The Staples of Obstacle Race Training
By Melissa Rodriguez, NASM-CPT, NSCA-CSCS
If you’ve already signed up, you may have found that there are many ways to train for an obstacle race after an online search. You can choose from Crossfit, Insanity, and even free programs from race organizers.
Training for an obstacle race requires a unique plan of attack integrating endurance for a long run and functional strength to overcome various challenges. Although races are unique and can vary in terms of distance and specific obstacles, there are common elements across adventure runs.
Nearly all obstacle course races involve running, walking, crawling, climbing, jumping, lifting, pulling, and balancing your way towards the finish line. In order to meet these demands, you’ll need your training to work the same muscles you’ll need to recruit on race day.
One of the good things about obstacle race training is that you don’t need to spend much to train for a race. As a beginner, your own bodyweight is enough to start.
10 Obstacle Race Training Staples for Success
Your Obstacle Course Race Training Program Should Include:
This is a no-brainer. Even though you’ll need to slow down for obstacles and muddy patches, you’ll need to run regularly in order to build endurance. Since most obstacle races are, at the minimum, 5k’s, work up to running 3-5 miles without rest.
Once you’ve built up endurance, you should be ready to change-up your running routine sessions. Add in interval and/or hill runs. Interval and hill runs can help you improve your speed and power.
Push-ups will help you build upper body strength and core. If straight-leg push-ups are challenging, you can build up to these by adjusting the intensity. Start with with your hands on an elevated surface like a bench or weighted bar resting on an Olympic squat rack. Adjust the height gradually until you can do push-ups with your hands on the floor, legs straight.
If you’ve mastered the basic push-up, modifications can make sure you are building strength. Elevating your feet onto a bench, chair, or stability ball will make the push-up more challenging. Plyometric or explosive push-ups with also increase the intensity.
As challenging as they may be, pull-ups are essential for obstacle race training. The pull-up will help you improve your upper body and grip strength. This strength will be critical if you encounter challenges like climbing walls or ropes and monkey bars. Try different grips to best prepare for these challenges.
If you can’t do a pull-up just yet, you can start by strengthening your upper back and arms. Rows and variations will help strengthen the muscles you need for a pull-up. Also, if you have weight loss goals, keep in mind that pull ups will become more manageable as you lose weight.
Squats are a great lower-body strengthener. You can easily modify squats to target on hamstrings, quadriceps, and/or glutes. Squats will also help you build lower body endurance for an obstacle race.
Once you’ve mastered the squat using your own bodyweight, you can add weight or modify stability to make this exercise more challenging. Dumbbells, barbells, and bands can provide additional resistance. To adjust the stability of the exercise and work your balance, which you will need for obstacles, including running over muddy ground, try single leg squats.
Lunges are another versatile lower body exercise requiring only your own bodyweight. Like squats, they will help you build leg strength and endurance. There are many variations for lunges as they can be performed easily in multiple planes. Once you’ve mastered forward lunges, you can increase the difficulty by adding weight. You can also adjust the challenge by adjusting planes: side lunges will target your adductors and abductors, while turning lunges will also work your balance.
If you thought planks were just a good way to test your core, think again! Planks can help you build race-specific core strength. To get under low barbed-wire or other barrier, you’ll have to get lower than all fours to crawl low enough to get by. To do this, you’ll need the core stability and strength you’ll find by including planks in your training program.
Once the traditional bent-elbow plank becomes manageable, you can make it more challenging by trying a side plank. You can also add hip extensions or knee tucks to the traditional plank.
You’ll find yourself having to jump from an obstacle like a wall or bales of hay to the ground. You may even need to jump in order to get by an obstacle. Including jumps in your training program will help you develop power and proper landing mechanics for these obstacles. Start with squat or lunge jumps and once you’ve mastered form for these, progress to box jumps and other plyometrics.
The best way to get better at crawling is to include crawls and related exercises to your training program. Bear walks and quadrupeds/bird-dogs will help you prepare for crawling through tunnels and similar obstacles.
Burpees can be the ultimate staple for obstacle race training, especially once you progress to creative variations. The burpee will help you build explosiveness and train to transition from one obstacle to another, one obstacle to a run, etc. Burpees will also help with landing mechanics from the jump segment of the exercise.
You can modify burpees by adjusting the number of push-ups you do per burpee, adding a pull-up at the end, increasing the number of knee tucks — your imagination is the limit!
Some obstacles may require you to tuck in your knees and move horizontally along a rope or pole. You will need strong abs to overcome these obstacles. You can start with the basic crunch to master form and progress to abdominal exercises that will target your lower abdominal fibers. Abdominal exercises with knee tucks or leg lifts will hone in on your lower abs.
Now how do you put it all together? Try to run at least two or three times a week as running should be the emphasis for you if you are a beginner. Include a couple of strength workouts integrating the staples above twice a week, focusing on mastering the bodyweight versions before adding resistance or other progressions.
Once you’ve build your running endurance so you can run at least three miles without resting, you can combine both your running and strength exercises for a single workout session every week or two. You can do this by running for a few minutes and then transition to do a few of the staple exercises and then return back to running. By integrating both running and strength training stapes into your program, you will build a solid foundation for your first (or next!) obstacle race.