Muddy Mayhem: The Rise Of Obstacle Course Racing

Racing in the mud has become wildly popular in the U.S.

If you think climbing over walls, slithering through mud pits, ducking under barbed wire and splashing through icy cold ponds sounds like a fun way to spend part of your weekend, you’re not alone.

How about running muddy trails, swinging over monkey bars and maneuvering through a field of electric shock cords?

In case you haven’t noticed, obstacle course racing has exploded in the past three years. The enormous popularity comes from its appeal to a wide swath of the population, from beer guzzlers who would laugh if they were called athletes to hard-core runners who may tear your head off if you called them joggers.

Another part of the appeal is that there is something for everyone. Races range from as short as 90 minutes to as long as 24 hours. You can compete as an individual or with a team of friends or colleagues. Prize money, increased exposure and new sponsors in competitive races have also led to an emerging throng of breakout stars like Amelia Boone, Hobie Call and Brett Stewart.

Despite only getting her first taste of the sport in 2011, Boone, a 30-year-old corporate bankruptcy attorney from Chicago, has won two-thirds of the 25 or so races she’s entered the past two years — including the most elite races of the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder national series in 2013. She not only dominates the women’s side, but she also beats most of the guys too.

“We have some sub-3-hour marathoners who enter these races,” Boone says, “and we have people who can dead lift 500 pounds. But I’m in that middle area, where the best competitors come from. You don’t have to be a star at any one sport or discipline, but you have to be good at everything.

“All my training is my own call,” she adds. “There are very few people who know how to train for this stuff. We’re all still figuring it out.”

Even so, there are some guidelines you should follow, and the first is to do more strength training and cross-training than you may be used to, especially if you’ve been mostly a runner. Boone believes her well-roundedness and maybe her tolerance for pain are the reasons she wins as much as she does.

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Versatility is key, no matter if your goal is competing or just finishing, she says. Aside from a tenacious never-say-quit attitude, you need strength, speed, agility and endurance. Boone works specific muscle groups every day to build strength, focusing on “grip strength,” but her training is just as much about staying away from the more traditional thinking. Boone runs, but she runs more intervals to build speed and explosive power, or she may run a fast 5K. She doesn’t track her mileage like most runners, doesn’t do many structured running workouts and never does long, slow runs.

“I can’t remember the last time I did a plodding, slow training run,” Boone says. “That’s a recipe for injury for me. And I still don’t own a Garmin. I still don’t know what a tempo run is.”

Call, a 36-year-old air conditioner installer from Erda, Utah, was a traditional runner for many years, with a marathon PR of 2:16. But he wasn’t happy with that, and it wasn’t enough to get him in the Olympics. Traditional speed workouts on the track often left him broken down with injuries. So he upped his strength-training regimen, including simple pull-ups and pushups and a variety of core workouts, and began running with a weighted vest and doing a lot of lunges.

As it turns out, changing his training plan got him ready for obstacle racing, even if that wasn’t his intent at the time. He’s won most of the races he’s entered in the past three years, including the 2013 Spartan Race world championship in September.

“I didn’t like being really skinny,” Call says. “I’d always wanted to be stronger, but running got in the way of that. I was always genetically strong. Even from my high school days, I’d always thought that if I could run with a backpack, I’d destroy everyone.”

Call now preaches the same balance that Boone swears by. Raw speed isn’t as important in obstacle racing, and neither is a football player’s strength. He balances his strength with high-intensity cardio work. “Get your heart rate up and keep it there,” Boone says, “and then do 20 pull-ups.”

Brett Stewart, the author of “Ultimate Obstacle Race Training,” is one of a handful of competitors who is teaching obstacle racers how to train. The 43-year-old fitness guru from Phoenix coaches both beginners and elites and prepares his clients and those who read his book for an obstacle race by encouraging them to practice for the obstacles. He even encourages his clients to climb on the playground like a kid.

“Skill on the obstacles helps mentally as well as physically,” Stewart says. “As you get more and more elite, you will add in some very skill-specific training. It’s not much different from baseball or football in the sense that it’s a skill sport.”

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Even so, Stewart still believes, as do many, that the obstacle races come down to fitness, regardless of whether it’s your first time or you are trying to place for the first time.

Cross-training is important, and intervals are even more important, but a baseline of fitness, the kind you can get from running, remains essential. Running at varying speeds on undulating terrain is an ideal workout.

“It’s called a ‘mud run’ for a reason,” Stewart says. “It’s still a run.”

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