Written By: Evan Perperis, NSCA-CPT
Training for obstacle course racing (OCR) can be confusing and complicated to the average athlete. Because there are several race options to choose from – including, but not limited to, Spartan, Tough Mudder, Savage Race, and Conquer The Gauntlet – the obstacles you have to train for can vary wildly. Some races require 5k of running and others are timed events that stretch out to eight or even 24 hours. Some obstacles consist of carrying a 50 lbs sandbag up a ski mountain and others involve moving your bodyweight across a rig. With so many aspects of the sport, determining where to focus your strength/obstacle training is tough. However, there are three pillars that should be mainstays of your training, regardless of the race series or length.
For OCR competitors, whether you are competing in these events for fun or vying for a spot on the podium, these three pillars of OCR training will help guide your programming. To improve at OCR, your training should be:
If your training follows these three principles, you are on the right track. Let’s analyze each pillar and delve into the details.
Specificity is an important key to any sport. If you want to get better at cycling, you ride your bike; if you want to get better at swimming, you swim. To get better at OCR, you need to train with sport-specific movements, including obstacle practice, strength training that mimics movements practiced during the race, and high volume running. Many athletes who primarily use weights to improve fall short in this category.
For obstacle practice, ideally you can do this practice at a “ninja” gym or a permanent obstacle facility, but not everyone has one of those nearby. If there is one close to you, take advantage of it and practice the exact obstacles you will be facing on the course.
If you don’t live close to one of those gyms or you are looking to improve your strength for OCR, the solution requires you to be creative. Personally, I use a combination of playgrounds, gyms, and home-built obstacles. Playgrounds often have many obstacles. Crossing monkey bars or the crossbeam of a swing set will prepare you for many of the obstacles featured in popular race series. A regular gym can also be used with some modifications. I personally carry rig grips like nunchakus or balls/grips. Then, instead of using the standard handle or rope for pulley movements like curls, pull-downs, and tricep exercises, I attach a non-standard grip to simultaneously work my grip and target muscle. I also use fabric straps to hang my own grips from pull-up bars or the crossbeam of a pulley machine in the gym. The last option involves building your own obstacles. When you build a balance beam or screw rig grips into the ceiling of your garage, your home suddenly becomes your training ground.
Regardless of your ability or skill level, there are some exercises you will find as part of any serious OCR athletes strength training plan.
Pull-ups work back and forearm muscles, which play a part in almost every obstacle including rigs, walls, quarter pipe, monkey bars, pegboard, rope climb, cargo nets, and even pulling yourself out of mud pits. Once you can complete several sets of pull-ups, make them more specific using holds other than the bar. For example, you can do towel pull-ups or pull-ups on wider surfaces like the top of a squat rack, Smith machine, or crossbeam of a pulley machine. You can also bring your own grips like those seen on rigs into the gym and do pull-ups using those.
As your back and forearm muscles fatigue you may no longer be able to pull your full body weight over the bar. At this point, using the lat pull-down machine can help take things to the next level. Just as you should advance past the point of using the bar, this is a great option for using alternate grips or practicing one arm pull-downs. While you don’t have to be able to do a single arm pull-up to complete obstacles, if you are proficient at pulling and hanging with one hand, it will buy you for crossing obstacles.
Lunges are a great compound movement for building your glutes and legs. They can be done anywhere and can be made much more difficult by adding weight. Lunges loaded with a barbell, weighted vest, or sandbag will focus the emphasis on your legs; however, if grip strength is a weak point, you may want to opt for carrying dumbbells in your hands.
Rig work refers to crossing any obstacle using only your hands. This is crucial for monkey bars, rigs, and pegboards, as it gets you used to hanging from just your hands for an extended time while moving laterally. In the easiest forms, this is done at a playground by crossing a set of monkey bars or traversing the pipe that runs across the top of a swing set. As you improve, bring your own rig grips and set up your own rig by hanging holds off items on the playground – or if you are in the gym, the crossbeam of a pulley machine.
Even on the most obstacle-dense courses, your performance is still determined largely by running speed. Therefore, in order to get better, you need to spend a lot of your training time running to improve that specific skill. As a general rule for OCR athletes, completing a variety of distances across three quality run workouts a week and one to three more easy runs is a good method to improve. The three quality runs should include one short interval workout to improve max running speed, one longer interval workout or tempo run to improve long term sustainable speed, and one long slow distance run to improve your body’s aerobic capability.
This is where a lot of OCR training falls apart, especially for those that don’t train with weights. Many OCR athletes make the mistake of training with a weighted bucket or sandbag but never increasing the weight. If you stop stressing your body, your body will stop adapting; therefore, you need progression. This can come in many forms, such as carrying a heavier sandbag or taking another lap up the hill carrying your bucket. It may be crossing your training rig or monkey bars with a weighted vest or using more difficult grips (ex. nunchakus are harder to grab than a ring). For balance obstacles, it may come in the form of longer or thinner beams. For climbing obstacles like a wall or a quarter pipe (aka warped wall), it may be completing the obstacle with a weighted vest, with a shorter running start, or with both.
Remember with progression, this is a long-term plan. You don’t have to increase the weight or difficulty every single workout. Your training just needs a general uphill trend. You shouldn’t leap from no unweighted to weighted with a 30 lbs weight vest; instead, small incremental increases will result in adaptation.
Progression also applies to running. Your body will perform better if you increase running stress, creating a peak followed by a taper of reduced volume prior to race day. Take a look at your training schedule and ensure there is some form of progressive run training, whether it be adding a mile or two to your long run each week, doing another set of intervals or doing your current intervals at a faster pace. To ensure you are progressing with run training, I recommend having a written plan. It can come from a trainer, or if you program for yourself, write down your plan so you can be sure your workouts are becoming more challenging. This will prevent you from falling to complacency and just going through the motions of training. A good rule to apply to your running is continue to build intensity or volume for three weeks before taking a lower intensity/volume recovery week. Repeat this cycle all the way until a couple weeks prior to your race where you will taper for the big day.
If you have a trainer, this is where he may fall short if he programs what he knows rather than what you enjoy and need. Your training should be enjoyable on some level, otherwise you will not continue with the same zeal and effort. If you are reading this article, chances are you enjoy obstacle course racing, so working on the skills required to improve should not be a major issue. The pitfall many athletes encounter in the enjoyable pillar is focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
If you are looking to seriously improve, or at least complete courses with greater ease, you need to focus on your weaknesses. For most this involves more running, an activity some find boring – and often the reason many athletes transition into obstacle course racing. To keep yourself engaged, you can try running as part of a local running club, creating your own training group, mixing in calisthenics to your run (which also helps out with the specificity pillar), or exploring a new city on foot.
There is a delicate balance you will have to maintain throughout the year as you train the strength required to complete obstacles with the speed required to run faster. Typically this is done best through periodization, focusing on one aspect while putting the other in more of a maintenance phase before flip-flopping your focus.
Try out a couple different training options to figure out what you enjoy most. There are no tricks – it is just a matter of trial and error to determine what works well for your lifestyle, schedule, and personality. Some might find training groups very enjoyable and motivating, while others may see them as training at an inconvenient time, going to the lowest common denominator and not focusing on their own weaknesses.
Due to the variety in courses, obstacles, and diverse backgrounds of athletes, training for OCR is a unique problem set. Since the sport is only about six years old, no one has grown up in the sport, so everyone is transitioning in from another background. Regardless of your background, these three pillars will set you on your path to success. You will find that you are not only more focused in training but also more successful on the course.
Evan Perperis, NSCA-CPT
Hammer Nutrition Sponsored Athlete
Owner, Strength & Speed