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When I was a kid, I loved creeks. To this day, I see a babbling brook, and I feel a primal urge to go splash in it. I’m a trail runner because I was busy exploring creeks while other boys were playing Halo or talking to girls.
Maybe you feel a pang of nostalgia for third-grade recess whenever you run by the monkey bars. Thankfully, just like trail running scratches my need for creeks, obstacle-course racing (OCR) is an acceptably grown-up version of playground fun.
In OCR, a series of obstacles requiring strength, balance and/or technique are separated by anywhere from a few meters to a few miles of off-road running. Tasks vary, but can include swinging on monkey bars, climbing ropes, running with heavy objects and even crawling under barbed wire. Just like “trail racing” encompasses rock-free 5Ks on bike paths and epic 100-milers over tall mountains, OCR has something for everyone, from team-oriented mud runs to 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudders.
Even if you haven’t swung on the monkey bars in decades, a few tips will have you ready to overcome any obstacle.
1. Run Up Hills
Good news for trail runners: “The toughest part of most of these races is the running and the terrain you cover,” says Ryan Woods, a five-time La Sportiva Mountain Cup champion who competes in Spartan obstacle-course races. Many OCR courses are in the same parks that host trail races, whether mountainous ski resorts or city green spaces. Usually, you can expect enough mud and hills to make things interesting.
Like all running training, the most important thing is to develop a solid mileage base. Run up to five or six times per week, with most runs at a conversational pace. Then, to prepare for the unique challenges of OCR, it’s essential to mimic the lactate-generating bursts that are typical in between obstacles.
Woods recommends running up and down mountains if you can, to reap the full-body benefits of strong legs and an efficient cardiovascular system. If you don’t have access to mountains, substitute hill intervals: 12 x 1 minute, 8 x 2 minutes or 5 x 3 minutes at a moderately hard effort, all with jog-down recovery. As an added benefit, Woods says, mountain running develops core strength that is indispensable in OCR.
2. Build Upper-Body Strength
Most obstacles require strength you don’t get from carrying the groceries to and from your car twice a week (which is my favorite upper-body workout). Tap into your strength with bodyweight exercises. If you are a man or a very strong woman, “Pull-ups would be the one exercise to add in,” says Woods. They will give you “a huge leg up on the upper-body obstacles that require hanging and swinging.”
If you’re like me and struggled to do a pull-up during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test (it’s no coincidence that I wasn’t talking to girls at the time), focus on push-ups.
You can kick it up a notch by doing either exercise in the middle of an easy run. Kimber Mattox, a past champion of the XTERRA Trail Run and the Warrior Dash obstacle-course series, does push-ups between hill repeats.
3. Know Your Obstacles
OCR seems to flummox beginners in the same way trail racing does. Whereas we trail runners might forget lubrication before a muddy run, OCR newbies can be stumped by the entire concept of an obstacle.
“There’s a good technique for every obstacle, and doing some research beforehand can save you a lot of energy,” says Woods; climbing or traversing a rope isn’t just about brute strength. “Find a prior course map and YouTube the obstacles they often use.”
Mattox prepares for specific obstacles by “adventuring from one playground to another to practice monkey bars on an easy run.”
As for ropes? “CrossFit gyms have them, but so do a lot of elementary schools,” Woods says. Just be sure to get permission before entering either location.
Both Mattox and Woods say that it is difficult to practice for the multitude of obstacles you may see on race day. In the face of that uncertainty, focus on general strength, resilience and flexibility; you probably won’t be able to find a 10-foot net to climb or barbed wire to train with.
4. Think Ahead
Races are won with the head and heart. Think ahead about what is coming, conserving energy for the most challenging elements. Woods says that while you can daze out on trails, that’s not an option in OCR. Visualize the course and the obstacles as much as possible to be able to perform complex tasks while fatigued. Stopping to think is okay—a few seconds before an obstacle can save minutes in penalties.
And remember that, at its core, OCR is playing on the playground with friends. If you smile every mile, no matter what, says Mattox, “You will have already won a whole lot of battles by the time you reach the finish line.”
Choose Your Own Adventure
There are lots of OCR options. Here are four of the most popular.
Spartan Racing. Anywhere from 5K “sprint” events to half-marathon “beasts” and marathon “ultras,” Spartan racing offers hard running interspersed with strength and skill obstacles. Expect to mix rope climbs and heavy carries with things like spear throwing.
Warrior Dash. Often described as a big party, Warrior Dashes are mostly 5K mud runs with easier obstacles. At the front end of the pack, Warrior Dash ends up being a race between strong runners rather than OCR specialists.
Tough Mudder. At 10-plus miles, Tough Mudders are the longest mass-participation OCR events, with obstacles inspired by military training exercises. Most Tough Mudders are not competition-oriented, but focus on teamwork and overcoming fears like fire, electricity and heights.
Battlefrog. A series of muddy 8Ks with at least 25 Spartan-esque obstacles per race, Battlefrog was designed by Navy Seals and launched in 2014. Come for the OCR; stay for the American-themed race festival.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.