Welcome to the World of Obstacle Course Racing

What is Obstacle Course Racing?

If you've ever run, climbed walls, lifted anything heavy, dodged barbed wire while crawling on your stomach, jumped through fire, or been electrocuted, then you already have an idea of what it feels like to do an obstacle course race. All you need to do to make it legitimate is put a combination of those together and make it a competition.

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is a sport that challenges you to outrun your opponents while also overcoming a set of obstacles. These races will put your strength, endurance, and determination to the test with physical and mental trials.

Who would want to push their limits like this when many other workout options are available? The answer is: everyone who's ever competed on American Ninja Warrior. But it's not limited to the hundreds of competitors who've gone for that title on TV. In just five years (from 2009-2013), Running USA reports that the number of participants in obstacle course races went up by a whopping four million – and more and more newbies strap on their shoes to start training every year.

Where did Obstacle Course Racing originate?

While there has indeed been a boom in participation in the past decade, the modern obstacle course race has actually been around since 1987. The UK-based Tough Guy Race was then deemed the toughest race in the world. As you can probably guess, it wasn't just because of the distance or terrain. The Tough Guy Race brought participants face-to-face with their greatest fears like heights, enclosed spaces, and yes, even electricity.

Some enthusiasts link the creation of OCR to adventure racing, which first emerged in the late 1960s. Adventure racing is more focused on sharp navigation skills. Some adventure races can last over the course of several days and require competitors not just to run but also to bike, kayak, and rock climb their way to the finish line.

Nowadays, thousands of OCR events are open not just to daredevils and athletes, but to everyone and anyone who’s interested to OCR. There are races with different degrees of difficulty and all kinds of gimmicks. All it takes is a few clicks or chatting up a friend who's tried it to know the wide spectrum of races going on right now.

What are the Popular Obstacle Races?

From climbing monkey bars to throwing spears, there is a wide range of skills to master depending on the type of obstacle race you're doing. The distance and the conditions very depending on where the race takes place. Here are a few popular examples of obstacle course races that attract runners around the globe.

  • Spartan Race

Named after the Ancient Greek civilization that gave its citizens the most intense military training of its time, the Spartan Race was first introduced in 2010. Runners are offered a range of distances and difficulties from Sprint courses (3+ miles, 20+ obstacles), to Super courses (8+ miles, 20+ obstacles), to Beast courses (13+ miles, 35+ obstacles). A Spartan race lasts from anywhere between 30 minutes to a grueling six hours, and can take place in venues like ski slopes, state parks, and even paintball parks. Joe De Sena, CEO and co-founder of Spartan Race, calls it a "gateway drug" that gets you hooked on the OCR lifestyle.

  • Tough Mudder

The Tough Mudder is not a race. This obstacle course is a challenge that tests participants' ability to work as a team. The obstacles are designed around common fears like fire, water, electricity, and heights. Races go for 10-12 miles, and finishing time varies since contestants are competing to finish first amongst themselves instead of to beat a set time. Tough Mudder courses are made to take advantage of the natural features of their outdoor venues. They often include the Arctic Enema in which contestants dive into a dumpster of ice water, swim under a plank then climb back out, as well as the Everest in which contestants run at full speed up a quarter pipe oiled down with mud and grease and try to grab on and reach the top.

  • Ninja Warrior

The most widely televised OCR is the Ninja Warrior. Its humble beginnings were as an entertainment TV special in Japan called Sasuke that invited athletes to do a four-stage obstacle course as quickly and cleanly as they could. As the show grew in popularity, spin-offs set in other countries premiered, including American Ninja Warrior. The time to beat depends solely on your fellow contestants. Obstacles vary per city and season but consistently involve speed, balance, upper-body strength, grip, and the Warped Wall, which is similar to the Everest but without the slippery surface.

  • Conquer Challenge PH

This is an OCR created by enthusiasts in the Philippines to entice and challenge their fellow athletes. Crossfitters, runners, triathletes, and fitness buffs alike are all invited to race, climb, overcome, and help each other out on the course. Some races are even open to kids where they can do challenges like the Human Bridge and inch their way down two parallel bars on only their hands and feet. Conquer Challenge PH also incorporates obstacles inspired by those in other races like climbing the Tire Wall, which is a variation of the 10-foot Wall.

Based on the descriptions above, obstacle racing may sound intimidating, especially if you’re  a newbie. There's no doubt about it – completing an OCR is not a quick and easy feat. But it's not impossible, either, for anyone. Every experienced athlete, no matter how many medals they have to their name, had to start somewhere. As with any sport and any hobby, you need to work your way up to greatness. Lucky for you, the path to OCR greatness is a fun one, along which you'll meet new people and surprise yourself when you meet goals you thought you'd never even come near before. It's a hard process, but an incredibly rewarding one, and it seems that many OCR enthusiasts agree – once you finish your first race, you're always looking forward to the next one.

Are you ready to train for OCR?

Although different types of races and different obstacles call for particular skills and strengths, there are a few general areas that you need to work on before taking on the challenge. For example, speed, strength, and endurance are all vital.  If your workout routine gives you a balance of cardio training and strength training, then you already have an advantage! If it doesn't, no worries. It's never too late to start.

The wide array of obstacles will test an assortment of muscles as well as your agility. Aside from running which is the main event in any race, anticipate tasks like crawling, pulling, and pushing. In the Getting Started section, we'll make suggestions for some specific exercises and equipment that will help you out.

Think you can handle all that? It's important to take a holistic look at your training, and not to feel overwhelmed by the many aspects you need to work on. Maybe it looks like a long list of chores while you're planning it out, but once you actually begin, it will be easy to see how everything comes together and makes you stronger, faster, and all the more prepared.

Do you love being outdoors?

Another highly effective motivator for enthusiasts – and perhaps it will be the big selling point for you – is that OCR allows you to fully, passionately embrace the outdoors. If you love nature and being outside, then obstacle racing is perfect for you and will grant you opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors in a number of different ways.

As you pound your way down dirt paths, slop through muddy water, and climb up rocks and walls and of course rock walls, you'll feel much closer to nature than you would on a regular track oval or in the confines of a gym. OCR is perfect for people who aren't afraid to get down and dirty. Many obstacle courses will require you to hike up and down trails, crawl through mud, and traverse bodies of water. They are a grand escape from the urban sprawl that will give you a new appreciation of the environment and get your blood pumping at the same time.

If you’re not too keen on being dirtied and muddied everytime you train for your next race, then obstacle course training in an indoor facility like Pretty Huge Obstacles will definitely appeal to you.

Are you physically up for the challenge?

Upon being introduced to OCR, you might ask - do I need to be in good shape to participate? It would certainly help you, but no. As we mentioned earlier, all great athletic feats have to start somewhere. With some grit, determination and regular training,  you can slowly but surely condition your body and mind to carry you through even the most taxing obstacle races.

Do you have the right attitude for OCR?

Having said all that, OCR is about more than just getting fit and toughing out difficult situations. It's also about expanding your horizons and reaching new heights, in every sense of the phrase. You will find that it's also about community. The Tough Mudder Race asks participants to sign a pledge to "put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time" and "help my fellow mudders complete the course". Through this commitment to leave no runner behind and the fact that many obstacle course race events support local charities, you're doing a great amount of good for yourself and for people around you.

Checked all the boxes? Then let us help you kickstart your way to OCR greatness.

 
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Get Started On Your First OCR

How to Pick Your First Event

If you're trying out OCR for the very first time, do some research on races near you, and on days that work best for your schedule. It's important to know what type of race you're getting yourself into so that you aren't blindsided by obstacles that you have no idea how to handle.

Pro Tip: To avoid bruised bodies and bruised egos, set realistic expectations for yourself and remember that every win counts, no matter how small.

  • Tough Mudder

This may be the best place for you to begin since, compared to other OCRs, it is less competitive and more cooperative. You will support and be supported by teammates as you go from one obstacle to the next. This will also help keep your motivation high, and make finishing the course even more satisfying because you shared the experience with friends.

  • Color Obstacle Rush

For a workout combined with a party, you could check out the Color Obstacle Rush. This OCR amps up the fun and puts participants through an obstacle course while showering them in colored powder and playing upbeat music for them to run in time to. The obstacles to look out for may include inflatable slides and water balloon fights. It's not as physically and mentally intense as other races, but it's still an achievement to finish, and a fun introduction to OCR to boot.

  • 5k Foam Fest

You could also bring the whole family to the 5k Foam Fest where you'll run your way through mud and foam without having to worry about your finishing time. Unlike more hardcore events, there is no penalty for skipping obstacles that you don't feel confident taking on. Aside from the mud pit and foam pit, some obstacles you might encounter are cargo nets, slides, and inflatables.

The four basic components you'll likely see in an obstacle course are running, crawling, pulling, and pushing. Be sure to prepare for each of them in the time leading up to the race proper.

Get Running

Running is the part of the obstacle course race that gets you from one obstacle to another, so it's important to run in between all other sets in your workout. You can work on your speed by setting a short distance and sprinting. Alternately, you can go at a slower pace but run a longer distance.

Practice Crawling

Crawling for training simply entails practicing crawling. Get down on all fours and try to cover a distance of at least 20 yards - 50 if you're up to it. You'll want to do this at least two or three times per workout.

Do Some Pulling

For pulling, you can do sets of pull-ups. Add some variation by changing your hand position once in a while. Engage your muscles and use them to lift your weight off the ground. Alternately, use the lat-pull machine at your favorite gym and work on those back muscles at the same time.

Don’t Forget Pushing

Work on your chest strength with pushing exercises like push-ups. Mix up your standard push-up set by adjusting the distance from your hands to your body or placing either your feet or your hands on a bench.

 

Come Prepared for the OCR

One more thing to remember before the day of the event: It pays to be race-ready on that morning by having your outfit prepared. Knowing what not to wear and bring is just as important as knowing what to wear and bring, so have the appropriate outfit ready in advance.

Race Day Outfit DON'Ts

The rule of thumb for dressing up for OCR is "Less is more." Anything that you bring with you on the race proper is at the risk of getting lost or damaged, so don't wear hats, sunglasses, or jewelry, and don't carry your phone or camera with you. They are better off in your bag or car while you're on the course.

When deciding what to wear, avoid cotton. It's a lightweight fabric but it's also quick to absorb sweat and any other liquid - like water or mud. Your cotton t-shirt may look great when you first put it on, but it will quickly lose its shape once it gets wet and become unflattering and uncomfortable - not the ideal way to run a race.

Race Day Outfit DOs

Instead of cotton, opt for moisture-wicking fabrics. A tight-fitting top will be practical since it won't get caught on any wire or rope on the obstacles. If you feel comfortable enough, you can wear a sports bra or just go shirtless depending on your gender and your personal preference.

For the lower half of your body, invest in a compression bottom. It's for the same reasons why you should use wicking fabrics for your top. Whatever you decide upon, make sure it's not baggy or hanging so that you can run the race and take on the obstacles without impractical clothing getting in the way.

To Do List Week Before the Event

Stay Hydrated

Your body needs lots of fluids not just during the race but also beforehand. Start raising your water intake at least two days before the big day. Unlike marathons which are peppered with water stations, most obstacle course races only have one water station, and some have none at all, so be sure to hydrate enough to make up for all the fluid you’ll lose to sweat.

Get Enough Sleep

The time you spend sleeping is when your body recuperates from all the activity you’ve put it through during the day. While training for an obstacle race and right before the race, you would ideally have seven to nine hours of sleep. It’s best to establish a healthy sleep routine, so try to avoid burning the midnight oil and taking naps during the day, as these will throw off your body clock.

Do Not Skip Meals

In preparation for the race, have a big dinner the night before. Load up on carbs without having to go the pasta-and-pizza route by making a meal with sweet potatoes, squash, beets, or wild rice. On the day of the race, you want to feel full, not bloated. Eat enough to sustain you through the most strenuous parts of the event, but not so much that you’re too full to run and climb.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

It will do your body good to avoid caffeine and alcohol prior to your OCR event. You want to be fully energized and focused when you're at the starting line. Coffee will give you a jolt of energy at first, but you’ll slowly but surely crash after a few obstacles. If you’ve ever had a hangover, you know how it makes it hard to function. Pass on the shots the night before a race. You and your friends can always have celebratory drinks when it’s done.

As you participate in more and more obstacle course races, you'll become more adept at getting past obstacles smoothly and quickly. The best way to learn is on the actual course, but these tips can help you prepare for your first race – and hopefully get through it without minimal injuries.

Tire Wall

When climbing a tire wall, use the tires for footholds and the straps tying them together for handholds. It's much easier to get a good grip on muddy straps than the inside of muddy tires. As you climb over the top, keep your body close to the beam and grab on to the straps on the other side before you lower yourself down to maintain stability.

Warped Wall

It's vital to approach the warped wall with a can-do attitude, no matter how intimidating it looks. Some people make the mistake of running at the wall instead of up the wall. As you make your way toward it, focus on your target at the top and lean back slightly before making the jump - and make that jump count, because reaching upwards often isn't enough to grasp the wall's edge.

Everest

The best strategy for getting your whole team past the Everest obstacle is to have the strongest members get to the top before the rest. If the other team members find themselves slipping and sliding near the top, they'll have someone to help them get all the way over. Cheering each other on won't make the slope less slippery, but it will motivate your frustrated friends.

Barbed Wire Crawl

The key to getting through the barbed wire obstacle is speed. Keep your hips low to the ground and crawl quickly from one end to the other. Also be mindful of your back: You won't get cut on the wire as long as you keep it straight and aligned. It will be difficult at first, but once you gain momentum, it will feel less and less tiring.

Monkey Bars

Two things you need to conquer monkey bars are a firm grip and swinging power. You might feel tempted to rely on stretching, but it won't get you very far, especially if the gaps between each bar are wide. Instead, use the whole weight of your body to swing forward, and when it feels like you've gained enough momentum, let go and get ready to hold fast.

Benefits of Obstacle Course Racing

There is much to be gained by participating in obstacle course racing, from physiological growth to psychological stability, all the way down to widening your social circles and just plain having fun.

Good for Your Heart

The physical effort involved in OCR and the training leading up to it is good for your heart. All of that blood pumping makes your heart stronger and improves your overall blood circulation.

You’ll Get Fit and Fab

If you were hoping to shed a few pounds, obstacle course racing can help with that, as well. All that running, crawling, and hanging on monkey bars will definitely help you get fit. It can also develop greater balance and coordination, and all around make you feel better.

Helps You De-stress

Running obstacle courses is a fantastic way to take your mind off of your personal problems and de-stress for a while. The physical activity benefits your brain by helping you achieve stability emotionally and gain more self-confidence as you accomplish more and more.

Develop a Laser-like Focus

OCR challenges your brain to concentrate on individual tasks and maintain focus on the long-term goal of finishing the race.

Train Your Leadership Skills

You can even use your newfound self-control and self-discipline to take a leadership role and build your teammates up so that no matter what the course time comes out to, you all get hyped and feel like winners together.

Be Part of a Supportive Community

The community aspect of obstacle course racing is the cherry on top: It's good for your soul. The emphasis on teamwork and cooperation will encourage bonding even among strangers – though you'll find that those strangers quickly become friends.

Have Fun

You’ll reminisce all the fun of running around, climbing on trees and walls and hanging on tree branches when you were a kid with obstacle course racing. It’s a new playground for adults, one that’s filled with more fun and challenging obstacles.  

 
 

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