Every time I rock up to the start of an obstacle race, I get the chills down my spine because I know how much fun I’m about to get myself into. It’s a truly palpable sensation and the only thing that remotely compares to it is how I feel on the starting line of a cross country race. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy running on roads, trails and the track, but there’s nothing quite like the thrill of fast-paced racing on undulating terrain full of obstacles—no matter if they’re natural or manmade.
But I understand that some runners might feel anxious, overwhelmed or even terrified about entering an obstacle race. I showed up for my first one on a whim a couple of years ago and I felt utterly unprepared, intimidated beyond belief and … also very giddy that I was about to try out the ninja athletic skills I started honing as a kid on some bad-ass cargo nets, mud pits and vertical walls all designed to be very difficult to conquer.
I did OK and managed to get through most of the course without any epic fails—that is until I jumped up to grab the lip of the final 8-foot wall and just hung there, not knowing what to do next. I struggled to get up and over with terrible form—crunching my you-know-what in the process—fell off the other side and slogged across the finish line, totally worked but elated because it was so dang fun. I looked back at the course, imagined it in my mind without obstacles and saw one of the best cross country courses I’d ever run. I was hooked! The challenging course, the sometimes intense but supportive community around the race and the festival at the finish made it all a great event and a memorable experience. (It’s one of the reasons people with all sorts of athletic backgrounds are flocking to adventure racing.)
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One of the best parts about obstacle racing is that it brings together two athletic communities that—without these types of races that mix endurance with the need for power, agility and quickness—would be worlds apart. The distance-running crowd meets the uber-athletic fitness community! I don’t want to draw stereotypes, but from the outside, it’s a weird mix and, I admit, I was a bit apprehensive when I first got started. And who wouldn’t be intimidated when you’re about go to up against dozens of 6-foot, 205-pound dudes made of rock-solid muscle on the start line? (The women are equally buffed out and athletic!) No need to freak out, though. Trust me, your endurance training and innate determination as a distance runner will carry you through it, even if you don’t possess the raw power or dynamic agility.
There are different types of obstacle race events and they vary significantly, as each one focuses on a different skill set.While many of the obstacles are common among races, (walls, barbed wire crawls, cargo nets) each race has a set of unique obstacles they call their own. Some will play to your strengths, others will expose your weaknesses. But that’s the fun of it. No matter which race you choose, you’ll have to adapt and persevere to reach the finish line.
Here’s a little primer on the different races out there and what training you’ll need to get through it.
1) Getting Started
A great first obstacle race is the Warrior Dash—a more for-the-fun-of-it type of race that’s un-timed and more about the mud, camaraderie and the post-race party than competition. If you’re a runner, this type of race requires zero preparation, other than just having an open mind to what’s coming next and a willingness to get dirty. This type of race is generally shorter (5K to 8K) in distance, uses efficiency-based obstacles (that you have to crawl over, under or through) and requires very little upper body strength to reach the finish line.
2) Progressing Your Skills
As you graduate from the 5K mud runs, you might find yourself in a Spartan Sprint race or another local obstacle race. These tend to focus a bit more on competition but still have a family and/or party atmosphere. Along with your efficiency obstacles, the race will have a few more upper-body strength based obstacles as well. These might include sandbag carries, rope climbs, tire flips, etc., but will also be things that most runners can accomplish with your typical functional fitness routine that all runners should be doing anyway. Hint hint!
3) Going Longer
The third level of obstacle race starts to favor the true obstacle racing athlete. These are typically longer in distance, 10K to 18K, and incorporate more difficult obstacles such as upper body strength-based obstacles, monkey bar-type obstacles, and just more obstacles where specific obstacle training is going to help you. The Battlefrog series as well as a Super Spartan are good examples of this type of race. Working in the gym on pull ups, finger grip strength with carries and bar hangs, as well as leg power is going to get you through the obstacles more efficiently and faster. However, these are still great for a runner willing to put in a little gym effort. Sorry, CrossFit fans but no amount of CrossFit Endurance is going to prepare you to run an obstacle race like this. There’s still a lot of running in any of these events, so you need to have your aerobic engine tuned like a runner.
4) Upping Your Game
If you’ve been hitting the weights a bit, but still keep up on your running fitness—and maybe you’ve even run a few ultramarathons—it’s time to up your game with a longer harder, more masochistic obstacle race. And trust me, they are masochistic. A Spartan Beast (20K+) or the much longer Worlds Toughest Mudder (24 hours) will test even the best athletes. I would suggest equal parts mountain running training and CrossFit training for taking on one of these types of obstacle races. These races are the ultras of the obstacle racing world and will take you to your limit, and quite possibly break you physically and mentally in the process, but the rewards of accomplishing one can’t be matched with any of the shorter types of races.
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As you get into obstacle racing, you’ll find out that there is something for everyone and that runners tend to excel at the sport because of their aerobic conditioning. Start with an event that’s a little less intimidating and, if you find that you like it, move on to a new challenge. Or not, because a short one with some good obstacles can be just as much fun (if not more) than a longer, more challenging course that may have you begging to just lie down in the mud and go to sleep. No matter what you do, don’t neglect your running fitness.
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Salomon Running athlete Max King has been competing in a variety of different obstacle races for the past two years. He recently won the Warrior Dash World Championship and had a ton of fun getting muddy in the process. He’s also won numerous USATF trail running national titles, as well as the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships and the 2014 IAU 100K World Championships. Follow him at @maxkingOR on Twitter and Max King on Facebook.