Fitness / Outdoor Running

How to Train for an Obstacle Course Race

Follow these eight expert tips to complete your first obstacle course race without a hitch.

Obstacle course racing, or OCR, is the sport that mixes running and pre-constructed obstacles to challenge your mind and body in a unique way. There are competitive heats, where you can earn cash prizes or just-for-fun heats where you get to play in the mud like a 10-year-old.

Regardless of your obstacle course race goal, one thing is for certain: You will learn a lot about yourself at these events. OCRs typically range from three to 14 miles, with some longer races reaching 30 or more miles.

Don’t get intimidated just yet. Aaptiv can help you work towards your goals until race day.

A typical OCR requires you to run, climb, crawl, jump, and slide your way through sometimes-rough terrain in an effort to earn a medal or headband, beer, swag, and a notch on your fitness belt.

Once you’re ready to plan your first race, these eight training, nutrition, and travel tips will help make your experience seamless. Be warned though, a single OCR is rarely enough because the post-race feeling of accomplishment is addictive.

Get ready to try something new with this OCR preparation guide.

1. Sign up

This one seems simple, but oftentimes people have the idea of trying an OCR in their head but don’t follow through with signup. Pick a three- to five-mile race, and sign up for a non-elite heat.

Elite heats are more expensive and are reserved for professional OCR athletes and experienced amateurs looking to beat their previous year’s time. Once you’ve signed up, take note of when the race company will send out the exact start times.

Sometimes companies will give you a time range but not an exact time until a couple weeks prior to your race date.

2. Get your gear.

A compression shirt (like these) or sports bra is best for OCR because cotton will absorb water, weigh you down, and possibly cause chafing.

Compression shorts are ideal for men and women, though men often wear running shorts over compression shorts. Shoes are a critical component of OCR.

There are shoes specifically made for mountainous OCRs; typically they can drain water, have a great grip, and are lightweight. You don’t want waterproof shoes, which will hold water in—you want shoes with holes in them for draining the water.

Flat running shoes or basketball shoes will not cut it for a mountain, as you’ll slip and slide all over the place without a sturdy, rugged bottom. Inov-8 (this model is our absolute favorite) and Icebug (this model) are two popular race shoe brands. If racing in a sports stadium, running shoes are the best option.

As for accessories, gloves are good for mud-free races held at parks or sports stadiums, but once gloves get muddy and wet, they may become more slippery than your hands.

For your first race, gloves may be a good idea to quell your worries about ripped hands, but eventually, you’ll learn to live without them. Knee and/or elbow pads limit the range of motion but are worth it if they are lightweight yet have padding that can take a beating.

If you’re not wearing compression pants (like these), calf sleeves are a great way to shield your legs from rope burn or scrapes.

3. Mix running and strength training.

OCR requires you to stop and go, so your training should mimic this style. If your race is 12 weeks away, divide training into three four-week blocks that each contain days for strength training and days for running.

Some of those strength-training days can be just lifting weights, but some will be a hybrid workout with cardio for a prescribed time/distance and then a functional exercise such as burpees, box jumps, push-ups, or dumbbell squats and presses. Have you tried our Aaptiv workouts yet?

This same principle applies to long runs: Some can be just running, but others must include functional exercises every half mile, mile, or ten minutes.

Here is an example of an OCR strength-training day with a mix of cardio and weights that you can do in the gym.

Complete one round of:

Here’s a sample OCR running workout you can do outdoors.

4. Increase muscular endurance.

When you do lift weights on your own, do 15-20 reps to increase muscular endurance. Cardiorespiratory endurance, gained from doing aerobics such as running and swimming, is different from muscular endurance, which is the body’s ability to perform repeated contractions (actions) for a long duration.

Training for absolute strength and hitting a new one-rep personal record is not the best technique for OCR training. Using compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, and bench presses is still great, but use lighter weights and more reps most of the time.

Place an emphasis on the leg, back, and bicep endurance because your legs will need to power you up a mountain or set of stairs while your back and biceps aid in pulling yourself over walls and up ropes. Overall, OCR training and racing will transfer to everyday life by making things such as lifting heavy boxes or grocery bags, standing on your feet for a while, and playing with your children less strenuous.

A great way to increase your muscular endurance is with Aaptiv’s strength training workouts.

5. Get grip strength.

Regardless of your bodyweight, your forearms, wrists, and hands all contribute to successfully being able to hold on to or squeeze things. Rope climbs, weight sled drags, monkey bars and “rigs” (monkey bars with intricate grip challenges such as baseballs or nunchucks) require immense grip strength to complete.

To build your grip for OCR, you’ll need to work on your support and crush grip strengths – we recommend using this.

Support grip is the ability to support your bodyweight for a while. Practice this grip strength by hanging from a pull-up bar for five, ten, 15, 30, and eventually 60-120 seconds.

Walking your hands across a pull-up bar is also good practice for rigs. Crush grip is when you hold on to an object for an extended period of time. Specifically, you may have to carry a bucket, sandbag, cinder block, water jug, or heavy stone for a certain distance.

To train for these carries, do dumbbell or kettlebell farmer carries. Hold a weight in each hand and walk 50-100 yards, keeping your back straight and shoulders back.

6. Bring a friend.

You can sign up for a race as part of a team—if you did this, good job! Now, make sure your friends, family members, or coworkers actually show up. Most people who sign up for races can be found at the starting line, but some don’t go through with their commitment.

If you signed up as an individual racer, it’s not too late to ask someone to join you. Send them the race link, and encourage them to try something new. They can also accompany you as a spectator, cheering you on before and during the race.

7. Clean up your diet.

One of the most common fitness changes that occurs between signup and race day is weight loss or maintenance. Suddenly having an event to train for and a goal to accomplish will help you exercise more often and clean up your diet.

Less body fat will help your body run more efficiently and of course, make traversing obstacles easier. During the weeks leading into the race, you definitely want to be hydrated. The Dietary Reference Intake of water for men and women is 125.1 fluid ounces and 91.3 fluid ounces per day, respectively.

Adequate carbohydrates are essential to training for any endurance event, but make sure they are not overly processed. Opt for quinoa, rice, farro, or potatoes rather than bagels, potato chips, or cake.

Fruits and vegetables will provide your immune system with the nutrients it needs to fend off sickness and recover from workouts. Neglecting these can be detrimental to your overall health and can cause nutrient deficiencies that may result in sickness.

Protein is key to fueling your muscles throughout the day for the new demands you’re giving it. Aim for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight from lean meat, white fish, and beans.

8. Pack a travel bag.

Bringing everything you need to make race day as stress-free as possible can greatly enhance your OCR experience. Here’s a list of what to pack for a typical three- to five-mile OCR.

Mark Barroso is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a Spartan SGX Coach.

Now that you’re ready to train for your upcoming race, you’re missing just one more thing. Get “race ready” with our Aaptiv workouts and save today.

Fitness Outdoor Running


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