8 Training Tips For Your First Obstacle Course Race

Interested in training for your very first obstacle course race? Check out these 8 tips from an experienced competitive racer and get on the right track!

Obstacle course racing is an increasingly popular international sport.

In the US, about seven million people participated in an obstacle course race (OCR) in 2017, the majority signing up for one of the “big three” race companies–Spartan, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.

Before we get any further, an OCR is not equivalent to a “mud run.”

Spartan has a “Stadium Series” where events are held at baseball and football stadiums without any mud. There’s a laundry list of reasons why people sign up for OCRs where they climb walls, crawl under barbed wire, climb across monkey bars, walk up hills carrying heavy objects, climb ropes and more.

Common reasons to sign up for an OCR are listed below.

  • You’re an adrenaline chaser. An OCR will challenge you mentally and physically unlike any time before.
  • A friend/coworker/family member asked you to do an OCR with them.
  • Someone connected to an OCR company invited you to try an OCR.
  • You’re a former high school or collegiate athlete so OCR keeps that fire alive.
  • You’re a former military member so you’re used to obstacle courses.
  • Bragging rights. Between swag and social media photos, you’re the type to let everyone know about your OCR life.
  • The community. You’ve heard that OCR participants are very friendly and you want to go make some friends.

These reasons may explain why people do their first OCR, but what about the second one? Why do people do a second, third, fourth, 10th or 50th OCR?

Ultimately, I believe it’s the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line, the fact that many people are drawn into the companies’ marketing tactics whether they know it or not and that there is a race type for everyone.

The following expert advice will prepare you for any distance OCR. Use these eight tips to prepare your mind and body for one of the most functional things you’ll ever do: an obstacle course race.

Obstacle Course Race Bucket Carry

1. Determine Race Length

If you’ve yet to sign up for the event, you’ll want to start by considering what distance you want to race. Now, an OCR that is 5K (3.1 miles) is different than just running a regular 5K because the obstacles take time to complete. So, think about the maximum possible time you want to be outdoors for performing strenuous physical activity.

Related: Coach Myers’ Ultimate Running Schedule to Build Speed, Endurance & Get Shredded

In general, a good estimation is take your normal 5K time and add two minutes per the number of obstacles in your race plus additional five minutes for the incline factor.

Let’s say your OCR has 20 obstacles in three miles.

  • Your Best Road 5K Time = 30 minutes
  • 2 minutes per obstacle x 20 obstacles = 40 minutes
  • 5 minutes to account for hills and stairs = 5 minutes
  • Total = 75 minutes spent on the course.

Overall, if this is your first OCR, a 3-5 mile distance is the safest choice. However, a 10-mile distance is possible at an event like Tough Mudder where group participation is encouraged and necessary to get through the course.

2. Break Up Your Runs

Once you know the distance you’re trying to cover, you’ll ironically start to train for the race by doing more than just steady state cardio.

Bodybuilders often do long bouts of aerobic exercise such as walking on a treadmill or using a Stairmaster for 40-60 minutes in an effort to stay lean. OCR athletes do long cardio sessions too but they also break up their cardio with bodyweight, kettlebell, sandbag, and dumbbell exercises.

The reason for this is a physiological one. An OCR uses every energy system: the phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative system.

The obstacles are an anaerobic activity requiring muscular power and the phosphagen system whereas the running calls for aerobic capacity and uses the oxidative system. Splitting long cardio up into clips of time also allows for you to get used to increasing and decreasing heart rate on a dime.

The most elite OCR athletes will keep a moderate heart rate during the run, take a moment to focus and decrease heart rate upon arrival at any obstacle, then increase heart rate again to complete the obstacle efficiently.

Here’s an example of how to do an OCR cardio workout.

3. Incorporate Inclines

Even if your race is not on a mountain, the race director will find a way to torch your legs and lower back by making you travel upwards on an incline. If we’re talking mountains, some OCRs take place at some pretty high altitudes, upwards of 9,000 feet altitude in the most extreme cases.

But it’s not overall altitude that you need to be concerned with; it’s elevation gain or the amount of feet you cover in total throughout all of the ups and down. Indeed, you will often go up, come down, and go right back up a different part of the course.

To incorporate incline training into your workout program, walk up and down the biggest hill in your town, do incline treadmill walking, go hiking with friends, and find a big set of stairs to walk up and down near you.

As for the treadmill, a walking speed between 2.5-4.0 with an incline between 5-10 will yield positive results for your legs and lungs. For a real challenge, try carrying a sandbag or wearing a weighted vest for 1-2 minute intervals while walking up an incline.

Obstacle Course Racing Jug Carry

4. Train Your Grip

Grip strength will make or break your OCR performance. Some of the most common (and fun) obstacles involve at least one of the three types of grip strength—crush, support and pinch grip.

Crush grip means the power comes from the four fingers that are not the thumb, as in rope climbs and monkey bars. Support grip requires maintaining a hold of something for a long time, such as in water jug carries, bucket carries, and sled drags. Pinch grip is the grip between your fingers and palms necessary for wall traverses and spear throws.

Improving all three elements of grip strength while building up endurance in the arms, chest, shoulders and especially back muscles is the perfect formula for breezing past obstacles.

Try the follow five moves to build grip strength.

Towel Pull Up

How to do it: Hang a medium sized (kitchen/bath) towel over a pullup bar and hold one end in each hand. You can also use two towels by hanging each one over the bar and holding one towel in each hand. If using two, you’ll be facing the bar whereas with a single towel you’ll be perpendicular to it.

Holding the towel(s) lift yourself up keeping a straight back until your chin is over the bar. That’s one rep. Aim for 3 sets of 10 reps.

Variations: Can’t do a pullup yet? Do assisted pullups using a machine or resistance band.

Type of grip: Crush

Dead Hang

How to do it: Hold onto a pullup bar using an overhand grip with hands shoulder width apart. Pinch your shoulder blades together and engage your upper back muscles. Start with a 15-second hold, working your way up to 2 minutes as you get stronger.

Variations: Hang from a suspension trainer in the start of an inverted row with back facing the ground and legs straight.

Type of grip: Support

Farmer’s Carry

How to do it: Start with a pair of 40 pound dumbbells and work your way up to 90-100 pounds over the course of one workout or several workouts if still building strength. Stand tall and hold one dumbbell in each hand. Walk for 300 feet (slightly less than a football field) without dropping the weight.

Variations: Add Fat Gripz to a lighter dumbbell to incorporate crush grip. Use kettlebells or water jugs for variety.

Type of grip: Support

Plate Holds

How to do it: Place a 10lb-plate (or heavier for more advanced athletes) flat on the ground. Have it stand up on it’s side if possible. Grab the plate with one hand so the thumb is one on side and the other four fingers are on the other side. Stand straight up with the plate so it’s at your side. Pause for 10 seconds then place the plate back on the ground or on a nearby bench/box. Do 5-10 reps.

Variations: To increase intensity, hold for 30-60 seconds. Also, try to pinch two 10lb plates for 10 seconds and work up to 1 min.

Type of grip: Pinch Grip

Dumbbell Wrist Curl

How to do it: Stand holding a dumbbell or short barbell in one hand using a supinated (underhand) grip with that elbow bent at 90 degrees at your side. Let the weight roll down your fingers until it’s at the fingertips. Curl your fingers and wrist up and squeeze and the top. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps each side.

Type of grip: This move strengthens your wrists and forearms which will enhance all three types of grip strength.

5. Do Interval Workouts

Interval workouts use predetermined work and rest durations rather than aiming for sets and reps. Interval training allows more work to be accomplished at higher exercise intensities with the same or less fatigue than during continuous training at the same relative intensity.

A work to rest ratio provides a certain amount of rest for every work period. Multiply the two numbers to get the amount of rest in seconds.

General work to rest ratio guidelines for interval workouts are below.

Work Duration Work to Rest Ratio
5-10 Secs 1:12 to 1:20
15-30 Secs 1:3 to 1:5
1-3 Min 1:3 to 1:4
3+ Min 1:1 to 1:3

A sample interval workout with a 1:3 work to rest ratio using 1 minute of work is below. Complete three rounds of:

  • 1 minute: Stairmaster at Level 8 speed
  • 3 minutes rest
  • 1 minute: Run at 5K pace
  • 3 minutes rest
  • 1 minute: Dumbbell Squat to Press
  • 3 minutes rest
  • 1 minute: Kettlebell Swing
  • 3 Minutes rest

High intensity interval training (HIIT) involves brief repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise with intermittent recovery periods. The key with programming HIIT workouts is using the entire body (upper, lower and core) and making sure workouts are 30 minutes or less, even for elite athletes. The work to rest ratio will be more like 1:1 or 2:1.

Related: The Best HIIT Routines for Cardio Equipment

Try the following HIIT OCR workout which uses a 2:1 work to rest ratio. Complete four rounds of:

  • 40 second sprint
  • 20 second rest
  • 40 seconds of burpees
  • 20 second rest
  • 40 second incline walk while holding sandbag on one shoulder
  • 20 second rest
  • 40 second box jump (switch to squat jumps in round two)
  • 20 second rest
  • 40 second pushups (switch to dumbbell rows/pullups in round two)

6. Up Your Pullup Game

Virtually every obstacle will require your back muscles. Specifically, scaling walls, traversing across walls, monkey bars, and a weighted pulley system called the Hercules Hoist all use the lats, traps, and biceps like the pullup.

If you can’t do any pullups yet, start with dead hangs from a pullup bar or inverted rows from a squat rack, Smith machine or suspension trainer handles. Train your back muscles using dumbbell and barbell rows and deadlifts. Use weight machines such as the lat pulldown and seated row to build back strength.

A good goal is to be able to do two separate sets of five unassisted pullups. If you can’t do this prior to race day, don’t worry, there are other people on the course to literally lift your ass over walls. Advanced OCR athletes can easily do 3-4 sets of 10 pullups.

Obstacle Course Racing Having Good Pull Ups

7. Visit An OCR Gym

What’s an OCR gym? An OCR gym has man-made obstacles, group fitness classes designed to improve OCR performance, and maybe even rock climbing walls. This is where American Ninja Warrior, rock climbing and OCR meet.

So, one gym may have mainly Ninja Warrior competitors but still a fair share of rock climbers and OCR athletes. Another gym may be mostly rock climbing walls with a separate strength training area- this would be where rock climbers train but an OCR athlete would benefit too.

Where OCR athletes really thrive are permanent outdoor courses, where there are indoor/outdoor full obstacle courses where you can go to train, even if there isn’t a race going on.

Visit Mudrunguide’s map to find OCR-related gyms. For your first race, any rock climbing gym will help build grip strength, forearm strength and develop that unique focus needed to hold on when it hurts.

A certified Spartan SGX Coach can help you train for OCRs either one-on-one or in a small group setting. Find one HERE. When searching for an OCR group fitness class, ask if the instructor is Spartan SGX certified or Spartan Strong certified. These coaches have put in the work to become certified in teaching OCR training methods.

8. Have Fun

Let’s not forget that the whole point of OCRs is to enjoy yourself! Don’t approach OCR with any specific set of expectations. It’s very difficult to determine your true speed because there are hundreds of other races running that day too.

With that said, if you choose an “Elite” heat and begin the race in the front of the pack, you’ll quickly find out if you’re meant to be a professional OCR athlete or not. It may take a few tries in the elite heat to figure out just how far you want to push your new hobby because every race is different.

Things can go really well for you depending on a variety of factors including adequate training, hydration and mental grit. Some racers do acquire sponsors and even make “Pro Teams” where they are paid to travel and complete OCRs.

Do your best at your OCR and you’ll see how hard it is not to try another. The majority of racers are not elite; they are racing for fun and to become a better version of themselves. Your training should reflect this as well.

Make the training challenging but enjoyable. Not sure what fun is? It’s when you smile during and after workout!