entire body forming a straight line from head to toes.
2. Reach your left arm forward while lifting your right leg off the ground. Focus on keeping your hips level. Note: If this is too challenging, extend one limb at a time, going clockwise: left leg, left arm, right arm, right leg.
3. Return your left arm and right leg to the ground. Then reach your right arm and lift your left leg.
4. Alternate lifting your left arm/right leg and right arm/left leg for one minute.
9. Balance beam
Develops skills necessary for balancing obstacles.
1. Find a narrow surface (no wider than 4 inches) similar to a balance beam. Step onto the “beam,” putting one foot directly in front of the other. Engage your abs and keep your shoulders back and down.
2. Transfer your weight to your front foot, making sure to engage your glutes. Slowly step your back foot forward while keeping your abs tight and knees softly bent. Keep your arms close to your body.
3. As you place your new lead foot on the beam, distribute your weight evenly between both feet. Once you feel stable, continue walking forward in this manner.
4. Repeat for 20 feet (one set). Perform 10 sets.
Avid obstacle racer Pete Williams, creator of the Obstacle Fit program (www.obstaclefit.com), offers this advice on what to wear and bring to an event.
Nutrition: For a long-distance event such as a Tough Mudder or Spartan Race, stash a couple of packs of energy gel in your pockets. While water stops are usually plentiful during obstacle-course runs, you likely won’t get the nutritional support offered at running races and triathlons of similar lengths. Also, bring your own postrace snack and energy drink.
Clothing: It might sound like fun to race in a costume, but consider that whatever you wear will quickly become soaked and caked in mud, weighing you down and possibly getting snagged on obstacles. Your best bet is to wear lightweight, dark form-fitting clothing made of wicking material.
Shoes: Yes, they will become heavy with mud, but regular running shoes or trail-running shoes will work just fine. If you normally run in minimalist footwear, feel free to wear it on the course, but don’t take this as an opportunity to test out a new pair of Vibram FiveFingers; these unique shoes take a bit of getting used to and could be quite uncomfortable during an intense race. And tie your laces — tight! — and duct tape them to prevent them from coming untied.
Gloves: Gloves can prevent your hands from getting cut up, but they don’t offer quite the advantage people expect on monkey bars. If the bars and your hands are dry, you’ll be fine without gloves. If everything is wet and slippery, gloves aren’t going to solve the problem. Use gloves mainly if you want to protect your hands.