A brief glimpse at the white-hot obstacle-racing craze.
For a growing number of runners, a race is not a race unless it includes obstacles, “Fear Factor”-style challenges and, of course, plenty of sticky, gooey, slippery mud.
Drawing on roots in expedition adventure racing, trail running, parcour and pseudo-military comradeship, the obstacle-racing trend has exploded in recent years.
How big is it? An estimated 2 million people competed in some sort of obstacle race in 2012, a number that will certainly grow as the number of events soars past 500 nationwide this year. Compare that to the roughly 2.2 million marathon and half-marathon finishers last year and you get the idea of how hot the trend is. (The category got started when Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Competitor magazine, launched what would become the REI Muddy Buddy Adventure Series in 1999.)
Social media has been a huge catalyst for the explosion. It seems everyone wants to post photos of themselves, preferably muddy, crawling under barbed wire, getting zapped by electrical cords, leaping from 12-foot platforms or climbing cargo nets.
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“Experience is the new luxury good,” says Will Dean, who started the Tough Mudder series as a thesis project while getting his MBA at Harvard Business School. “This is what people want to brag about on Facebook.”
While there are many different events — Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, Muddy Buddy, to name only a few — the intrigue is that that every one is different, with some as short as 3 miles in length or as long as 24 hours in duration. Most require a mix of endurance and strength training, an indefatigable sense of adventure and loads of unbridled machismo. Can’t seem to get over the greased wall? That might cost you 30 burpees on the spot. Don’t want to wade through icy cold water? Drop and do 20 pushups!
“We view it as a sport, and we think that’s why it’s exploding,” says Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena, a former Wall Street financial broker who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a single year. “When you look at what you’re doing — running, jumping, climbing, crawling, perhaps throwing a spear — it’s a far more natural sport than football, basketball or baseball.”
Q&A With Ryan Tworek
Ryan Tworek is the consummate obstacle racer. The 37-year-old credit services relationships manager from Mission Viejo, Calif., is an active CrossFit participant who admits he gets bored running long distances just for the sake of running. As of early April, he was leading the age-group open division in the Reebok Spartan Race national points series and was prepping for the 24-hour Spartan Death Race on June 21-23 in Pittsfield, Vt.
Why do you do these races?
Running for two hours at a time isn’t that fun for me, but running on a mountain with obstacles for two hours is a little more fun. During the Toughest Mudder race last year, I got to the 26-mile mark, and I was like, “Hey, this is my first marathon.”
How do you train?
You’ve got to have a well-balanced base of fitness. I do a lot of CrossFit. It’s definitely a big boost because it works on strength and speed and a little bit of endurance. It definitely helps with pulling yourself up the ropes and pulling yourself up over the walls. I run a few times a week, too, with my longest run being nine miles.
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What shoes do you wear?
Races suggest wearing old running shoes because they’ll get all muddy, but you need traction and durability more than anything. I’ve seen so many people roll their ankles out there. I tell everybody to wear a pair of Salomon Speedcross 3.
What’s the best part of any obstacle race?
The camaraderie and encouragement you get on the course. It’s the most positive atmosphere you’ll ever be in. Everyone is working hard, and everyone wants to help each other through the obstacles. There’s no negativity out there at all, and that makes it fun.
What’s the worst part?
It’s probably the cold. In a lot of events, you’re at a mountain or it’s a windy day and you’re going through water pits fed by melting snow.
To hear an interview with Ryan Tworek, go to www.competitorradio.competitor.com.
Training For Obstacle Racing
Obstacle racing requires both general and dynamic strength and cardiovascular endurance, combining running with climbing ropes and walls, slithering under cargo nets and barbwire, carrying sandbags and logs, leaping over fire, and crawling through claustrophobia-inducing tubes and freshly dug tunnels.
Since many recreational athletes fall primarily into two camps — endurance enthusiasts and the anaerobic strength-training gym crowd — they tend to lack the overall fitness to navigate an obstacle course without walking parts of it.
Runners have no problem covering 3-15 miles, but can be slowed by the strength-specific challenges. On the contrary, gym rats push through the obstacles easily but can have trouble covering the distance of the course without fatiguing.
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Instead of training by breaking workouts into separate strength and cardio days, think of obstacle training in terms of integrated workouts. That way you’ll be prepared to fly through any obstacle course, no matter how twisted the challenges.
Here are a few insights about how to prepare for your first or next obstacle race.
Warm Your Core
An active warm-up is important before an obstacle race or training session since you’re using your entire body, often in ways you don’t expect. Front and side planks, glute bridges, walking lunges and lateral lunges not only prime you for movement, they’ll boost performance and help prevent injury.
Be A Kid
In an obstacle race, you’ll be called upon to navigate monkey bars, balance on beams, climb walls and traverse ropes. Chances are you can find all of those things at your local playground. This is a great excuse to play more with your kids. Don’t have kids? Borrow some nieces or nephews. No kids available? Use the playground in off hours.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Safety is always the primary concern, of course. But there’s no reason you can’t run up and down that mountain of mulch available to the public at your local park. Those huge concrete culverts along your running trail waiting for installation? Why not bear-crawl through them as you will in a race? Instead of avoiding muddy trails after rain, embrace them. Use whatever you find: Hop up and down on a fallen tree, straw bale or stair steps.
Obstacle races take place off-road. So why train on concrete or asphalt, which is harder on your body anyway? Even in urban areas, you usually can run on the grass along sidewalks, through parks, on gravel or packed sand and along waterways. Challenge yourself to run as much as possible off-road, leaping over sidewalks and other paved areas.
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You’re probably already doing this for your running program, but it becomes more important in obstacle racing, which combines intervals of running and obstacles. After a warm-up run, alternate between intervals of work and rest as if you were doing a fartlek run. (For example: three minutes of running at 80 percent followed by three minutes of walking or easy jogging.)
Unlike the steady, paved inclines of many road races or the run portion of most triathlons, obstacle races feature short, steep, off-road climbs. Here, too, your local park can be a perfect training ground. Sprint uphill at a hard (but not all-out) pace and take twice the time to walk down. Repeat several times. Be sure to keep your stride compact to prevent hamstring pulls.
Mix It Together
Obstacle race training is not just about running or the obstacles. Simulate the rhythms and challenges of a race by stopping every half mile during any run to do a dozen push-ups, pull-ups, burpees or various drills like one-legged hops. You can perform 30 mountain climbers or body-weight squats. Or do a combination of two or three exercises after each half a mile. The key is to make it continuous, mimicking a non-stop obstacle race. Mix it up and have fun.
Find Your Next Obstacle Race: For a comprehensive list of races, training tips, photos and videos, point your browser to www.runmudrun.com.
Pete Williams is an avid obstacle racer and the author of the e-book “Obstacle Fit: Your Complete Training Program to Run Fast, Conquer Challenges and Discover Your Inner Spartan, Mudder or Warrior.”