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muddy obstacle course race runners

How To Train For An Obstacle Course Race

In an obstacle course race (OCR), you can expect to run, hike, crawl, jump, and climb your way through muddy, mountainous terrain or a sports stadium. As you work your way through the course, both your mind and body are put to the ultimate test of strength and endurance.

Given that, you need a killer training plan that boosts mental toughness, running capacity, and full-body power. Here’s everything you need to know about OCR and how to train for a race.

Why Try An Obstacle Course Race?

Signing up for any sort of fitness event or race can boost your motivation to get moving by giving you a tangible goal to train for. What makes OCR unique, though, is that in addition to the physical benefits you’ll reap from training (like weight loss, improved balance, coordination, mobility, functional strength, and cardio endurance), the sport offers major mental and social benefits, too.

OCR provides an exciting, challenging experience unlike any other competitive event. Every mile—and every obstacle—is daunting and exhilarating, pushing you to your limits and testing your mental fortitude. 

Training for and completing an OCR with a team of family, friends, or coworkers is guaranteed to be a memorable bonding and team-building experience. Even if you sign up on your own, though, you’re never alone at an OCR. Fellow racers cheer you on and often offer a helping hand.

Oh, and did I mention the finish line celebrations are rad? You’ll celebrate your accomplishment with all sorts of swag, from protein bars and cold beers to tees and gear.

What To Expect From An Obstacle Course Race

With obstacle course racing, you never quite know what you’re going to get come race day. OCR race brands develop new obstacles every year, so the courses constantly evolve.

What you can expect is anywhere from 12 to 20 obstacles in a 3- to 5-mile course or 30-plus obstacles in a 14-mile (or longer) course. 

While some obstacles (like the Hercules Hoist, in which you pull a rope to raise a sandbag up a pulley system) require pure strength, others (like walking a balance beam or spear-throwing) are more skill-based. 

Here are a few of the more common obstacles—and how to train for them in the gym. 

1. Bucket Carry

The typical bucket carry obstacle requires you to carry a five-gallon bucket filled with rocks or sand around a loop (typically a quarter-mile) before continuing on the course. A staple of mountainous races, the loop usually involves a hill. (Bucket weight is about 40 to 50 pounds for women and 50 to 75 pounds for men.) 

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Deadlift

In the gym, barbell and/or dumbbell deadlifts prepare your lower back for the strain it will encounter during this unforgiving obstacle. Machine back extensions and barbell good-mornings are also great moves to prepare your spinal erectors (the muscles that support your spine) for this make-or-break obstacle. 

2. Rope Climb

Another staple of OCRs, rope climbs require a combination of strength (particularly in your back and biceps), technique, and overcoming any fear of heights. Typically, you’ll use a rope to scale a 20-foot wall, ring a bell at the top, and climb down the other side. 

Inverted rows on a Smith Machine or TRX system help build your back up for this challenging obstacle. Because the race-day rope often gets slippery with mud, you’ll need adequate grip strength to hold on. Practice that by looping a towel over a pull-up bar and hanging for as long as you can.

3. Rigs

Like evil monkey bars, rigs are tall metal structures equipped with all sorts of hanging objects you’ll have to grab one by one to get across. Many rigs feature gymnastics rings, ropes, frayed nylon, baseballs—any combination of objects that’ll absolutely torch your forearms as you try to hold on.

Practicing the monkey bars at your local park or walking your hands side-to-side while hanging from a pullup bar can help you prep for the unknown rig ensemble. 

4. Barbed Wire Crawl

Pretty much every OCR includes some type of low-crawling obstacle. Typically, you’ll crawl under barbed wire, but some courses swap out the wire for wooden beams or even an oversized pipe. 

Practicing army and bear crawls at the gym will prepare you to move quickly and comfortably while low to the ground. Since dropping low requires solid hip mobility, incorporate side lunges and wide mountain climbers to make your hip joints more fluid. 

8-Week OCR Training Plan

Want to conquer an obstacle course race? Follow this general training plan (and principles) to prepare. 

How It Works

This OCR training plan is designed to simultaneously improve all aspects of your fitness, so you’ll focus on different types of training on different days of the week. Typically, you’ll do four or five specific workouts per week, plus a run or running and stair-climbing combo session.

Here’s your schedule:

8-Week Obstacle Course Race Training Plan Overview

What should each of those days actually look like? Let’s break it down:

1. Strength

On strength days (you’ll separate upper- and lower-body work into two days), you’ll start with five working sets of just three to five reps of a barbell movement using super heavy weight. (Use heavy dumbbells if you don’t have access to a barbell.)

Your goal: Add weight from workout to workout until you find your three-rep maximum (3RM)—the most weight you can lift for three reps.

On lower-body days, start with front squats, back squats, or deadlifts. On upper-body days, start with overhead presses or bench presses.

After your main exercise, move on to about three sets of eight to twelve reps of three to six different ‘accessory’ exercises, like dumbbell flies for upper body and walking lunges for lower body. While your initial move focuses on pure strength, these help increase the size of your muscles, which will help you produce more force in later workouts. 

OCR Lower-Body Strength Workout OCR Upper-Body Strength Workout

2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT workouts use repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise interspersed between short periods of recovery. According to a 2013 Sports Medicine review, working at a high intensity (about 90 percent of your max heart rate) forces your muscles to use fast-twitch muscle fibers, which support your ability to sprint longer and harder the more you develop them. Regularly incorporating HIIT will help you move quicker through a short OCR course.

On HIIT days, you’ll do intervals on a treadmill, with a jumprope, or using bodyweight exercises (like burpees). Start at a 1:1 ratio of work-to-rest. (Going all out for 30 seconds and then resting for 30, for example.) Throughout the weeks, work up to a 2:1 or even 3:1 work-to-rest ratio. Workouts should land somewhere around 30 minutes.

OCR HIIT Workout

3. Core + Lower Back

The anatomical muscles of our ‘core’ include much more than just the muscles that make up our six-pack. They also include the lower-back muscles and the external and internal obliques, which are important for bending and rotating. 

Related: 9 Moves That’ll Set Your Obliques On Fire

Strengthening these muscles benefits your OCR performance by improving your stability, balance, and power during movements like rope-pulling, tire-flipping, and, yes, spear-throwing. 

Focus these workouts on three rounds of 10 reps of 8 to 10 different abdominal and lower-back movements like Russian Twists, medicine ball chops, planks, lying toe-touches, flutter kicks, and dead bugs.

OCR Core & Lower-Back Workout

4. Plyometrics 

Plyometrics are explosive movements that require a muscle to reach maximal force in the shortest possible time. You’ll want to work on both upper- and lower-body plyometric moves—but lower-body plyometrics will get you the most bang for your buck come race day. 

On these days, focus on lower-body plyometric drills like vertical jumps, broad jumps, bounds, box jumps, and depth jumps. Mix in one or two upper-body plyometric moves like clapping pushups and medicine ball tosses. 

OCR Plyometrics Workout

5. Full-Body Endurance

Endurance training improves your body’s ability to withstand constant work over time. To do so, you’ll use light (or zero) weights for sets of 15 to 30 reps of a given exercise, and limit rest between sets to less than 30 seconds. Not only does this improve your muscles’ endurance, but your cardio endurance, too. 

On endurance days, incorporate up to three to five sets of up to 10 moves for a full-body workout.

OCR Muscular Endurance Workout

6. Running

You can improve your cardio fitness without running. However, it’s important to run at least once a week during OCR training to practice proper technique. If possible, run outside and on a variety of surfaces, including roads, trails, hills, and grass.

On your Saturday runs during weeks five, six, and seven, add 10 burpees, 20 sit-ups and 20 walking lunges at each mile marker.

On Tempo Run days, you’ll focus less on distance and more on making the run increasingly difficult. You might go for a shorter run at a hard, fast pace (80 to 85 percent of your max heart rate). Or, do ‘repeats,’ in which you run a certain distance (say 800 meters), rest for however long it took you to run, and repeat. (Shoot for at least five rounds.)

As you progress through your training program, up the intensity by running hills, wearing a weighted vest, or carrying a sandbag. Ramping up the difficulty will help train your body to delay lactate production and buildup, which are linked to fatigue.

7. Grip Strength

Grip strength is essential for OCR performance. Most obstacles use one of two types of grip strength: crush grip or support grip. Crush grip, the grip between your fingers and your palm, is used in rope climbs and monkey bars. Support grip, the grip you use to hold onto something for a long time, is used during bucket carries and sled drags. 

You can improve both types of grip with tools like a grip clench, stress ball, rope, towel, bucket, or Fat Gripz.

OCR Grip Strength Workout

8. Flex Day

On flex days, you can choose a low- to moderate-intensity workout or recreational activity you enjoy, like rock climbing, yoga, swimming, rowing, or hiking. 

You can also use this day to make up a missed workout from earlier in the week or as an extra rest day if you’re feeling physically or mentally overworked. 

9. Active Recovery

On active recovery days, stick to only low-intensity activities such as stretching, walking, or easy swimming or rolling.

These are also great days to get a massage, foam roll, or sit in the sauna—whatever practices help you recover.

10. Rest

Pure rest days should be used to recuperate and rejuvenate both mentally and physically. Use these days to plan meals or future workouts.

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