So You Want to Do an Obstacle Course Race

Obstacle courses are more popular than ever. According to a Running USA report on nontraditional running races, obstacle course races grew to 4 million finishers in 2013 from the “low six figures” in 2009. While there are all sorts of mud and obstacle races popping up around the country, these three are among the more established ones you may have heard about and should consider:

  • Warrior Dash: Great for all levels of runners and racers. These are usually a 5K distance with about a dozen obstacles throughout the course.
  • Spartan Race: There’s a sprint option (3+ miles with 20 obstacles), a super option (8+ miles with 25 obstacles) and a beast option (12+ miles with 30 obstacles). If that’s not enough of a challenge, they offer the ultra beast, which involves a whopping 26+ miles of obstacles.
  • Tough Mudder: Probably the best-known. These are not timed so they aren’t technically a race but are still an awesome challenge. There are options to run either 5 miles with 14+ obstacles or 10–12 miles with 20+ obstacles.

While each race has its own specialized obstacles, here are a few you’re likely to encounter:

  • Wood barriers to crawl over
  • Mud pits with barbed wire to crawl under
  • Cargo nets to climb, both vertically and horizontally
  • Truck tires to leap through
  • Near vertical walls with just a thin rope to pull yourself over the top
  • Lines of fire to jump over

Training successfully for an obstacle race isn’t much different than training for any other race. You’ll need both speed and endurance, the ability to run on varying terrains and the well-rounded athleticism that comes from the strength routines and mobility drills that ought to be part of your training anyway.

Race Day Gear

Obstacle races require no more specialized gear than you would need for your typical 5K. But because of the more extreme conditions, there are a few things you’ll want to do:

  • Wear fitted clothing: When climbing through mud and obstacles, the last thing you need is your clothing catching or dragging you down. Stick to fitted clothing so you’ll be more comfortable throughout the race. You may also want clothing that protects your elbows and knees, as the mud can often contain gravel or sharp-edged rocks.
  • Prepare to get muddy: If your race involves mud (and most do!), wear older clothes and sneakers, as they may not be salvageable after you cross the finish line.
  • Manage your hair: If your hair is long, make sure you keep it relatively contained so it doesn’t get tangled in obstacles or barbed wire.
  • Secure your shoelaces: This should go without saying, but in the interest of safety, be sure to double- or triple-knot those laces!

Obstacle Race Strategy

Once race day arrives, treat it just as you would any other race. Give yourself time to warm up appropriately, especially as you prepare to tackle obstacles in addition to running. Then line up near the front at the starting line. Even though obstacle races are typically divided into waves, it will still be crowded as you compete to fit on a narrow path and tackle each obstacle. Use some of your running speed, and don’t be afraid to push to the head of the pack.

Once the race is underway, safety should always be first and foremost as you tackle each obstacle, even if it means adding a few extra seconds to your time. Remember: Your pace will likely be much slower than your typical 5K pace, so focus on running by effort rather than for time. The hillier the course, the more important this becomes.

Testing your capabilities in new ways is exhilarating, and it can help reinvigorate your running if you’ve been feeling stale or uninspired. Above all, be safe, enjoy the challenge and have fun out there!

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason Fitzgerald is the head coach at Strength Running, one of the web’s largest coaching sites for runners. He is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field–certified coach; his passion is helping runners set monster personal bests.