The 4 things you need to be doing to train for an Obstacle Course Race or Mud Run
Posted on November 25, 2016
OCR (Obstacle Course Race) training guide
This is a guide for those Looking to be successful when training for an Obstacle course run, or mud run, like Spartan or the Warrior Dash. Whether you are prepping for your first run, or you are a seasoned veteran, this guide will help you put down a fast time, stay safe, and most importantly, have fun.
HILLS – twice race distance:
The obstacle that isn’t listed is the most difficult. You usually won’t see hills named when checking the course map to see what challenges are ahead, or on the race organizer’s website where they have a list of the obstacles to expect, but it is definitely the one component of the race that kicks participants in the tail more than anything else. There’s a reason that the athletes making podium can hold their own in cross country races, too. The majority of your time during the competition will be spent running up and down hills; therefore they are the foundation of your OCR training regimen. Creators of these races typically choose a site by picking the hilliest area near a city that can hold hundreds of racers at a time – something to keep in mind when weighing your focuses.
Recommended progression: Find the hilliest trail around and work your way up to where you can run twice your race distance on it without stopping. This means that if you are participating in a 5k OCR, you want to be able to run for about 6 miles of a hilly route without taking breaks. Don’t avoid slippery terrain or uneven footing (within reason), as this will be the surface that you will be racing on. Twice the race distance may seem excessively long, but doubling up is a tried and true method for competitive athletes, and does wonders mentally when the course gets rough (“I’ve ran twice this far without stopping before, so not only do I know that I can finish this, but I can compete confidently and actually push it.”)
2. GRIP STRENGTH – 100m heavy carry, 15 ft rope climb, dead hang to failure:
Two types: Carries and Climbing.
Carries: Basically, they’re going to find something heavy and make you lug it around. Common examples are gravel-filled buckets, tires, small logs, tubes of sand, cinder block/tire drags, small atlas stone, jerry can carries, etc.
Recommended progression: Farmer’s Walks (45 lb. plates, cylinder blocks, dumbbells, milk jugs filled with water, tires) and Bucket Carries (simply get a painter’s bucket – costs a few bucks at Home Depot – and fill it with something heavy like sand, gravel, dirt, water, bricks, manure). If the hosts of your race reveal the weights of their obstacles, then you can get race specific here and match the weight that you’ll experience out on the course, but homemade remedies do just fine.
Climbing: This can be further divided into ropes, brachiating (think monkey bar movement), and traversing (going sideways on a rock climbing wall). Climbing is more important than Carries, since you can set your weight down to take a break during weighted carries, but if you get too tired on climbing obstacles then your fall may result in a costly failure penalty since some races only give you one attempt. For ropes, learn the S-wrap technique, plain and simple, by searching “S-wrap rope” on YouTube. Most people learn the slower and less energy efficient J-hook technique, but luckily you’re smarter than their inferior strategies J. For brachiating, work on keeping your elbows bent in L shapes (just like they say in American Ninja Warrior) and practice “kipping” your legs. Brachiating in this way will help you to control your swinging, take some of the strain off your grip, and has a good chance of saving you for more attempts if one of your hands slips off or you miss a grab. For traversing, try to hump your hips into the wall like a frog. This keeps your center of gravity over your feet so that you can use your more strong leg muscles as much as possible and conserve your grip strength.
Recommended progression: Find a playground and go back and forth across the monkey bars (or similar structure) sideways with bent elbows, perform “dead hangs” where you simply lock your elbows and see how long you can suspend your own bodyweight, and practice your S-wrap technique on a rope. If the rope is short, even just practicing holding your feet in that position, unlocking/unwrapping, then re-establishing the S-wrap will train your coordination to be there for when your tired brain is trying to perform it mid-race. If no ropes are present, you may have to purchase your own manila rope, or explore your local swimming pools/gymnastics and parkour gyms for one that you can use.
BURPEES – 30 repetitions:
Sounds like just a mix of burp and pee, but they’re not near as fun – everybody hates these. A burpee is essentially a combination of a pushup and a two-footed vertical jump. Start by lying flat on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders, press up like you’re doing a pushup and hop both of your feet up towards your hands at the same time, hop once again to bring your hands off the ground and jump straight up, clap your hands above your head (this noise makes it blatantly obvious to the person in charge of counting for you that your hands did indeed go above your head), and repeat until you either fulfill your penalty or die. The most popular OCR in the U.S., the Spartan Race, makes you do a set number of burpees if you fail an obstacle, with judges there counting to make sure that you properly perform all of them. They will be looking to see that your chest touches the ground, your feet leave the ground at the same time on your jump, and your hands go over your head. So, you’re essentially trying to slack off as much as possible and just barely meet each of these requirements for the sake of conserving energy. This is not a time to see how high that you can jump, and don’t be afraid to totally drop and bounce your sternum off the ground to save a little momentum heading into the next repetition (ladies, this is one of the few times that bust can help in athletics).Even if burpees aren’t directly a part of your specific Obstacle Course Race, they are a great full body movement that will build the crawling and jumping skills that will surely be needed multiple times on the course throughout numerous obstacles. In reference to the Spartan Race, I’ve heard some numb nuts say “I don’t practice failing, so I don’t waste my time doing burpees.” Even if this guy doesn’t fail any of the ~30 obstacles on his course (with one having a 95% fail rate the odds are against him) then he will be losing ground to you on the crawls and jumps. Don’t be this guy.
Recommended progression: Work your way up to 2 sets of 30 (the number typically given as penalty for failing a Spartan Race obstacle). Being able to knock out that many without a break is something that even some of your top finishers can’t do, so set goals (5 burpees then 25 recovery breaths, 10 burpees then wait 15 seconds, etc.).
RACE-SPECIFIC OBSTACLE – you decide
Obstacle Course Racing as a sport is still in its toddler phase, so there is no standard set of obstacles or set distance for the competitions – it’s totally up to whatever the company hosting the race wants to do. That being said, a simple Google search should pretty easily reveal what most people consider the worst obstacles in the race that you’re preparing for. For the Spartan Race this would be the Spear Throw and “Bucket Brigade”, for BattleFrog it was the “Tip of the Spear” and the Jerry Can Carry, Warrior Dash’s would probably be their Cargo Nets, the list goes on but you get the idea. I recommend considering what you know to be your weaknesses paired with the reviews of others when deciding which particular obstacle this will be for you. Don’t overthink it, though: if you can’t settle on anything for this then just focus on the top three topics to train – they’ll get you generally prepared for everything.
Recommended progression: Up to you.
Your experience will be MUCH more enjoyable if you actually practice these (Why pay so much for a race to be miserable because you weren’t prepared?), and with proper planning you should only need to commit a couple training days per week to this, so it’s not like it has to take over all of your exercise schedule. This is what I do; feel free to use it as your template: Pick one day to run hilly mileage (choose the gnarliest route around – the bicycle option on Google Maps is great for this as it will show elevation change) and another day for a nonstop circuit (four rounds of each: burpees then bucket carry then dead hang until failure, all with recovery jogging in between). I never have to practice ropes anymore because my S-wrap technique is golden – seriously it’s going to be a lifesaver for y’all. Take one day off per week, and if you want to overachieve then build your running base by running some miles on the remaining days, then you have yourself a very well-rounded routine. The course gets more tore up as the day goes on, so keep that in mind when choosing your starting time, and realize that the “elites” who raced first had a much less slippery course where everything wasn’t wet and heavy with the mud of earlier participants, so don’t be intimidated by their times. Other than that, wear your most grippiest shoes, don’t forget to make your rounds afterwards to get as much free crap as you can, and best of luck!
This article was written by Taylor Overmiller. Taylor was a high school state medalist which led to competing on a scholarship in track and cross country through college. While in school, he also completed the Army’s Simultaneous Membership Program, which is basically like being in both the National Guard and ROTC at the same time. After that he spent a couple years working as a scientist in a genetics lab before deciding that personal training was a more practical way to help others. HE specializes in training people for OCR and mud runs.