I run obstacle course races (OCR) to physically and mentally challenge myself. Running through challenging terrain, crawling in the dirt and mud, climbing up and over obstacles, lifting and carrying heavy stuff, and sometimes jumping over fire can make for an exciting event to train for and compete in. Though I’m just another old guy finishing in the middle of the pack, I’ve learned a few things over the course of running 10 OCRs, and I wish someone had shared this information with me before I started. Here are 8 tips to help OCR newcomers prepare for their first race – whether that means finishing with a fast time or just completing the course. (As always, consult your doctor before starting any exercise plan)
#1: Train trail running
While there may be 20+ obstacles in your OCR race, 95% of the course will be running up and down hills through dirt, grass, mud, and water. You can train for this by running on outdoor trails with inclines and declines, but if that’s inconvenient you can settle for training on a treadmill. Spartan Sprints are around 4 miles long, so conditioning your lower body for the distance will help give you the power to finish strong. If you’re not used to running, ease into your training by starting small (0.5 miles a day) and increasing your mileage by 10% each week. Quickly jumping from 0 miles to 20 miles per week is dangerous, as the sudden stress can result in foot, ankle, knee, or hip injuries.
#2: High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
There are no rest stops during an OCR race, so be prepared for the pace: running, climbing, running, jumping, running, lifting, running, etc. It’s ok to jog or even walk, but prepare yourself for the physical demands by training in a similar way. If you’ve got access to a running track, you can do intervals like: run 400 meters (one lap), do 25 pushups, run 400 meters, do 25 situps, run 400 meters, do 25 burpees, run 400 meters, etc. Take minimal rest between each exercise (less than 30 seconds). Not only does this help prepare your body for the non-stop physical demands of an OCR, but it’s a great way to strengthen muscles, work your cardio, and burn a ton of calories.
#3: Train for specific obstacles
HIIT is great overall training, but many races involve specialized skills like spear-throwing, tire-flipping, or rope-climbing. Watching youtube how-to videos before your race can help with techniques for certain obstacles. From the best place to hold a spear to pushing forward/up on a tire to using your feet/core on a rope climb, there are many techniques that can make you more efficient during your race. In addition, being able to try them before the race is invaluable. This probably means making a visit to your local OCR/CrossFit gym unless you somehow have other access to spears, tractor tires, or 15′ high hanging ropes (be careful!).
#4: Train your grip
Prepare for monkey bars, rope climbing, wall climbing and rope-pulling by strengthening your grip. Start by doing farmers walks (grabbing a heavy weight in each hand and doing laps around the gym), or by hanging on a bar. Just grab a pull-up bar and see how long you can hang without taking your hands off. 30 seconds? 1 minute? 3 minutes? Next, see how long you can swing from one bar to another bar and back. Work grip training into your gym visits so you can hang in there during your race.
#5: No cotton on the course
Choose moisture-wicking, quick-drying fabrics for your socks, underwear, shirt, shorts, or whatever else you’re going to wear on race day. While cotton may be comfortable when dry, it absorbs water and will end up weighing you down as soon as you hit that first dunk tank or mud pit. Imagine running for miles in soaking-wet cotton sweatpants! Opt instead for athletic 100% polyester or polyester/spandex blends for everything you wear during the race. Also, pockets fill with water, mud, and sand so try to choose shorts without them (or with zippered pockets). Getting wet and dirty is unavoidable, so prepare by choosing clothes that will dry/drain quickly and won’t weigh you down.
#6: Trail-running shoes (optional)
If you’re just running this one race and have no intention of running another, you can get by with just wearing an old pair of athletic shoes. However, having tread on shoes is super helpful when running up a muddy hill or trying to control your slide coming down one. Most road-running shoes have relatively flat soles for running on flat surfaces like sidewalks, but they aren’t so great on terrain like dirt, mud, sand, and whatever else the sadistic OCR course designers can find. Trail-running shoes with lugs can make a huge difference in your ability to stay on your feet in questionable terrain. Additionally, fast-draining trail shoes are especially good for OCR because shoes tend to fill up with water/mud, and the quicker your feet get back to dry-ish, the better. My personal favorite: Inov-8 Terraclaw 250.
#7: Gloves (optional)
Pulling ropes and chains, carrying rough logs, and crawling around on your hands can take its toll on your skin. Gloves can protect your hands, but they can also be slippery when wet so it’s best to keep them tucked into your shorts until you need them. Ropes, chains, or rough edges that you have to grab? Gloves on. Obstacles that require hanging (monkey bars, hanging gauntlet) or accuracy (spear throw)? Gloves off. Bonus tip: there’s a good chance you’ll lose a glove or two before the finish line, so just get some cheap rubber-dipped gloves from the hardware store.
#8: Pack for post-race
After the race, you’ll be covered in dirt, mud, and possibly blood, and there may not be a shower nearby. Even if there are showers, they might be packed with other racers trying to clean off so take a gallon of tap water, some towels, a couple trash bags, flip flops, and a change of clothes. Rinse off at your car and toss your muddy clothes/shoes into a trash bag to deal with at home. Switch into your clean clothes and flip flops and enjoy your drive home.
OCR is about pushing yourself to do awesome things. Training for and running in an OCR involves a lot of sweat, but it’s very rewarding to fight through the discomfort and prove to yourself that you can do it.