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Obstacle racing, or OCR, is what some like to call the “21st Century fun run”, appealing to everyone from elite athletes to bucket-listers. They’re meant to be fun, but like anything, you’ll tend to enjoy it more if you’re better prepared and able to do well.
People come to OCR from a variety of sporting backgrounds – and succeed. Some of the best OCR athletes have been wrestlers, adventure racers, triathletes, Cross fit athletes, and even ex-kayak/surf ski paddlers, thanks to their strong aerobic capacity and their above-average upper body strength. The terrain and the obstacles in OCR and mud runs break up the rhythm of the elite runner so it’s not all in their favor, plus elite runners are often challenged by the strength component required for some obstacles.
There’s an event for just about everyone. The big three among the national series of events are Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. At one extreme, Tough Mudder has obstacles that are more like a Jackass-style torture than an athletic challenge – submerging in chilly water, crawling in mud through narrow tubes, dashing through electric shock wires – and they don’t time competitors. The emphasis is on teamwork (your “team” is every other participant!).
Warrior Dash has a similar sense of fun, with fuzzy Viking helmets and costumes, beginner-friendly courses, prizes for best beard, mud and water to slosh through and the odd leap over fire. However, it still attracts serious athletes looking to mix things up a little.
At the other end of the scale, Spartan is serious competition with chip-timed races. Events can extend up to “expedition” length and raw strength is an important factor – the 2014 Spartan World Championships had possibly the heaviest carry yet seen in OCR – a 120-lb dead ball for men and 77-lb for women, carried on the shoulder.
There are many other race series, often with a specific theme or niche, each typically starting with a 5k (3 mile) length that includes about a dozen obstacles. Zombies chase runners in Run For Your Lives, while Mean Streets Racing has you acting out chase scenes from movies, with obstacles including the “dumpster dive”. The Hero Rush simulates firefighter challenges, while there are also several women-only races, such as the Diva Dash and Pretty Muddy Run.
Do your research and choose an appropriate event for you, making sure you can pick a length that you can handle. Look closely at the obstacles involved, especially those that involve lifting or carrying objects.
Even a 5k race will rely on you having a good aerobic base. You can get this through a variety of activities, including, paddling, swimming and cycling, as well as running. Your fitness training should include the following variations:
Distance training – this is your long, slow, continuous endurance training session.
Intervals – alternate bouts of hard running (or other activity) with rest or an easy jog/walk. The “work” bout of an interval run can vary from about 200 yards to 1-2 miles, depending on your fitness level and goal distance. You can also measure your interval by time – say, 1-5 minutes. Rest will depend on your fitness level, and is measured as a ratio of work time. Advanced runners might do a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio, while beginners may be more like 1:3 or 1:4. Most intervals sessions have 3-8 sets of work-rest.
Hills – beginners might do short hills that take between 30-45 seconds to run up, with the aim to work up to hills that take 1-2 minutes. Recover with a downhill jog or easy walk. Recovery time can be up to 2-3 times the work time, or as little as the time it takes to come downhill. Start with 3-5 sets and work up to 8-10 sets.
Trail run – running trails will help you develop the balance and foot placement you’ll need, particularly if you take the ‘hard options’ in the race, such as log crossings or walking/running on a fence rail.
Strength training for OCR should emphasize full-body conditioning and exercises that will work your grip strength and your core muscles. So that means things like bur pees, chin-ups, muscle-ups, rope climbs, ring work and dead lifts. Also practice carrying odd objects such as rocks and dead balls.
Do some “metabolic circuits”, a type of training that alternates total body strength exercises with cardio, just like you will have to do in a race. This can be as simple as breaking up a run with regular bouts of bur pees, squat-jumps or climbing a tree or playground equipment.
Good balance is also important, given the beams and pontoons, etc. you might have in a race. Add in some dynamic balance activities, such as one-legged squats. Running on trails and picking your way over rocks, logs and other hard options will help, but you could also simply set up some planks of 4”x2” on the ground to run or walk across.
Like in any sport, the top racers in OCR have a better mental focus than the rest of the field, along with a confidence that comes 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. The key is to just be open to the experience, concentrate on one obstacle or run leg at a time, and don’t let any hiccups or surprises throw you.
OCR can be hard on the body, so you’ll need leg and ankle protection such as
2XU tights and/or the Elite Alpine Compression socks for maximum protection. The extra support these socks provide through the ankles and heels can help you be more surefooted when you race over ground that’s uneven or when you can’t see it because it’s covered in foliage, mud or water. The compression leggings come into their own when you’re crawling and climbing and getting lashed by undergrowth – you’ll be faster if you’re not in pain!
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).
Another essential is a tight top such as a 2XU Perform Tri Singlet, which will protect your skin in the crawls and climbs, plus it will let you swim the dams and creeks with less drag. Running gloves will help you grip rough objects and protect your hands from scrapes and cuts.