Obstacle Course Training Guide for All Levels
Obstacle course racing is for everyone, but it’s important to know the type and intensity of workout best suited to your level of fitness, depending on your lifestyle and experience.
The frequency of your workout and the exercises included in it should be tailored to improve your overall fitness without causing you injury or sickness.
Aside from exercising, you can also prepare for an obstacle course racing event by cleaning up your diet and investing in high-quality gear.
Why you should train according to your fitness level
Obstacle course racing is a fun, challenging way of getting fit. Although not all obstacle course races require training, if you’re serious about your OCR, you will want to show up on race day well prepared. OCR coach and trainer, Sam Winkworth, begins training with his clients by doing a quick assessment to determine the specific areas of fitness that they have to focus on to improve their performance.
Training experience is one of the most crucial parts of this assessment. Winkworth considers strict, structured strength and conditioning training aimed at enhancing speed and strength - not just casual running or weekly bootcamp-style workouts. As a general rule, if you’ve been - training for less than two years, then you’re considered a beginner in strength and conditioning. If you have two to four years of training under your belt, you’re at an intermediate level. Four years or more of training is enough for you to continue on at an advanced level.
There are other factors to consider like mental strength, injury avoidance, diet, sleep patterns, and training time. When you know what level you’re at, it becomes easy to plan for how you will achieve the next level. This includes honing your skills and building up stamina, as well as training within your limits to avoid getting hurt or falling ill.
Start your workout with some cardiovascular endurance exercises. Do 30 seconds each of seal jacks, high knees, and jumping jacks. If you have had joint pains before, you may want to pass on the jumping jacks, as they are a high-impact exercise and could do more harm than help. Consider replacing them with a quick run - about 50-70 meters - or jog in place if you don’t have the space to run.
After warming up, ease into some dynamic stretching. Bear crawls, for example, are a great way to improve your flexibility and balance. Start on the floor with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keep your back as straight as you can and stretch out your limbs. When you’re ready to move, put your left hand and right foot forward at the same time. Plant them firmly on the ground, then do the same with your left hand and right foot. Continue forward, keeping your butt in the air the whole time. Once you get the hang of it, try doing it backwards.
From bear crawls, stand back up and start your circuit training. Do ten reps each of push-ups and squats. If you’re training at a gym, you can also incorporate TRX rows into your strength training. TRX rows are good for your shoulders, core, and hand grip, and especially for your upper back muscles. Sometimes, they tone your body even better than free weights because you lift your own body weight.
Begin with the TRX straps shortened all the way up. Straighten your whole body and move forward until you feel tension in the straps. Your arms should stay straight as you walk. Retract your shoulder blades backwards and then down, then pull your torso towards your hands, keeping your elbows close to your body. Make sure you don’t twist your hands and wrists while you pull. Lower your body back into the position you started in, then start over. If it’s hard to do the movement with the correct form, take a step back.
Practicing for the obstacles will give you a chance to strategize how you’ll attack them when you’re face-to-face with the real thing. Do a few trial runs of the Olympus wall, 6-foot wall, Hercules hoist, over-under-through wall, and three-foot hurdle if you’re training at a facility that offers them.
On the other hand, there are certain obstacles where you can replicate the experience with alternative equipment or equipment you gather or make yourself. The sandbag carry is a pretty easy one - it’s literally just a bag filled with sand. You can use an old gym bag or duffel bag wrapped in a trash bag and sealed with duct tape.
You can also train for the monkey bars and other obstacles that call for climbing or swinging anywhere you can find a bar that can hold your weight. Your local playground may have some. Head over there and try doing a few 30-second hangs. As you gain better endurance, you can hang for a longer amount of time or move around a bit before lowering yourself back down.
Don’t forget to cool down and do another round of stretching when you finish your workout.
Start your workout on a high note with a 200-meter run. Follow that up with more endurance exercises like butt kicks and A skips. A skips are often used by runners to improve their form. To do A skips, skip like you normally would but make an effort to bring one knee up high enough that there is a 90-degree angle in your hip. Extend your back leg as far out as you can. As your foot hits the ground, make a “pawing” motion, like you’re trying to pull the ground forward. This will give you a stronger and longer stride. Keep skipping, swinging your arms in rhythm.
Next, do some dynamic stretching. This could include, for example, some inchworms, crab walks, and walking lunges. If you’ve never done inchworms before, don’t worry about it. They’re pretty simple. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, then bend forward, reaching for your toes. When you touch them (or at least the ground near them), flatten your hands and walk your body into a plank. Once you’re in plank position, drop your hips and look up. Take a breath, then walk your hands back to your feet and go back into standing position. This is a great stretch for loosening up your muscles after long bus or plane rides.
The crab walk, on the other hand, begins on the floor. Sit with your knees bent and your hands just slightly behind your hips. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Putting the weight on your hands and feet, raise your glutes a few inches up. This is your starting position. Lift your hips and your right arm at the same time. Stretch your arm behind you. If your body forms a straight line from the tips of your fingers to your right knee, then you’re doing it right. Get back into starting position and do the same thing on the opposite side.
When you feel like you’ve done enough stretching, you can get to the meat of the workout. Strengthen your forearms and your hand grip with a 40-second dead hang. Then transition into a set of 15 squat jumps. Although traditional squats are great for toning your legs and butt, adding in the jump increases your heart rate and allows you to burn more calories. It also allows for extra development of strength and muscle density. Follow the squat jumps with 20 push-ups, then wrap things up with some sit-ups. Around 15 will do, but if you can go beyond that, try pushing up to 30.
Aside from the practice exercises suggested in the beginners workout, you can also incorporate some more challenging obstacles. Put your grip strength to test with rope climbs and gymnast rings. You can save yourself some time and a few burpees by practicing your Atlas carry. Because you only carry the stone within a short distance, some participants rely on force and rush through it. This might get the job done, but it also puts you at risk of injury.
Even for an obstacle that only lasts a few seconds, technique is important. Don’t squat down and try to scoop up the stone in your arms. Instead, bend from your hips as you reach for it and put your hands as far under the stone as you can. Keep your arms straight and spread out your fingers. Use your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back - not your arms and shoulders. Squeeze tightly and brace your back as you lift. Once the stone is above your knees, get into half squat position and rest it on one of your thighs. Quickly rearrange your hands to get a more secure hold on it, then you can stand up and carry it the distance that the race requires.
Complete your workout with a cooldown and some more stretching.
If you’re at this level of training, you already have a good idea of what works for you. Still, it’s good to go back to workouts designed specifically for OCR, like the Interval Sprint Bodyweight Workout.
Start with a ten-minute warm-up that combines stretching and moderate cardio, then do this circuit two or three times. First, run for about 400 meters. Then switch to walking lunges. Do 40 of them, then 30 push-ups. Run another 400 meters, this time slightly faster.
After your second run, do 40 bodyweight squats. Next, get down on the floor and hold a plank for a minute and a half, or two full minutes if your arms can take it. Run again for 400 meters, then perform 30 burpees and 40 mountain climbers. Take one more run, this time pushing hard and going as fast as you can. After you hit the 400 meter mark, slow down to a jog. Keep going for another ten minutes then stop to rest for a short while before doing it all again.
This style of workout prepares your body for the kind of conditions it will be under when you’re doing the real thing on race day. Obstacle course racing is dynamic and requires you to just keep going, so working out like this will help you get used to that feeling. If the Interval Sprint Bodyweight Workout isn’t for you, go for the Tempo Obstacles Simulation Workout instead.
This workout calls for a lot of practice on a ten-foot wall. Find the closest possible thing you can safely practice on, keeping in mind that it has to be stable as you climb up and over, or head to a gym that has one.
Warm up for ten minutes before beginning. Stretch until your muscles are sufficiently loose and do a little cardio to prep. The first part of the workout is a one-mile run at a tempo pace. After this, climb the ten-foot wall seven times. Once you’ve caught your breath, do another one-mile run at a tempo pace. Then brace yourself for five ten-foot wall climbs. Go back to your one-mile run at the same pace for the last time before doing three more ten-foot wall climbs. Run again, but this time, at your fastest pace. Finally, climb the ten-foot wall seven more times. Cool down and rehydrate when you’re done.
If you still haven’t found the perfect training workout, maybe the Long Runs will work best for you. This routine got its name from the 10- to 15-minute runs in between sets of exercises. Begin with a run then do 25 lunge steps. Go back to running, then stop to do 25 push-ups. Run again, then do 25 air squats. If you can manage more, go for it. After you’ve had enough, run for another 10-15 minutes. Lastly, drop and do 25 burpees. This is good practice for the penalty in case you can’t pass an obstacle. When you’re done, run again and start from the beginning.
The Long Runs workout is a fantastic way to improve cardiovascular endurance. If you really want to push yourself, transition from one exercise to another with as little rest time in between as possible. You don’t necessarily have to cycle between lunge steps, push-ups, air squats, and burpees all the time. You will get the same benefits if you replace any of them with your preferred bodyweight exercise. Just make sure your exercises of choice are safe to do outdoors.
There’s no sugarcoating it — these three workouts are exhausting. Even though they don’t incorporate a set of actual obstacles, they will give you a fairly accurate idea of how your body will feel after an obstacle course race. If you tucker out before you can finish the workout, don’t feel bad. Instead, use your experience as a yardstick for what parts of your training you need to tweak so that you will be prepared next time you try it. If all goes well, then you’ll master the aspects you struggled with initially, and race day will go smoothly for you.
What to remember for your training diet
According to sports dietician and exercise psychologist Bob Seebohar, whether you’re in the middle of training, at school or work, or even just lying in bed, it’s ideal to have a glass or bottle of water within your reach at any given time. During training and the race itself, you’re especially prone to losing large amounts of water due to sweating. Your lungs will be working hard in these times, too, which can make your mouth and throat feel uncomfortably dry. It’s important that you drink water while doing these kinds of activities, as well as after and even before.
As a general rule of thumb, you should be drinking 500ml of water for each hour of strenuous exercise, plus a standard two liters per day. You may need to drink even more depending on your bodyweight. The truly committed athlete can calculate their water requirement. Take note of your weight before and after training or an OCR event, and the weight of any fluid you drink in that span of time. Subtract the latter two numbers from your starting weight, and that’s how much fluid you lost during that workout. If you’re having trouble figuring out what to calculate, just substitute these values and take it from there:
(Finish weight – start weight) – (weight of amount you drank)
You should get a number in the negative. This is because it represents a loss - in this case, the fluid that your body loses from sweat and exertion.
Come race day, you should up the amount of water you’re drinking to prepare for the exertion required for obstacle course racing. In the last few days before the race, you should be drinking enough water that you have to use the bathroom at least every two or three hours. Keep that going until the morning of the race. When you’re on the course, take a drink after every few obstacles to rehydrate and to avoid getting muscle cramps. After you cross the finish line, drink the same amount you usually would after working out.
Eat blood-building food
Blood-building foods are called such because they are the best foods for increasing your red blood cell count. Some blood-building foods you can stock up on while you train are beats, beans, legumes, and a wide variety of leafy green vegetables, from spinach to kale. Many blood-building foods are rich in vitamin B-12. Some popular ones among athletes and fitness buffs on strict diets are fish, eggs, and dairy products like milk and cheese. They’re highly recommended for a pre-obstacle course racing meal plan, but they’re good to have in your diet no matter what type of lifestyle you have.
You can make a lot of plant-based meals like salads from blood-building foods. If you want to include some protein in your diet, that’s good, too. A serving or two of beef or any other red meat per week can help your body recover from heavy workout sessions. If you prefer, you can substitute beef with organ meat like kidney or liver. You can also include egg yolks, or dried fruits like prunes and raisins for a little sweetness. Whatever combination of foods you decide to have, make sure you steer clear of anything that contains high amounts of sugar or preservatives.
Eat healthy snacks
Being on an OCR training diet doesn’t mean that you have to give up snacking. It’s just a matter of choosing snacks that will fuel you instead of slowing you down. Try buying healthier alternatives to chips, pastries, and other guilty pleasures. Instead of instant food that you’d stick in the microwave or eat straight out of the container, make yourself a shake. You have plenty of options for a healthy post-training shake, from kale to bananas to berries. Top it off with some protein-rich seeds like hemp or chia and sweeten it with honey.
Your diet will be much more enjoyable if you take some extra time to be creative with your snacks. Avocado toast has been trending for a while now, and for good reason. It’s simple, delicious, and full of healthy fats. Get fancy by adding in some tomatoes and sea salt, and brew some green tea to wash it all down.
Chris Varano, the Hilton Head Health fitness specialist, prefers plain oatmeal with berries. He says, “This snack gives me energy, is easy to digest, and contains no dairy. Have it about 30 to 45 minutes before a workout.” It’s a safe choice for OCR buffs with sensitive stomachs.
While many healthy snacks use all raw ingredients, it’s not a hard and fast rule that they have to. Fitness instructor Aimee Nicotera likes to fry an egg and put it on top of a salad of spinach and cherry tomatoes or tomato slices, then drizzle some balsamic over the whole dish. It’s quick and easy to prepare, and you get some protein from the egg and antioxidants from the spinach and tomatoes.
Fabian Lindner is a long-time OCR enthusiast who has healthy snacking down pat. One of his favorite things to snack on after a workout is a bowl of cherry tomatoes, grapes, and baby carrots. He also recommends nuts or trail mix for busy days when you don’t have much prep time.
Gloves serve as a layer of protection between your hands and everything they come in contact with as you take on the obstacles. They also give you a little more grip power, which is really helpful on obstacles that require you to lift or climb. Your grip tends to falter when your hand muscles start getting tired, so a good pair of gloves could make the difference in whether or not you’re able to overcome certain obstacles.
It might be a good idea to break in your gloves while you train so that you have a clearer idea of how they work best for you. Some OCR participants only put them on for specific obstacles then keep the gloves in their pocket for the rest of the race. Others keep their gloves on from the beginning of the race all the way to the end. Giving them a test run will also clue you in as to how durable they are, and whether they’ll hold up in both wet and dry conditions. If you’re looking to make an investment, try the Fit Four OCR Slit Grip Gloves. They have excellent grip on rough, wet, and muddy surfaces, and they’re even designed so that you don’t have to take off your watch while racing.
Some OCR newbies think that it’s okay to wear your oldest, rattiest pair of running shoes since they’re just going to get muddy anyway. This is actually a bad idea. You need a pair of shoes that can survive the wear and tear of obstacle course racing, and protect your feet from cuts, bruises, blisters, and other injuries. You also have to keep in mind that if you are expecting to run and crawl through mud, it’s going to get into your shoes at some point. A pair of shoes with good drainage won’t held on to that mud after you’ve passed the obstacle.
Your shoes should be able to take you from concrete to mud to sand in the span of one event. They should be tough but at the same time comfortable, since you’re going to be spending a lot of time in them. One popular choice is the Reebok All Terrain Super 3.0, which offers great traction. They’re made for comfort, so despite the gruelling race, your feet will be taken care of from the start of your training all the way to the finish line on the day of the event.