Training for Your First Obstacle Race: The Do’s and Don’ts

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Do have clear goals in mind and cross-train for obstacles. Don't neglect the mental aspects of training for your first obstacle race. Training for Your First Obstacle Race: The Do’s and Don’ts

So you’ve taken the plunge and signed up for an obstacle race. Soon you may be quite literally taking a plunge, because these races throw things like ponds, fields of mud and water hazards of all type in front of you.

They’re extremely different than your average 5K. Think of them as a steeplechase on steroids. You need to be prepared for just about anything, even though you often won’t know the specifics of your race until shortly before you compete.

Just as the race itself is very different from road racing, training is quite different as well. Most runners know how to stick to a training plan, since they’ve trained to run anywhere from a mile to 26.2 or more in the past.

But obstacle course race training also requires a slightly different mindset than traditional road races or even trail races. Here’s a look at the do’s and don’ts of training for your first obstacle race.

Do: Incorporate Cross-Training Into Your Workout Regimen

Obstacle races are often more about strength than endurance. Sure, the longer Spartan and Tough Mudders will require you to run more than 10 miles. But distance isn’t really the equalizer in an obstacle race. It’s more like the calm before the storm. It’s how you perform on the obstacles that really matters, and so you need to devote time to training for them.

That means developing better upper body strength, often a weak spot for runners. If you do only one thing in your training, you should be able to do a pull-up, because you can draw on that skill and strength for a number of common obstacles, such as monkey bars and wall climbs.

Here are a few other exercises that can help:

  • Push-ups
  • Bar hangs
  • Rows
  • Bicep Curls

Don’t: Train to Run Your Fastest Miles

Remember, part of training is setting realistic expectations.

Obstacle races are about the experience and not the time. You will not be setting any personal records for running, because you will be waiting in line at the various obstacles and then trying to complete them. You should look at the race as either a fun opportunity to spend time with friends or a challenge to take you out of your comfort zone.

It’s not a time to hit a 5K PR, no matter how talented a runner you may be. Come to terms with that before you hit the course, and train accordingly. Speed training can still be an effective part of your regiment to build strength, but consider swapping out, say, a tempo run for hill work.

Do: Imitate the Obstacles You Will See on the Course As Best You Can

While you may not know the exact course layout or obstacles in store, many races (especially national ones such as Tough Mudder or Spartan races) do have some standards that show up at nearly every race. Watch videos or go on forums to see what these are.

Then, incorporate them into your training as best you can. No, you may not have a gigantic mud pit at your disposal, but perhaps you vacation at the beach every year. Running on sand is a serviceable stand-in for running in mud. Or head to your local elementary school or park to do monkey bars. Or try climbing the wall at your gym. Do anything that looks like a reasonable likeness of something you will encounter on race day whenever you can.

Don’t: Neglect Your Fast-Twitch Fibers

While you may not be “racing” in this particular race, you will need the explosiveness provided by your fast-twitch fibers in your legs. They help with jumping and lateral stop-starts. Use plyometric training to increase your fast-twitch muscle development, being careful not to overtrain as this can lead to injury.

Examples of plyometric exercise include:

  • Sprints: For an extra challenge, try them with a band or parachute to add resistance
  • Box jumps: Be sure to step carefully down from the box after each time
  • Butt kickers: Do four to five sets on a 20-yard stretch after your run


Do: Add Mental Training to Your Schedule

This is actually something you should consider for traditional races, too. The mental aspect of running is often overlooked. Training your mind to be ready for difficulties and “obstacles” (both the physical and mental type) can help you through a tough race.

How do you undertake mental training? Visualization offers one great approach. This consists of envisioning things that could go wrong during a race and imagining how you can overcome them. The idea is to prepare yourself for whatever may come. After all, if you’ve already envisioned yourself failing several times at an obstacle then pulling it out on the 10th attempt, you may feel more inclined to keep trying.

Offer yourself multiple strategies for dealing with failure. Sometimes giving up may be the most prudent option—but not every time. Examine the challenge from every direction and make sure you never give up prematurely. You rarely get a second chance at something, and you may regret a split-second decision to give up. Add things into your training to test yourself mentally, such as huge hills or a 2-minute plank midway through a run, to prove to yourself you can do hard things.

Don’t: Entirely Neglect the Running

While you definitely need to strength train, you also need to keep running, too. You may only run in half-mile increments, but you still need that cardio base.

Do: Find a Partner to Hold You Accountable

Partnerships help keep you on track for any sort of race training, but especially with an obstacle race. On race day, you can use teamwork to get through the obstacles, too.

Don’t: Stress Out Too Much

Yes, running an obstacle race is different from what you have already done. Yet all races are meant to be fun, at their core. While they may provide you a challenge, this is merely a hobby for all but the most gifted of runners. An obstacle race should be a way to keep you sharp and motivated and interested in running.

It shouldn’t be cause for alarm or anxiety. If you find you’re that worried about the race during your training, then you may want to reconsider your choice to participate. Being tense on race day could impact your performance, and some obstacles do require intense focus to be completed safely. Keep that in mind as you train.

Have you run an obstacle race? What advice do you have for participants training for their first times?