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Obstacle racing, or Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), is what some like to call the “21st Century fun run”, with its mass appeal across a broad demographic, from bucket-listers to elite athletes. It is essentially a running race, but what sets it apart is the broken rhythm of the terrain and, of course, the obstacles, so it won’t necessarily favour an elite runner.
Athletes who excel in OCR come from a variety of sporting backgrounds. These include running, adventure racing, triathlon and Crossfit, but it’s been interesting to see a couple of ex-kayak/surf ski paddlers have done well too, thanks to their strong aerobic capacity and their above average upper body strength.
Ideally, training for OCR involves a variety of activities that will help build your aerobic capacity while working different areas of your body, e.g. running, paddling, swimming and cycling. Your preparation should also include some strength work such as rope climbs, bar and ring work such as chin-ups, muscle-ups and toes-to-bar, as well as burpees and some lifting or carrying odd objects such as rocks and dead balls.
You could complete an obstacle race with any basic level of fitness from your specific sport, within reason. For example, if you’re a powerlifter, don’t do a 24-hour enduro as your first race! There are many 5-15km events with 15-30 obstacles that don’t require a high level of specific skill or strength, however as with any sport, you can be faster and more efficient at these through practice, which in turn allows you to run faster between obstacles. Typical obstacles include crawling under nets or tunnels, balancing on beams or floating pontoons, and climbing, walls, nets or ropes.
A typical 10km event could have a lot of variables, such as the number of obstacles and the toughness of the environment (hills, dams, creeks, mud), so don’t expect your running to be fast. For example, in July, Guy Andrews won the True Grit Brisbane 10km+30 obstacle race in 47 minutes, even though he can run 10km in approximately 36 minutes. The Spartan World Championships was 21km, yet took the top racers around three hours to finish.
What separates the top racers from other athletes in OCR is the same things separate athletes in any sport. It comes down to mental focus, plus a confidence that always stems from great preparation. The problem is that with such a new sport, it‘s unlikely you’ll have time to prepare specifically as you’d like for any obstacle race, so just be open to the experience and you may be surprised how many people you beat.
There are a couple of features of OCR that may be particularly challenging, depending on your sporting background. Runners may need to train more for the lifting and carrying obstacles. The sandbag carries at True Grit Brisbane were up and down a slight hill – about 400m in total – and the bags weighed about 25kg for the guys and 15kg for the girls. While this may not sound super-heavy, it can be a real rhythm-breaker for pure runners. The ammunition box carry was about 15kg a side for guys and 10kg for girls, again up and down a hill. The Spartan World Championships had possibly the heaviest carry yet seen in OCR – a 55kg dead ball for men and 35kg women – and it had to be carried on the shoulder. A lot of people took the 30-burpee penalty option.
Good balance can also be an issue, given the beams and pontoons, etc. you might encounter. Running on trails will help you develop the balance and foot placement you’ll need, particularly if you take the ‘hard options’ such as log crossings or walking/running on a fence rail. You could also do some simple activities, such as walking along the logs that line a car park or even setting out planks of 4”x2” on the ground to run or walk across. A good core strength routine with some dynamic balance activities, such as one-legged squats can also help you build your balance.
OCR can be hard on the body, so you’ll need leg and ankle protection such as
2XU running tights or compression socks (the Elite Alpine Compression Sock will give maximum protection) and tape for your ankles. Taping the ankles helps eliminate any thought of rolling an ankle, helping you to move with confidence in a race over ground you can’t see because it is covered in foliage, mud or water. You’ll also be more sure-footed over uneven ground with a simple double-stirrup strap over your ankles.
Given the variety of activities, a lot of OCR runners like to wear low drop or zero drop shoes (shoes in which the base of the heel is at the same height as the base of the toes), such as Altra Lone Peak 1.5 shoes
Compression leggings are essential for leg protection during bush-bashing, crawling and climbing – you’ll be faster if you’re not in pain! Another essential is a tight top such as a 2XU Long Distance Tri Singlet, which will protects your skin in the crawls and climbs, plus it will let you swim the dams and creeks with less drag.