Key Tips on How to Choose the Right Obstacle Race
By Melissa Rodriguez, NASM-CPT, NSCA-CSCS
If you have recently decided to sign up for an obstacle race, you may have noticed the growing number of races nationwide. With more than 50 within the obstacle racing genre, it’s easy to be overwhelmed in deciding which one to pick. And as millions sign up for these races, new organizers are bound to emerge in order to meet demand.
So how do you choose an obstacle race?
The good news is that there is a race for just about everyone: from beginners to veteran exercisers. It doesn’t matter if you are looking for a challenge or for a fun activity on a Saturday afternoon, there’s a race for you. To find the right one, keep in mind the following four categories.
If you’ve never pursued an athletic challenge or adhered to a structured exercise program, chances are you are a beginner. An obstacle course may be your motivation for regular exercise, your incentive to get off the couch and be active. But before you start preparing for an obstacle race, you need to pick one first.
Most beginner-level obstacle races are typically 5 kilometers (3.15 miles). This may be the best option for you if you are a newbie. Most of these races have 10-15 obstacles scattered throughout the course. Some of these races include the Warrior Dash, Rugged Maniac, and many locally organized obstacle races and mud runs.
To determine whether or not the obstacles are right for your fitness level, visit the race’s website and/or e-mail organizers to get an idea of what challenges to expect. No two obstacle races are identical, each one is unique in terms of challenges. Be sure to do your homework.
Give yourself at least a few months to build conditioning for your obstacle race. You may even want to try a traditional 5k road or trail run a few weeks beforehand as an endurance test for your first obstacle race.
If you’ve been exercising regularly (at least 2-3 times a week) for a minimum of six months, you may be considered an intermediate-level exerciser. You’re familiar with the components of fitness, all the basics involved in a structured exercise program: core, strength, cardio, and flexibility training. You may have even worked with a personal trainer or completed an at-home fitness program like P90X.
If this sounds like you, you can start with a 5k, but you may also aim for a longer race if you have some running experience. Although a 5k obstacle race may be the most popular distance in the genre, there are many organizers that host longer races. For example, the Spartan Sprint can be up to 5 miles, while the Super Spartan is typically a 5-8 mile challenge. The Ruckus, another national brand, organizes a 4-mile obstacle challenge.
Races longer than a 5k, between 5-8 miles in distance, may often be filled with up to 20 obstacles. Give yourself about 6-8 weeks to prepare for this obstacle race. You may need more time if you don’t have much experience with a running program.
If you are a seasoned exerciser or if you’ve participated in athletic events like a half-marathon or a triathlon, you may be ready for an extensive obstacle endurance challenge. A 5k obstacle race may be a good introduction, but it may be too easy for you.
There are many obstacle races longer than eight miles that will challenge you. The Spartan Beast, Tough Mudder, and Rebel Race all have events longer than nine miles, some up to 12 miles. For these challenges, you can expect roughly 25 or more obstacles.
Even though you’ve accomplished athletic feats in the past, give yourself about six weeks to train for an obstacle race. Focus on your weaker links. If you are a runner, for example, you may want to balance a running program with strength training for arms, back, and chest. If you’re a veteran exerciser with little running experience, you may want to give yourself more time to prepare. Integrate running, strength, core, and flexibility into a complete obstacle race training program.
Maybe you’re not a new or long-term exerciser. Maybe you just want to get into obstacle racing for the fun of it. There’s a race for you, too!
Several organizers focus on a specific theme or niche in obstacle racing. Run For Your Lives pioneered the zombie racing course. The Hero Rush organizes a 5k-obstacle race that simulates some of the challenges firefighters encounter. Means Streets hosts a 5k-urban obstacle race inspired by chase scenes in movies. There are also several women-only races such as the Diva Dash, Dirty Girl Mud Run, and Pretty Muddy Run. Like other 5k obstacle races, many of these themed and niche runs involve about a dozen obstacles. If it’s your first ever athletic challenge, give yourself eight weeks to prepare.
On a final note, if you intend to participate in obstacle racing regularly, make sure your first race is a learning experience. Make note of challenging obstacles so you can adjust your program when you train for your next race.
Remember, you don’t have to be a long-time exerciser or recreational athlete to take on an obstacle race. There is a race for every fitness and interest level. With proper training and the right attitude, you can find a challenge that’s best for you!