Why Everyone Should Run An Obstacle Course Race

Published: 7/11/2021

by malia warren

Obstacle course racing hit the scene running, literally, on or about 2013. Though there have been many obstacle course racing companies that have come and gone, the first sanctioned one is dated back to 1987.

The U.K. based, Tough Guy race is ran every year in January and meant to test your greatest fears. It’s billed as the original obstacle course race.

Spartan Beast Race, Kualoa Ranch 2017

But, enter in the Spartan and Tough Mudder races, circa 2010, they both claim. Regardless of who set up their dunk tank or rope climbs first, it’s no doubt that the rise in popularity of Obstacle Course Racing, henceforth named OCR, is attributed to the two companies.

OCR was founded on the belief that people hate running, but if you can throw in some fun obstacles to break up the monotony of your “Cardio Pump” playlist, people might actually have fun. And boy, they were correct.

I have legit lost count of how many Spartan races I have done. I ran my first in 2016 with some friends from my gym. We signed up for the Super distance, which was at the time, any distance from 8-10 miles long. Sleep in fear of the unknown I guess.

Usually you don’t find out until you’re on the actual course, but it ended up being just under 10 miles long in the hot, summer, California heat.

Nowadays the Super is a 10K, or 6.20 miles. The shorter Sprint distance is a 5K, and the longer one is a Half Marathon. All of these distances will have 20-30 (sometimes more) obstacles and you won’t know until you arrive at the race site and see the map.

Since then, I’ve done multiple races, failed an Ultra Beast (the Beast course x 2…. yea), and smashed a Super with my best time. But like any OCR racer will tell you, it’s all relative to the conditions. Courses change yearly, from weather, to obstacles, to your personal training level, so you can’t quite compare race times.

What you can compare though, is how much better you do.

Kristin doing a Rope Climb at the Spartan Super in Fountain, CO 2021

Did you fail on the monkey bars last time, but owned them in the next one?

Boom.

Why you should do an OCR

Admittedly, I’ve only ever done Spartan Races. It’s not because I have anything against the other companies, I just have not had the opportunity to try another. Here in Colorado, Spartan is King. We have Tough Mudder come through the state once a year, whereas Spartan often gets the best venues and can pull off two visits a year. When I lived in CA, there were at least 8-10 Races a year, which made the choice easier to make.

Regardless of which race company you choose, remember what you’re racing for.

You’re racing to see how you can push yourself on obstacles. Maybe you surprise yourself and climb the 6 foot wall by yourself. Perhaps you are scared to get under water but you are able to complete the Dunk Wall with no issues. Ok lets be honest, no one likes the Dunk Wall, but maybe you handle it like a champl!

You’re racing for the victory of knowing you can push your body to its limits.

You’re racing for the camaraderie and making new friends on the course.

But most importantly…

You’re racing for YOU.

And no one else.

But if you were feeling intimidated or hesitant, know that you’re not alone. There are people of all shapes and sizes, athletic level, and abilities. During our Spartan Super in Colorado, we got to meet an amazing man named Casey who did the entire race alongside us in a wheelchair. Casey is a double amputee and completed that race with as much, if not more, perseverance and grit as any other racer. It was an honor to race next to him!

You should totally look up the nearest race to you and sign up! Depending on the obstacles, you may need to train for it a little and the more noticed you have, the longer you can train for it.

How to Train for an OCR

An OCR is a lot like a kids playground… except we grew up and stopped playing on playgrounds. Maybe we’ve lost our title of “King (or Queen) of the Jungle Gym” but its ok, you can get it back!

If you’re already doing any kind of High Intensity, CrossFit, Bootcamp style workouts, you’ve already set the framework for the athletic level needed to finish the race. You can definitely get away with sticking to cardio, but you want the endurance and the benefits of quick bursts of energy expense.

Lots of Monkey Bar Variation Obstacles at the Spartan Super in Fountain, CO 2021

Obstacle courses likely won’t be obstacle followed by obstacle, but rather a short run between obstacles.

This is where the high intensity workouts come in – you’ll be prepared for the need to tap your strength in between steady cardio intervals.

But, a CrossFit only regime won’t get you through each obstacle. The knowledge on burpees will help but being a Fran expert won’t prep you to jump an 8 foot wall.

I recommend checking out the race on YouTube to view the obstacles and how people navigated them. Hit up a local park and practice Monkey Bars. I cannot stress enough how Grip intensive a lot of these obstacles are.

Practice grip strength by hanging from a pull-up bar, or doorway if you don’t have access to a bar. Rope climbs are not something you want to neglect either; see if you can practice rope climbs before the race.

This one might require some equipment but if you can, practice the spear throw! Check out Spartan’s website for how to make your own spear for less then $15! All you need is a rake handle, galvanized spike or nail (not too heavy), and some duct tape. Oh and don’t forget the target; you can snag a bail of hay at your local feed store.

You can also check out local OCR Facebook Groups in your area for training sessions or look up if there is an OCR gym near you. In Colorado, there is a place called Cerus Fitness, where you can test out some of the obstacles you will see on the course.

Visiting a gym like this ahead of time would not only give you the confidence and tools to train for the race, it would be a BLAST. Talk about feeling like a kid again! Grab your spouse or best friend for a day of OCR training, and don’t forget to plan for an ice cold beer after.

What to Wear

Ok this one is huge.

I won’t go into too much detail because I could probably write a whole article on it, but you definitely want good shoes. Your CrossFit or running shoes are NOT recommended. A good pair of trail shoes or a pair of shoes specifically made for OCR is your best bet. If you’re buying new ones, make sure you give yourself 2-3 weeks of use to get used to them before racing in them. Best to have them fit a little snug so you don’t develop blisters going downhill (feet moving around too much in the shoe will cause blisters).

And it would be worth testing them for drainage too! If the shoes hold on to water in the shoe, you may want to consider another pair. Hint: Water is always involved with OCRs and you’ll want some that drain well.

Which leads me to socks!

Please, please, please choose a sock that is breathable and drains well. Your super thick tube socks or your thin everyday socks are not a good choice. My pick for socks are the Smart Wool PhD socks which will keep your feet comfortable during the long race. If it’s meant to be cold, definitely go for longer lengths – you’ll be thankful for the extra warmth. You could also grab any active socks from Target or WalMart which are more budget-friendly options.

Fire Jump at the end of the Spartan Super in Fountain, CO 2021

As for what to actually wear, you can’t go wrong with performance/dri-fit style clothing. Just avoid cotton since it will hold onto water and weigh you down.

You’ll also want to bring some mustard packets or pickle juice for the cramps! Even if you don’t use them, guaranteed you’ll pass someone on the race course who could use it.

I’m also throwing in that you want to pack a few First Aid items. Why? Because during our last race in June, it was hot and the bars teared some hands in our party. When we asked Spartan volunteers for a bandaid, they told us we’d have to leave the course and stop racing. I guess they preferred blood on their monkey bars from hand tears.

So maybe pack hand sanitizer too.

We made a pack list and you can download it below for more must-haves on race day!

Have you ever done an Obstacle Course Race? If so, which one?

Malia is the owner, and mamapreneur, of Lifting the Dream. When she’s not lifting heavy weights, she’s doing some fun shit outdoors with her family or attempting to make rollerblading cool again. She is a Cali girl born and raised, with salt water in her veins and sunshine in her heart. She and her family now reside near Denver, Colorado, soaking up the 300+ days of sunshine and breathtaking (literally, altitude) views.

Stay Lifting My Friends,

Bee Tee Dubs (BTW). 

CROSSFIT, INC DOES NOT ENDORSE, SANCTION, APPROVE OF, OR SUPPORT THIS WORK OR ANY OPINION EXPRESSED HEREIN.

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