September 19 2018
Park City’s Red Bull 400 is a true uphill battle to the finish.
A typical daily run doesn’t include muddy pits and barbed wire. There are no walls to climb or buckets to carry in the usual 5-miler, but with some training, runners can successfully make the leap to obstacle course racing (OCR).
Obstacle course races, such as Spartan Races, Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder, blend technical running with military-style obstacles. With mud, javelins and sometimes even electric shocks, runners new to OCR may find it challenging.
“Running is a steady state effort with equal exertion throughout the race,” explains Christopher Rutz, an OCR coach and founder of the OCR coaching program Tough Training. “OCR adds the element of the obstacles, which can be strength, skill, endurance or a combination of all. For a runner who is used to doing only one thing, the obstacles can literally and figuratively be the biggest challenge.”
While most runners may be able to push through the course distances (which usually range from 3 miles to marathon length), those runners will face obstacles that test something many runners lack: Upper body strength.
“The biggest challenge runners have is [their] lack of upper body grip and pull strength, and grip and pull strength endurance,” explains Yancy Culp, an OCR coach and founder of the OCR training program Yancy Camp. “Full body strength training is key. [A] lack of training in this area will prevent even the best of runners from excelling in the sport of OCR.”
Culp suggests working specifically on building both grip strength and full body strength because, in many races, failing to complete an obstacle (by falling from monkey bars mid-race, for example) results in penalties like added burpees or extra laps of running.
But training for those obstacles doesn’t have to mean logging long hours in the weight room.
“Add burpees during your run to spike your heart rate,” Rutz recommends. “Add weighted carries, like a sandbag or farmer’s carry, to change the load. Add monkey bars or pullups at the playground to simulate the overhead strength needs.”
Ryan Atkins, the winner of the 2016 Spartan Race U.S. Championship Series, acknowledges that strength training for OCR sometimes takes a little creativity–even for elite runners. “You can do a lot of training with your body weight and some very simple apparatus,” Atkins says. “For instance, I like to wrap a towel over a pullup bar and hang from it to work on my grip strength. You can jump over fences or hurdle picnic tables or do pullups from trees during your favorite running loop.”
According to Rutz, a typical workout program for an OCR hopeful includes three days working on strength and three days running or hiking trails. There is good news for runners: Obstacles only make up about 10 percent of the race. The other 90 percent? Running. “It adds excitement to a running routine,” Rutz says of OCR training. “For the road racer, it offers the opportunity to get off the pavement.”
Much of that running is on technical terrain–and in many cases, there’s a lot of mud involved. Many coaches advise logging runs on trails and varying or steep terrain. “For me, it’s much more fun than strict running races,” Atkins says. “The running that we do encounter is often much more exciting than running in a normal trail race.”
Just like with road or trail running, each OCR competitor needs a good pair of shoes, usually trail running-specific models. “Other gear helpful for obstacle training would be a sandbag for weight carries, a pullup bar to work on overhead strength and a rope to practice rope climbing,” Rutz says. “Those are the basics.”
Rutz has one more piece of advice for runners eyeing an OCR race. “Be warned: It is very addictive,” he says. “OCR has taken many runners and turned them into OCR race champions.” Even if you don’t make it onto an OCR podium, Atkins says that training can help make runners better athletes all around.
“The fitness that you build to perform in OCR races is very well-rounded and allows you to be a much more complete athlete: an athlete who can still run fast and far, but can also carry heavy things and climb mountains,” Atkins says.