What You Need to Know: Obstacle Racing and Mud Runs

Expect the unexpected, choose your challenges and get race ready. Here’s how.


There's a race revolution sweeping the nation.

It's supplanting the 5k as the first race for newbie runners. And that's not all. This uprising is overtaking the marathon as the ultimate test of fitness among type A, weekend warriors.

This trending fitness event combines adventure racing with components of a military-style challenge course to create a race that is a test of strength, endurance and willpower.

Sounds a little crazy, right?

You might be thinking that now, but it's only a matter of time until you receive an invitation to participate in an obstacle race or mud run. Then before you know it, you'll be running, jumping and crawling through the mud en route to the finish line.

Expect the Unexpected

Before you make up your mind for or against signing up, it's good to know exactly what you'd be getting into.

Obstacle races and mud runs tend to get lumped into the same category. The former has loads of obstacles and happens to take place on a muddy, rugged race course. The latter is closer to a trail run or cross country race with a lot more mud, which you'll need to jump in or crawl through. (To keep things simple, from here on out, I'll refer to both as an obstacle race.)

Some of the more popular races, such as Tough Mudder, come complete with obstacles like barrier walls, monkey bars, rope climbs, water hazards and even electric shocks. They have a reputation as a grueling test of fitness, but there's a race out there for everyone.

[Read: Are You Tough Enough to Complete a Tough Mudder?]

Choose your Challenge

You don't need to be an elite athlete to take on an obstacle race, but you do need to choose the right challenge.

Some races are more of a party than a competition. They don't keep time and there's no winner, but there is an after party.

On the other hand, a race like the Spartan Beast is billed as one of the toughest races on the planet. This probably isn't the best choice for first timers, but it's hugely popular among adrenaline junkies who want to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

A simple Internet search will help you figure out which race to pick. Before you register, look for a map of the race course, the types of obstacles you'll encounter and the level of competition. Once you've identified the right race for you and have signed up, it's time to begin an obstacle race training program.

[Read: 10 Themed Races to Make Getting In Shape Fun.]

Get Race Ready

Chances are good that this race will be unlike any other challenge you've undertaken in the past. For that reason, you'll need to take a different approach to training as well. It's a good idea to think of your obstacle race training plan in two phases.

Phase 1: Basic Conditioning

When you're getting started, focus on building a foundation of cardiovascular fitness first. That means you should be able to run three to five miles without stopping. If you can't do that yet, alternate between walking and jogging. Eventually, you'll be able to switch between jogging and running. Then, running will become your baseline.

If you're already in running shape, throw some interval training into the mix. Sprints and hill climbs should become a mainstay in your obstacle race training plan.

Strength training comes next. But it's not the same kind of weight lifting used by bodybuilders or strongmen. That's because you will be expected to move your own body weight up, over, around and through various obstacles. You're going for lean and mean, not big and bulky.

So here's the game plan: Aim to improve relative strength, or your strength-to-weight ratio.

Begin with body weight exercises like pushups, pullups, triceps dips, squats and lunges. Once you're ready, you can begin to use free weights to complete compound exercises like the back squat, deadlift and overhead press.

[Read: 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise.]

Phase 2: Race Specific Skills

After completing phase one, you'll be fit. As a matter of fact, you'll probably be fit enough to take on most entry level obstacle races. But if you want to take your fitness to a new level in preparation for a more extreme test, turn your attention to honing your race-specific skills.

Think about it: Obstacle races don't take place in a straight line on a paved course. And they aren't completed at a steady running pace. They're start and stop efforts that mix running with tests of strength sprinkled in along the way.

That's why you should take your training outside when possible. And running as long or as far as possible isn't the best way to train – it's a good idea to complete interval workouts that combine strength and cardio into one hybrid workout.

Try to include exercises like the kettlebell swing, box jump and rope climb into your training plan. You'll also want to become acquainted with the burpee, or squat thrust. This move combines a pushup and jump squat into one move, and there's a good chance you'll encounter it during your obstacle race.

[Read: What You Need to Know: Kettlebell Training.]

Odds and Ends

Congrats, you're signed up and race ready!

But there are a few more things you'll want to consider prior to race day. Let this checklist be your guide to everything you'll need to dominate your obstacle race.

What to Wear

• Let's be honest, you're going to get dirty. Wear clothing, shoes and gear that you wouldn't mind ruining.

• Baggy clothing is a bad choice. Cotton is, too. Stick with compression shorts, tights, tops and/or socks.

• Race day is the wrong day to wear something for the first time. Race in something you've trained in.

• Go for trail running or off-road shoes.

• Consider athletic or weight lifting gloves to help with grip and to protect your hands.

What to Bring

• Hydration pack (for longer races).

• Knee, elbow or leg protection, pads, or compression sleeves.

• Sunscreen.

• Athletic or medical tape.

• Watch and/or heart-rate monitor.

After the Race

• Bring a towel, toiletries and a change of clothes to be warm and dry for the post-race party.

• Have some extra cash on hand for food and merchandise.

• Enjoy the race and post-race activities.

There you have it: Training for an obstacle course race is a fun way to get in shape and stay motivated. Just be sure to choose the right race and stick to a training plan that will get you race ready.

[Read: 4 Exercises Trainers Hate.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Joe Vennare is a fitness professional, freelance writer, and the co-founder of Hybrid Athlete. He's obsessed with education, entrepreneurship, and exercise as a means of constant evolution. Follow him on Twitter as he hacks his way to a physically fit, exceedingly productive, more creative version of himself.