Should You Really Sign up for an Obstacle Course Race?

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Should you enter an obstacle course race? Should You Really Sign up for an Obstacle Course Race?

The popularity of non-traditional races has boomed in the last couple of years. According to Running USA, an estimated 4 million people participated in non-traditional events in the US in 2013 – a figure that nearly doubled from 2012. Compare that to the approximate 6.2 million people who completed a “normal” 5K event in the US in 2012, and the fact that non-traditional races are now more popular than both half marathons and marathons in the US, and it’s clear that adventure sells.

What Exactly Is Obstacle Course Racing?

While these figures include a whole array of non-traditional racing forms, such as mud runs, color runs, night runs and obstacle course racing, the latter discipline was deemed one of the nation’s most popular. So what exactly is obstacle course racing (or OCR, for short)?

OCR basically boils down to a combination of technical running and military-style obstacles, which can include anything from javelin throws and mud pit crawls to wall climbs and electric shocks.

Why Obstacle Course Racing?

And while it is clear, by looking at participation numbers, that OCR is popular, the million dollar question remains this: Why? Why do people find the thought of crawling under barbed wire and hauling themselves over 6-foot walls appealing? According to Joe de Sana, CEO and co-founder of the Spartan Race, OCR satisfies some kind of latent, primal itch. “Human beings are happier when they’re outside, connected with the earth…”, he says.

Another drawcard is the fact that OCR pushes participants to persevere through suffering. Which, in turn, leads to a great sense of pride after completing an event –  something that motivates many to return for more.

The Pros of Obstacle Course Racing

But isn’t that exactly what running offers? Surely it also takes us outside and, especially in the case of trail running, connects us to nature? Plus it pushes us to persevere through suffering? Yes, it does. To an extent. But, according to Yan Martin, Reebok’s vice president of global brand communications, obstacle course races like the Spartan Race requires holistic fitness. “If you’re just a runner, you’ll get crushed. If you just go to the gym, you’ll have a hard time, too”, says Martin. Instead, OCR commands participants to be ready and prepared for anything in addition to being running fit, including hanging, throwing, climbing, balancing and lifting. Christopher Rutz, OCR coach and founder of the Tough Training coaching program, agrees. Says Rutz: “OCR adds the element of the obstacles, which can be strength, skill, endurance or a combination of all. For a runner who is used to doing only one thing, the obstacles can literally and figuratively be the biggest challenge.”

In summary it can therefore be said that OCR embodies the spirit of training to be physically and mentally prepared for absolutely anything. While at the same time developing the ability to adapt to any situation. Now who wouldn’t want those abilities, right?!

The Risks of Obstacle Course Racing

But what are the risks involved in participating in obstacle course races? Because, just like distance running, OCR is no stranger to training- and event-related injuries and even deaths. Yes, just like with most outdoor adventure activities, there definitely is a risk of getting hurt while training and competing. But, according to OCR participant and magazine journalist, Josh Dean, it purportedly does not exceed the risks associated with participation in marathons, triathlons or bike races.

How to Take the Plunge

Work on Full Body Strength

Does this sound like something you’d like to try? Great! So how do you make the transition from being a runner to being an OCR competitor? Will this involve hours and hours of heavy lifting in a gym in order to gain upper body strength? Not necessarily, says Rutz. While OCR is definitely about developing full body strength, including upper body grip and pull strength, he recommends incorporating some of the following everyday things into your normal training regime:

  • Do burpees during your runs in order to spike your heart rate
  • Include weighted carries in your runs, e.g. a sandbag or farmer’s carry
  • Cross some monkey bars and do pull-ups at a playground mid-run in order to simulate overhead strength needs

Junyong Pak, 2:32 marathoner and OCR star, agrees. One of his favorite and most effective obstacle training workouts is something he calls the “Burpee 5K”. This workout comprises doing five burpees after every quarter mile run for a full 5 kays. And while this sounds simple enough, Pak assures people that it isn’t. “If done right, it is quite possibly more miserable than hell”, says Pak.

Ryan Atkins, 2016 Spartan Race US Champion, also feels that a lot of OCR training can be done with your own body weight or some very simple apparatus. Atkins, for example, uses a towel wrapped over a pull-up bar to work on grip strength. He also suggests doing things like jumping over fences (where allowed!), hurdling over picnic tables or doing pull-ups from tree branches on your favorite running loop. So get creative! Or, if you run out of ideas, enlist the help of a trainer who specializes in OCR training.

Prepare for Technical Terrain

One other thing to keep in mind with OCR training, is that the running portion of the course is often technical and muddy. So try and incorporate runs over similar terrain during training.

Is It for You?

So if you’re in a running rut, or are in search of a new challenge that will boost your overall fitness level, try obstacle course racing. Who knows? You might just end up never wanting to return to “normal” running ever again!


  1. Josh Dean, Something wild, Online publication
  2. Dan Fuehrer & Scott Douglas, 2 Charts show growth of non-traditional races, Online publication
  3. Amanda Casanova, Making the transition from running to obstacle course racing, Online publication
  4. Dan England, Junyong Pak: 2:32 Marathoner + OCR Star , Online publication