Photo by Fox Photos / Stringer / Getty Images

How To Tackle Your First Obstacle Course Race Or Mud Run

Don’t lose your mind… or pants

by Molly Hurford

It's 2017: Do something that terrifies you. Tackle new challenges. Face new… well, telling you to face new obstacles is a little on the nose, but it’s apt. Obstacle Course Racing—OCR for short—has grown like crazy in recent years. It’s moved people away from “finish a marathon” point on their bucket list to the admittedly more exciting “finish a Tough Mudder” goal. It makes 26.2 miles of plain running look tame as it combines running with sending participants through mud pits, over and under obstacles like electrified wire, and pushing racers to conquer fears while crafting perfect abs in the pursuit of greatness. It’s wicked fun, and let’s be honest, it’s highly Instagramable. So, if tackling this kind of event is on your to-do list for 2017, we’ve got you covered. OCR world champion Lindsay Webster has some training tips to share that will make your first—or second, or twenty-second—OCR race or mud run a smashing success.

Start with your weakness

Know yourself: Are you already a great runner but lacking in upper body strength? That was Webster when she started in obstacle course racing, so her first year was spent working on building strength. But if you’re already pretty strong, the run might be your limiter. And if you’re a total beginner, well, Webster thinks that the run is the biggest hurdle to overcome (though literal hurdles won’t be easy either). She adds that one of the common mistakes is assuming that the run portion between obstacles will be simple. But when you add in the race atmosphere, the skyrocketing heart rate obstacles, and the nature of the technical, muddy trails, the run is a challenge even if you were marathon-ready. As you make a training plan (even if it’s just in your head), plan to primarily focus on running. Which brings us to next point...

Run trails, and sprinkle in obstacles 

The best way to get good at obstacle course racing is to… obstacle course race. So don’t spend most of your training time in the gym on the treadmill and lifting weights; instead, hit the trails, especially when conditions are sloppy. For most runners, rain sucks. But for you, rain is something to be thankful for since it gives you a chance to train in conditions similar to what you might see on race day. If you have local trails through woods—especially ones with short, steep hill efforts—make sure you’re logging most of your miles on those. And add in obstacles along the way! Climb trees, drop and do a set of burpees (more on that in a second), hunt up a playground and do some monkey bar reps—get creative with it, so you’re not surprised by anything on race day. 

Practice your burpees 

Burpees are the currency of choice at pretty much every obstacle course race. If you can’t complete an obstacle, the penalty is typically doing a series of burpees (jump and clap, plank, push-up, repeat). So, Webster says, it makes sense to make sure your burpee game is strong. Not only is the move going to put you in obstacle-ready shape and kick your butt on an aerobic and muscular level, the ability to bust out a set of burpees will speed you through challenges in your first race. Add them at the beginning and end of runs, or even mid-run, to get used to doing them while tired.  

Work on grip strength  

Obstacles like climbing over a wall, tackling a set of monkey bars, or navigating a rope swing are all grip-dependent, so Webster mixes in as much grip strength training as she can. For her, that means trips to the rock climbing gym (a great full-body workout that improves grip strength hugely), but if you don’t have a climbing spot nearby, she says it’s still easy to work on your grip. She and her world champion husband Ryan Atkins have a pull-up bar that they spend time on, doing pull-ups, obviously, but also simply hanging. Between that and weighted carries with heavy buckets (again, a great full-body workout), they keep their grip strength dialed. Note: Expect calluses at first; hand lotion and gloves at night will help if your palms are begging for mercy!

Choose the right first race 

You don’t have to immediately jump into a 24-hour race, or even a 20-kilometer one. There are plenty of short course options available, from three kilometers to 10. And if you’re nervous about certain obstacles, like electrified wire, don’t worry—just do some research to see what obstacles are typically found on the race course since it varies. Spartan races, Tough Mudders, Warrior Dash, Battlefrog… all of these series have different challenges (and different penalties for non-completion of those obstacles), so do research beforehand. Come back to thinking about your weaknesses: If you can’t swim, maybe skip the one that involves diving into a pond, or if you know you’re going to have serious race-day nerves, look for one touted as "beginner-friendly."

Get there early 

Most races let you check a backpack filled with post-race supplies like clean clothes, snacks, a garbage bag for muddy clothes, and whatever else you might want when you cross the finish line. While this seems awesome, it does create a line for that dropoff on race day morning, so Webster recommends leaving plenty of time before the actual starting time to get yourself organized. (You might also need this time to deal with race-day stomach, which tends to send nervous runners sprinting for a port-a-potty.)  

Wear tights (and proper sneakers) 

After one season of racing in shorts and belly-crawling through mud and falling on sharp, pointy things, Webster was over the scars on her legs. Now, she races in leggings no matter what temperature it is outside—her preference is Marena Women's Compression Leggings—and she says that while you might worry about the heat, you typically spend so much time in water- or mud-based obstacles that your tights are wet and actually cooling you down. For tops, she just recommends avoiding anything that could catch on an obstacle or weigh you down. And when it comes to sneakers, consider the tread versus the cool color: You should be looking for something that has a lot of traction, since you’ll be running in (shocker) mud. 

But the top tip? Enjoy your first few races, and focus on finishing—don’t feel bad about a slow time or an obstacle that got the best of you. Now get out there and get in the mud.