Over the last five years, obstacle course races have evolved from a fringe sport to a normal weekend hobby.
Enter any Warrior Dash and you’ll see athletes of all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels on the starting line ready to cross the race off their bucket list. In fact, many of the runners at these events have only done a handful of road races and wouldn’t even classify themselves as “runners.”
And I think this is a great thing! As obstacle course races (OCR) have become more approachable, they’re helping more couch potatoes get in better shape and lead an active lifestyle. Nothing wrong with that.
But of course, it creates a big opportunity for those runners who are in shape and want to crush an obstacle race — those who don’t simply want to finish it or run most of it, but want to compete and see where they stand with the other die-hard OCR athletes.
If you want to push yourself and finish as close to the front of the pack as possible, there are certain elements of obstacle course racing you must consider and prepare for during training. As you can imagine, these events require a more balanced level of fitness and athleticism than a traditional road race.
In 2012, I myself won the Maryland Warrior Dash by over a minute, beating nearly 17,000 other people. I’m not the most gifted athlete, but the chasm between “trained runner” and “average Joe” was wide and I took advantage of it. I think you can, too.
The training, expectations, and race strategy you employ will require a unique approach. And to truly excel at obstacle races, you’ll need to prepare accordingly.
Let’s get started. The hard work begins now.
Obstacle Race Training 101
Having a versatile skill set of strength, endurance, and speed will help you conquer the challenge of competing in any obstacle race. And being in better shape will surely make the event more fun since you’ll struggle less. Let’s focus on sound training so you can enjoy the race instead of just surviving it.
The most important things to keep in mind:
1. Ask yourself where you’re at, and where you want to be. Before starting to train, assess your starting level of fitness, goals, and what you’d like to accomplish.
You should know:
- Whether you want to run a short race or long race
- How challenging the distance is for you right now
- Your basic level of fitness (how much training do you need to do?)
- Do you have the ability to complete the obstacles?
Identify your strengths and weaknesses and compare them to your upcoming race so you can train appropriately.
2. Give yourself enough time to train. If you’re an active runner or strength athlete, give yourself about 6-8 weeks of specific obstacle race training to prepare to dominate the race. If you’re new to running or fitness in general, you’ll likely need 12-16 weeks to train appropriately.
Remember, we’re training to be competitive, not just finish the race.
3. Run a lot. There’s no getting around the fact that obstacle races are running races first and tests of strength and agility second. If you’re not training for endurance with consistent running every week, long runs, and workouts that build aerobic fitness, you won’t compete nearly as well.
4. Build well-rounded strength. Traversing obstacles requires a basic amount of strength. Thankfully, you don’t need to be the next pro strongman, but familiarity and proficiency with basic bodyweight or resistance band exercises will dramatically help your performance.
Focus on basics like pull-ups, push-ups, squats, and planks. A comprehensive weight-lifting program isn’t necessary, but you may want to do some slightly more advanced medicine ball exercises to help your strength gains.
These exercises will help you meet the demands of the race, including pulling yourself over walls, climbing monkey bars, jumping over barriers, and crawling through tunnels.
5. Increase your overall athleticism. Being strong and aerobically fit isn’t enough to run a successful obstacle race. You also need agility, coordination, and general athleticism to give yourself an edge on a challenging course.
Dynamic flexibility exercises ensure you maintain a full range of motion and are a great way to warm up before any run. But the best way to prepare is to run some of your mileage on challenging trails. Trail running forces you to navigate roots, rocks, fallen logs, mud, hills, and even stream crossings.
These elements of preparation will help you succeed on race day. When you line up before the starting gun, you’ll know you’re prepared — and proper preparation creates the best kind of confidence.
An Example Obstacle Race Workout
It’s always important to train specifically for the race that you’re preparing for. This is why marathoners run long and 5k athletes train fast — they’re building the specific fitness they need to be successful for their race.
Obstacle course races are unique because they combine running and strength components in a stop-and-start environment. It can be incredibly challenging and disorienting to “pure” runners who aren’t use to this type of racing.
Circuit workouts are those that combine running at higher intensities with strength exercises — very similar to what you’ll experience on race day. They provide endurance fitness gains, strength, and confidence to run when fatigue is already present.
This is just a sample of a successful circuit workout and should be modified based on your fitness level and goals. But it shows a template of a sound training session that you can emulate.
Instructions: After a dynamic warm-up and 10-20 minutes of easy running, complete the following circuit 1-3 times, resting only as much as necessary:
- Run 400-800 meters at about 5k race pace
- Perform 10-20 bodyweight squats + 10-20 push-ups
- Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
- Perform 10-20 walking lunges + 1-minute plank
- Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
- Perform 2-8 pull-ups + 1-minute side plank (both sides)
- Run 400-800 meters at 5k pace
- Perform 20-30 burpees
Finish with 10 minutes of easy running followed by dynamic stretching to help yourself cool down properly.
- Adjust the distance of the running intervals based on fitness level and the length of your race.
- Feel free to substitute other exercises like squat jumps, box jumps, mountain climbers, push presses, bodyweight rows, farmer walks, or other weighted carries and crawling movements.
- Start with one session per week and gradually work your way up to two sessions once you have the fitness and energy to complete them.
- You can increase the difficulty of this workout by:
- Completing additional sets of the circuit
- Increasing the number of reps for each exercise
- Increasing the number of exercises completed
- Lengthening the running portion of the workout
- Running faster
- If you don’t know your 5k pace, run a “hard” effort that you can still maintain for the duration of the workout. If you’re training for a long-course obstacle race, you can slow down so the effort is moderate.
Race Execution: It’s Time to Dominate
Running a successful race requires more than fitness. You need a solid race strategy and mindset for success.
Focus on what you can control the morning of your race so you can achieve all of your goals and have the best day possible.
Relax! Stress is normal and you’ll naturally experience a small amount of anxiety before an obstacle race. Have fun with your friends, tell some jokes, and breathe normally. Remember: you’ve prepared to compete and it’s time to step up.
Never skip the warm up. Just like with any other race, you need a proper warm-up routine of easy running and dynamic flexibility exercises to get yourself loose and ready. A sound warm-up will also help prevent injuries on the race course. If you’re warm and lightly sweating on the starting line, you’re ready.
Line up in the right spot. Racers with goals of finishing with the top athletes should line up close to the starting line to avoid bottlenecks at the obstacles. But if you’re not confident in your speed, or think too many other runners will be faster, then it’s safe to line up in the middle or close to the back of the pack. No matter where you line up, always remember to give your loudest battle cry before the start!
Safety first. Every obstacle presents risks, but you should minimize them at all costs by covering them slowly and carefully. Races aren’t won on the obstacles — they’re won in-between obstacles with fast running. Assume every wall, barrier, and rope is slippery and covered with mud and proceed with caution. Don’t hesitate to ask another runner for help — it’s common and expected.
Enjoy yourself! Even though you want to compete, you’re doing this to have fun, right? So don’t take the race too seriously. Laugh. Smile. Enjoy the mud. Try to enjoy the electrocution (or something like that…) and remember that you paid money to be here.
There’s a particular type of joy in pushing yourself to your full abilities, so leave everything on the race course and have fun with running hard and seeing what you’re capable of accomplishing.
Obstacle races are unique tests of your physical and mental toughness. With the right training, you’ll set yourself up for success and some major bragging rights.
Remember that most runners at OCRs are beginners. They’re not super-athletes and you don’t have to be, either. But if you want to dominate your next obstacle course race, it just takes a smart approach and a willingness to work hard.
In my case, I didn’t train specifically for the Warrior Dash that I ended up winning. I was just in great 5k race shape and I do a lot of bodyweight strength work; the rest took care of itself. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll surprise yourself at what you can accomplish.
And if you still have any questions, I want to answer as many as possible in the comments below.
Ready? Let’s hear your battle cry!
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field certified coach. Get the latest training tips at Strength Running – or sign up for a free email course on injury prevention and how to run faster..