I never thought I would be someone who regularly takes part in Obstacle Course Races like Tough Mudder, X-Runner and Born Survivor. But around Christmas 2014, I was invited to take part in the X-Runner Winter Warrior challenge in January 2015, and had approximately 4 weeks to get in shape for the event. The reason I hadn’t done anything like this previously is because I’ve always been terrible at long distance running. What I learned however is that the running element makes up a surprisingly small part of the overall fitness needed on the day.

Although you end up doing a lot of running on the day, anything from 10 – 21 km in total, the running is broken up by the obstacles and didn’t seem quite as taxing as just a straight 10 km run. Having now taken part in approx 2-4 events per year since, I now have a pretty good idea of what to expect and how to train for it. For anyone new to OCRs, there are lot of elements to the courses that can surprise you and sap your energy.

As such I’ve put together a list of training tips and advice. Ideally you would have anywhere from 8-12 weeks in advance to train for an event so you can do it comfortably, but once again I’ve found myself with less than 4 weeks to get in shape, and I can make it work.

General fitness & low impact cardio

If you can run regularly, then good for you, this would be the best type of cardio you can do for this kind of event. However for whatever reason, I can’t run every day without picking up overuse injuries, so I focus mainly on low impact cardio for general fitness. This includes activities like swimming, the elliptical machine, the stair master and even walking on a treadmill but on a maximum incline. I train 3-4 days per week in a gym, so I will add a 20-30 minute cardio element to the end of each session. On none-training days I will do cardio for up to 60 minutes. I don’t kill myself during these sessions, I just try and keep my heart rate high and outside of my comfort zone. It really helps with endurance and mindset.

Trail running & HIIT

If you’re used to running on flat ground from a track or pavement, then when it comes to running on uneven terrain, over hills, through fields and forest areas, the uneven ground can be quite taxing. On top of the low impact cardio, I try to include 1 run per week in the form of a trail run. This is actually gentler on my joints and definitely prepares you better for the event. I will also include some HIIT (high intensity interval training) hill sprints along the route too if I come across a good spot. There are a few great ones in the woods near where I live.

Crawling

Often an overlooked movement, but most OCRs have lots of obstacles that involve commando crawling through mud, narrow pipes, under barbed wire and much more. If you’re not used to this, it can drain your energy and have a big impact on you during the event. Taking the time to practice this movement and learn how to do it efficiently can really help.

Body weight circuits

I’m a huge fan of body weight circuits; they’re great for fitness and are really accessible. You can do them just about anywhere, either at home or in the garden and you can make them really intense. By combining lots of different movements together (I typically alternate between upper, lower and core movements) you can maximise your intensity on one muscle group, while the others get chance to recover. Try this simple circuit for example and see how you get on:

  • 30 seconds of jump squats
  • 30 seconds of push ups
  • 30 seconds of crunches
  • 30 seconds of burpees
  • 30 seconds of rest

Repeat 8 times (20 minutes total).

Weight training

The main type of exercise I do is a combination of strength training and bodybuilding style training in the gym. Although you might not think it, weight training can be very beneficial for running. It builds strength which improves your power output, can help with endurance and prevent injury. For my training I typically have a main compound movement like squats, combined with some isolation exercises such as leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises etc. In the build up to an OCR, I also include some additional sets of exercises that involve single leg movements and element of balance such as weighted lunges, and high volume sets of leg press.

Preparing for mud wading

This is another classic energy sapping obstacle. Mud wading is really exhausting, because there is so much resistance on muscles that aren’t used to being worked. Although this can seem quite difficult to prepare for, exercises that strengthen your hip flexors and your calves can be really beneficial.

Upper body strength / grip

While most people focus on fitness and running, it’s really important that you also work on your upper body strength and your grip. There will be a lot of obstacles that involve climbing, pulling yourself up over a high wall, rope climbing, monkey bars and much more. My strength on movements like pull ups is pretty good, but grip plays an important part – the bars are wet and muddy so you need to hold on extra tight or you will slip. Additionally, just because you can pull yourself up doesn’t mean you can make your way across the bars.

I use a combination of bars in the gym combined with some training at local parks with my kids! Go early in the morning when it’s quiet and have a quick go on the monkey bars to learn the movement.

 

Cold exposure

Most OCRs involve some sort of cold water, whether this is jumping though a stream, swimming etc. In the worst instance, Tough Mudder has an obstacle called Arctic Enema which is basically a skip full of iced water. When I say iced, I mean there are more ice cubes than water – it’s like wading through a giant slushie! When you go into the water on events like this, you experience something called cold shock. Your body responds by taking giant, gulping gasps of air, your heart starts racing and you can start to panic. The only good thing about this obstacle is that it doesn’t last long, and it makes the natural streams and lakes in the other obstacles seem positively warm!

My recommendation is to start exposing yourself to cold water to prepare for this. It will still seem absolutely freezing, but you the symptoms of cold shock will be far less extreme. I do this in 2 ways:

  1. After a gym session I will head out to the sauna, and then dunk myself in the cold pool
  2. I take contrast showers. After my normal warm shower, I will turn down the heat and have 30-60 seconds of freezing cold water, and then end on another 30 seconds of warm water. Depending on how I’m feeling, I might do this several times!

You can see more about this and my 30 day cold shower experiment here – Cold showers every day for 30 days challenge

Progression

As with any kind of training, you want to make sure you’re progressing each week. This could either be the amount of volume you do with weights, the distance you run, the amount of time you spend training etc. It also relates to making sure you’re building up your capacity for training slowly week by week, and not jumping straight into a very intense regime which risks over training or injury. For example, as mentioned running is my weakest area. So in the 4 week build up to the event, my distances might look like this:

  • 6 km
  • 8 km
  • 10 km
  • 12 km

I will then make sure I have 5-7 days from my last run to the event day to make sure my legs, joints and tendons are all fresh (I will continue training and low impact cardio during the last week).

How to train for an OCR video

Back in around 2017, a made a simple video about how to train for an obstacle course race. It’s a briefer summary of this blog, and you can see it below.

Final point

Obstacle Courses are designed to be challenging, but fun. Although everyone calls them Obstacle Course Races or OCRs, it’s really not a race unless your’re doing it competitively. There will be many people that take part in these events with little to no training, or that have fitness levels much lower than your own. Having a great training plan will just make the event easier, and potentially increase the enjoyment on the day. The important thing is not to stress out about it, and have the mindset that it’s going to be a fun challenge. So enjoy!