Obstacle Course and Mud Race Training

Thu. March 27, 2014 12:00 AM
by Michael Elder

Ah, Tough Mudder. I know many people who have done it and loved every minute of it. Others hated it and will never try it again. But one thing is for sure- it's one heck of a workout! For those of you who are not familiar with it, Tough Mudder is an obstacle course that takes place outdoors, largely in a mud environment. Its popularity has been on the rise, probably because of the outdoor element as well as the fun atmosphere that it provides. This is not an event for beginners as many elements of this course require great strength and agility. It even includes an obstacle with live wires that repeatedly zap competitors with 10,000 volts of electricity. At times, this has caused burns and has even landed a few people in the emergency room. Despite the rigorous demands of the course, many people do show up unprepared and quickly get in over their heads. Training for Tough Mudder and for other obstacle courses like it is incredibly important. Allow me to share some insight in this article.

First off, obstacle courses of this kind can be incredibly challenging on the cardiovascular system. If participants are not fit enough to walk let alone run 16-20 kilometers, they should attempt a race of this kind. Aerobic endurance training is step one in preparing for this kind of event. While a steady running program can be a nice tool for preparing for the event, it is not enough. These obstacle courses are athletic endurance events that require, balance, mobility, strength, stability, endurance, and power. It is important to train like an athlete, not just a runner. Therefore, the activities and movements of the course itself should be mimicked and practiced during training. These movements would include crawling, climbing, jumping, and pulling of bodyweight. Movements of this kind may be trained in short powerful bursts, or in a sustained manner. Box jumps would be a great example of an exercise that would have a large functional carryover to the obstacle course itself. It requires a fast, explosive movement- something that is going to be necessary in Tough Mudder. Here are some other great exercises that can be used to train for obstacle courses and mud races:

1) Pull ups and chin ups. Both hanging and traveling (walking hands right and left) are recommended.

2) Corncob pull- ups (where you pull up to your left hand and then shift over to your right hand before lowering).

3) Chin ups using a rope, or a towel to simulate a rope. If you have a rope climbing machine in your gym, this also works great.

4) High incline treadmill walking and running, including high incline treadmill circuits coupled with body weight movements to help with the peripheral blood flow changes.

5) Plank crawls, straight arm leg drags, and farmer's walk (walking on various terrains while carrying heavy weights in each hand for grip strength, muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness.

But for one to be completely prepared for this kind of intense event, it is not merely enough to train for it physically; it is also very important to be ready mentally. These events often challenge the mind as much as the body. There are certain surprises that can happen during an obstacle course of this nature. Someone could become stuck and then become scared. They could potentially become a risk to themselves and to others. They need to be able to identify what they are capable of, and be able to self- select out of an obstacle if it is too much for them. People who participate in Tough Mudder are basically in discomfort for 2-3 hours. This can become very taxing on the mind. Add fatigue and exhaustion to the mix, and you have all the makings for a mental breakdown. It is important to remember that these events take place outside in the heat and humidity. It is very typical to become sweaty in the gym, but there is air conditioning and towels on hand. Rain can be another factor. Basically, if you are going to participate in Tough Mudder or any other event like it, you need to embrace the fact that it's going to be uncomfortable. And to do that, you need to train in an uncomfortable way. By doing this, you are in essence surrendering to what is inevitable. Once you can do that, it will free up your mind and you will become dead set focused on the event. This is how I have always looked at my own training. And I am happy to say that I no longer even need to think about the grueling aspect of it. I just do it. And before I know it, I am done. Not only do I feel good physically; I feel good mentally as well.

Another important component of training for these kinds of courses is consistency. Once you begin your training, you don't stop, at least not until the event is over. Once you attain a certain level of fitness, you need to strive to then push yourself to higher levels. In other words, you need to work on increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of your training. If it doesn't feel grueling, you need to make it more difficult. If you master 10 minutes of climbing on the tread wall, you then need to aim for 15 to 20 minutes as a new goal. Trust me; you will thank yourself once you actually get out on the course. If you are to register for an event like this, I would give yourself at least a few months to train for it, possibly even longer. I do highly recommend that only people with a baseline of fitness participate in these events. If you are a novice exerciser or have a lower level of fitness, I do not recommend these courses for you. It is very strenuous and injury can occur very easily in those not fully prepared.

I hope I have given you some insight into the Tough Mudder and other events like it. Make no mistake; it is not an easy event. You must have at least a baseline of strength to even consider registering for it. Once you do register, you need to spend significant time every week training for it. Following the exercise guidelines above can help you, but if possible, it is always beneficial to hire a trainer to help you train specifically. I myself am considering auditioning for American Ninja Warrior. If I make it through the auditions, I will have my work cut out for me to say the least. But hey, you only live once, right? So what are you waiting for? Get out there and get dirty!

Thanks for reading. Be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fifteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,