4 Training Tips for Obstacle Course Racing

If you’re looking to spice up your race schedule, look no further than an obstacle race. With the growth of obstacle races — including Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash — there are many opportunities to try something different while still satisfying your competitive side.

If you’re typically a road runner, the thought of doing an obstacle race may be daunting. But with a few easy tweaks to your training plan, you’ll be well-prepared — and you might be more competitive than you expected!

Obstacle Race Training

If you’re already fit enough to run a 5K, you’ll likely be better prepared than many of your fellow competitors. While you will face obstacles that require some strength and agility, getting fit enough to run the entire distance comfortably will make for a more enjoyable experience. Find a quality 5K training plan, and give yourself time to prepare properly so you don’t end up injured from what should be a positive experience!

If you’re already an established runner looking to better prepare yourself for the specific challenges of an obstacle race, these are four of the most essential elements to incorporate into your training:

1. Trails/Varied Terrain (aka Hills!)

Most obstacle races are run on grassy, hilly courses or trails that may involve rocks and roots. If you typically run on the road and treadmill, it’s time to venture onto the trails.
Grassy parks with hills are a great place to train, but any type of trail with hills can work. Watch your footing, and expect your pace to be slower than it would be on the road. Practice running by effort level rather than trying to stick to a predetermined pace, and build your strength gradually. Finally, expect a little soreness, as you’re recruiting new muscle groups.

2. Fartlek Workouts

Obstacle races involve a lot of stopping, starting and running at varied paces as opposed to a steady, constant pace. A simple introductory speed workout that also doubles as preparation for an obstacle race is a fartlek workout. Fartlek is the goofy-sounding Swedish word for “speed play,” and fartlek runs incorporate a combination of slower and faster running. Sometimes these intervals are unstructured (e.g., run hard to the top of the hill or to the next mailbox), and sometimes they are structured by time and pace.

Here are a few examples of structured fartlek workouts to get you started. These can be run by pace or effort, depending on the terrain and your experience racing at various paces. Always start and finish your run with at least 10–15 minutes of easy running.

  • 8–10 reps of 1-minute intervals at moderate-hard effort with 1 easy minute recovery
  • 6–8 reps of 2 minutes at 5K pace with 2 minutes recovery
  • 4–5 reps of 4 minutes at a moderate-hard effort with 4 minutes recovery

3. Strength Work

Although you don’t need to spend hours in the gym to prepare for your first obstacle race, having a strong core and upper body in addition to the strength you gain from running can make you more efficient and competitive.

As you train for your event, try to incorporate a twice-weekly body-weight strength routine after your run. Consistency is far more important than trying to set a new PR in the gym. Some of the best exercises are the tried-and-true classics: lunges, pushups, pullups, squats and planks.

4. Dynamic Flexibility

Aside from strength work, include ancillary warmup and cooldown routines focusing on dynamic strength and flexibility. These will help you improve your range of motion and running-specific strength by performing movements that are active rather than passive.

A dynamic, running-specific warmup may include exercises such as lunges and leg swings that replicate what your body does when you’re out on the road or trail. It should get you moving in all planes of motion and leave you feeling loose and ready to run. Similarly, a dynamic cooldown does the same but in reverse. It allows you to transition from your run while performing short, specific exercises that can help increase hip and glute strength, among other benefits.

Successful obstacle racing demands that you be a well-rounded athlete. To accomplish this, you need to train your body to be strong and flexible in ways that running alone isn’t able to do. Adding these types of routines to your training plan will make you a better overall athlete and a more injury-resistant runner.

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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.