How to Train for Success in Your Next Obstacle Course Race

Planning to run an obstacle course race? We've got training plans and advice from people who have been there.

Obstacle course racing has exploded in the last decade and is now a sport in its own right. In 2014, 272,752 people participated in a Spartan Race alone – and that doesn’t include other popular races like Tough Mudder and BattleFrog.

Obstacle course racing has exploded in the last decade and is now a sport in its own right. In 2014, 272,752 people participated in a Spartan Race alone – and that doesn’t include other popular races like Tough Mudder and BattleFrog.

Why Obstacle Course Racing?

What possesses normal people to crawl through possibly contaminated mud and do an inane amount of burpees? In his article, Adventure Racing, Obstacle Course Racing, and Triathlons – Where Does It Stop?, coach Eric C. Stevens touched on one of the big reasons obstacle course racing is so popular:

It seems that races get us back in touch with ourselves while modern life is designed to do quite the opposite – to distract. Distractions also keep us from facing what it is that helps us move forward – fear. That said, races in and of themselves by their physical nature are metaphorical. The real work is to do the mental and spiritual work behind the physical, but that’s a different article.

On the subject of facing fears, it appears that Spartan Race co-founder Richard Lee concurs. “It’s all about facing your fears and having fun at the same time. Most people have never been covered in mud, jumped in a river, or climbed a high wall, but it gives you a great sense of accomplishment.”

But maybe you can handle mud and rivers. Maybe fear of failure is holding you back from jumping on the OCR bandwagon. If that’s the case, we have resources to help you get through your first obstacle course race.

Free 6-Week Training Plan

Master RKC Andrew Read put together an obstacle course training plan for people who don’t have a ten-foot wall to practice with. The plan incorporates the following elements:

  • Power Cleans
  • Grip Strength
  • Single Leg Training
  • Circuit Training

To learn more about this program, read Andrew’s article, 6 Week Training Plan for Your Obstacle Course, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race. To get the program in printable form, you can download a PDF here.

Don’t have six weeks? Well, hopefully you have four, because Andrew also put together an awesome four-week training plan. Read all about it in Andrew’s article, Free 4-Week Training Plan to Get You Spartan Race Ready. You can access the entire program by clicking here.

Advice From OCR Veterans

While competing on the popular TV show, American Ninja Warrior, parkour expert and Breaking Muscle coach Ben Musholt dislocated his shoulder on the last obstacle of the course. But it’s pretty impressive he made it that far!

Here are three tips and videos Ben shared to help with common OCR challenges. There are a lot more in his article, Training for the World’s Most Famous Obstacle Course: American Ninja Warrior.

1. Brachiate

Practice swinging through a jungle gym and across rows of rings like the ape that you are. Get comfortable hanging from one arm, while you swing and reach with your free hand. Don’t just swing in a straight line – challenge yourself to zigzag and even move through different elevations.

2. Practice Footwork

Being light on your feet is an absolute prerequisite for dominating an obstacle course. In parkour, the tic-tac is a skill where you strike the surface of an obstacle with one foot and change directions to land somewhere else with your other foot.

You can practice this by making a series of targets on the ground and striding between them, almost like a spread-out hopscotch grid. Once you are comfortable on flat ground, take it higher and try to run across a series of boulders or boxes. Make it harder by changing the surface from horizontal to slightly angled.

3. Build Explosive Upper Body Strength

The muscle-up and climbing dyno are two upper body strength skills that must be in your obstacle course toolkit. You should spend plenty of time drilling these movements, until you can whip them out accurately and without hesitation.

Similarly, legs-free rope climbing and campus boards should be worked on periodically. Clapping pull-ups are another good skill to develop the explosive upper body strength needed to succeed.

Fill in the Gaps

In Andrew Read’s article, April Luu: Apex Predator and Elite Spartan Race Competitor, Spartan Race champion April Luu shared some of her tips for training to win an obstacle course race. Two themes were weekly hard runs and adequate time for recovery, particularly in the week before a race:

With two hard runs per week and a session climbing an insane incline where she lives at 7,000 feet while wearing a weight vest, she focuses on quality rather than quantity to get results. With a background in racing 800s and the 4x400m in college and high school, Aprial has a good history of quality running in her legs. These days she doesn’t do track training but she still has time targets for every single run.

In the week leading up to a race April focuses on rest, foam rolling, and eating clean. One of the things she is most careful of is making sure she can always perform at her best. I was impressed by the way she strictly handles her race schedule so that she can peak at every event.

You might notice a trend in all this training advice, and it’s best summarized in Andrew’s article, The 3 Keys to Obstacle Course Racing Success. Andrew noted the three most common holes in OCR training:

  1. Not enough running
  2. No loaded carries
  3. Not enough grip work

So whatever training plan you choose, make sure it includes all three of these elements. And don’t forget April’s advice to rest the week of the race. Best of luck in your event, and let us know how it goes!

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Photo 1 courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo 2 by By Senior Airman Jeremy Bowcock [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.