“Obstacle courses” can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the pentathlon. The multidisciplined nature of the five events required a more rounded type of exercise, equipment, and training.
Since the inception of American Ninja Warrior (or Sasuke as the competition’s originator, Japan, knows it), this type of competition has become a national industry in the U.S.
The TV coverage that American Ninja Warrior has received since 2009—when it began—has propelled the type of multifaceted, and often offbeat, training that contestants will undergo to prepare themselves for courses of increasing difficulty.
It is not just a method of keeping in shape—the events that have spawned as a result of this type of training are now sponsored by some large athletic companies and come with cash prizes.
One of the big selling points is that these events introduce a competitive and challenging spice to the sterile environment that many experience as part of their daily lives and exercise routines. This offers exercise with a purpose—to earn a badge of courage, as well as conquering tedium.
Most Popular Obstacle Course Races
Some of these Obstacle Course Races are now featured as televised events, with as many as 15,000 competitors vying for the winners’ podium as well as cash prizes. These events feature various levels of competition, differing in length and degree of difficulty even within its own genre.
Some of the more popular OCRs are:
Tough Mudder—been around since 2010; it now boasts events all over the world, with some 10-15,000 participants per race. This particular Obstacle Course Race centers around teamwork for completion. It is the most popular of the three.
Warrior Dash— In terms of the “Big 3”, this is the grandpappy. Having had its first event staged in 2009, boasting 2,000 runners over a 5km course. It is more “light-hearted” than the other races and a little less strenuous
Spartan Race—Another 2010 alumni (a few weeks after the first tough mudder as it turns out), this was a “watered down” version of an endurance race to give it a broader appeal to a wider audience. It varies from 3 to 26 miles in length with anywhere from 20 to 60 obstacles (that will differ from race to race).
Benefits Of OCR
- You don’t need years of training.
- Escape the humdrum of normal life and boring exercise routines.
- Can be fun with friends.
- Full-body, functional workout.
Yes, you can even do it for the money. Prizes range from as little as $100 all the way up to $25,000 for winners of the Tough Mudder X—which isn’t bad for a weekend’s work.
Many of these races involve buddying up with friends in team-building exercises. Even some professional athletes have competed in some of these OCRs. It builds camaraderie and even a sense of esprit d’corp that is missing in a lot of other events.
Hazards Of OCR
The organizers are very clear on the risks that these Obstacle Course Races pose. And it doesn’t stop racers from competing. Millions of racers still compete in them every year. Although they are designed to be grueling, these races are not intended to be life-threatening. Indeed, they can lead to injuries—some serious—no matter what safety protocols are in place. And there have been fatalities in various Obstacle Course Races.
Obstacle Course Training and Exercise Preparation
As is the case in many “modern” exercise options, obstacle courses (and training for them) are a case of old-becomes-new-again.
As obstacle courses are more like a combat course, it requires multiple muscle groups throughout all stages of training. It’s essentially functional training all the time where conditioning is as important as strengthening and vica versa.
Depending on where you look, getting ready for a challenge like this is anywhere from a six- to eight-week program.
Getting a sexy six pack is not the ultimate goal of this type of training (SPOILER: it might actually happen, though!). Getting your body (and mind) prepared for a variety of activities is key to preparation. Strength is important, but so is balance and endurance — so it’s not necessarily a function of muscle mass, but tone too.
Almost all workout plans that involve “iron” in training for an OCR eschew the machines and opt for the barbells and dumbbells.
It has become more en vogue to use free weights instead of machines in recent years, but for OCR training and exercise, it is emphasized.
The capacity for free weights to move in three dimensions (versus the two on machines), and thus the increased need to stabilize, is good for both functional and structural purposes.
Most of the in-gym equipment used is ordinarily more of the “old school” variety that require strength, balance and flexibility, and target both big muscle groups as well as the smaller stabilizers. These include:
- Medicine balls
A staple of any workout—but, if you are into mixing it up, add in a few of these variations to work different muscles as well as flexibility:
Another staple, that, when done effectively, can work the core as well as shoulders and arm muscles. It might seem like a “boring” exercise, but Men’s Health has 15 different varieties (some other sites only had 10!).
This sounds like a nice, gentle way of getting over an obstacle, but it is not. It’s like watching a horror movie ghoul in reverse.
This exercise involves crawling using only upper body with little to no help from legs, hips or feet.
Some of these exercises will be more focused on muscle groups above or below the waist, but they have benefits for the other group of muscles, too.
Known as the “king of weightlifting” for a reason, this exercise works an amazing number of muscles for such a simple motion. They are:
- Gluteus Maximus: (Butt)
- Quadriceps: (Upper Front legs)
- Adductor Magnus: (Inner Thigh)
- Soleus: (Smaller part of your calf muscle)
- Hamstrings: (Upper back of legs)
- Gastrocnemius: (bigger part of your calf muscle)
- Erector Spinae: (lower back)
- Trapezius, upper: (upper neck muscles)
- Trapezius, middle: (middle neck muscles)
- Levator Scapulae: (the muscle from your jaw to your shoulder)
- Rhomboids: ( upper inner back muscles right below your neck)
- Rectus Abdominis: (abs)
- Obliques: (side abs)
This is one of those exercises that has upper and lower-body benefits, working the shoulders, back and legs. Here are 52 other kettlebell exercises to choose from in getting ready for the race.
The very mention of these causes some people to weep openly. With it’s dynamic action it calls the upper and lower body into action. There are enough variations (30 according to Lifting Revolution) of this classic to keep you interested as well as target different muscles. And there are these 25 burpee variations that you can try that might cause spontaneous combustion.
Think deadlift in reverse. This exercise targets almost the same muscles as the deadlift minus the upper body piece.
Some exercise regimens include lunges over distances anywhere from 100m to 1000m in preparation for an Obstacle course race. Either with or without weights, it is another all-round exercise that strengthens the lower body, core and back.
And now we are moving! With weights. At pace. Being able to control the weight (which should be enough to be challenging) and balance while moving forward will work the trapezius muscles and the back muscles, as well as your legs. In some races, carrying heavy weights over distance is sometimes part of the race, too.
Some Training Regimes
There are organizations and routines that are tailored specifically to OCR preparation. Here are a couple of different styles of workouts that can be implemented in the lead up to a race or event.
This one from Men’s Health offers three different varieties of the same exercises and 4-week regimen for beginner, intermediate and advanced OC racers.
Women’s Running offers this Train For An Obstacle Race With This 6-Week Plan as an alternative that is more geared to women and in an outdoor setting
Outsideonline.com outlines an 8-week program that leans on the practices of a national outdoor obstacle course race club.
Some OCR Tips
What to wear
This is not your typical workout inside a pristine, air-conditioned fitness facility. One of the major allures of this type of race is that is outdoors, and includes dirt—all types of it. Specifically mud.
Light—It will get coated in all manners of muck or bodily fluid. You don’t need something that will soak it up. Performance, moisture-wicking gear is always a good shout.
Water-resistant. Not proof. Unless you are wearing waders, your shoes will get water and other forms of muck in them. You want a pair that allows water out as quickly as it comes in.
Old: Yeah, a brand new pair of kicks in a mud run is a) silly and b) silly. The last thing you want to do is ruin a new pair of shoes and ruin your heels at the same time.
The fingerless variety can be very useful in helping to minimize rope burns or other scrapes that you might encounter on the course.
Don’t slouch in your routine. Try to make every separate portion of the workout have the same intensity as the main event. Whether it’s, “You aren’t looking for rippling abs” (although that would be nice), this is a gritty, grainy and downright dirty event. Treat your workouts like that. Just don’t bring mud into your fitness facility.
You will be engaging in some of those activities that would keep you out for hours when you were a kid. Find a playground, use the monkey bars or any other form of hand over hand swinging apparatus. Don’t be ashamed. And, if you are, find someone of diminutive stature and use them as cover for your training.
You could also find a gym or fitness facility that has one in-house.
This doesn’t take place in the concrete jungle, so stick to a regular jungle when you aren’t inside a gym. Grass, dirt, trails — even in the most urban of areas you will be able to find a patch of grass (or mud) to get into, so scout them out and get your trainers on!