Obstacle races are gaining popularity with growing numbers of participants riding on the wave of a CrossFit craze.

One of the more established races is the annual Men’s Health Singapore Urbanathlon. In 2015, the globally popular Reebok Spartan Race made its debut in Singapore.

Obstacle Course Races

These are not running races but adventure races that incorporate military-style obstacle scaling, muddy pits and sometimes even swimming.

If you have been regularly exercising and taking part in running races of various distances, you might be curious about attempting an obstacle course race (OCR). Here is a general guide to help you learn more and prepare for your first obstacle race.

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How to Get Ready for a Race

Endurance training helps you to prepare and get ready for obstacle course races.

“Expect the unexpected in obstacle racing,” is the usual advice heard. Some races even include a “mystery obstacle” to add to the challenge of the course. As much as possible, study the route and obstacles that are announced by the race organisers.

For physical training, you’ll need to work on your endurance, speed, upper body strength and lower body strength. Tailor your physical training programme so you are best prepared to go through the course safely on race day.

Endurance Training for Obstacle Course Races

Is your cardiovascular fitness sufficient to handle the challenges of obstacle scaling?

If you’re able to complete a steadily paced 5- to 10-km run comfortably within 30–45 minutes and 60–80 minutes respectively, then you can throw in interval run sessions into your OCR training.

If you are not conditioned to do that as yet, start with progressive run training. Build up from once to at least thrice a week of running, incorporating a long-distance run of 7–15km a week, to build your cardiovascular endurance.

Interval Workouts for Obstacle Course Races

Interval training helps you prepare for obstacle course races.

Simply running at a steady pace does not provide the training stimulus for your body to cope with the physical demands of an obstacle race. And the racecourse might not be a flat one which is why you need to train for hill running as well.

One run session a week should be dedicated to an interval run workout made up of short, intense efforts followed by equal or slightly longer recovery times. The benefits of interval run training are improved running coordination, efficiency, and power. Examples of run interval workouts:

  • 10 sets of 200m at faster than 2.4km race pace with rest intervals of 45 seconds
  • 6–8 sets of 400m at 3km race pace with rest intervals of 1 minute
  • 4 sets of 800m at 5km race pace, rest 30 seconds then 200m at 3km race pace, rest 1 minute

To further improve your run power, add hill training. On a treadmill, do interval runs of various distances like 500m at 1% gradient, then 500m at 4% gradient and repeat 4–6 times. Use stair repeats to improve lower body strength. Run up two storeys then jog or walk down to recover, and repeat the process 5–10 times. Another variation is to climb or hop two steps at a time and then run down fast to simulate steep descent.

Plyometric Training for Obstacle Course Races

Another form of training to build strength is plyometrics, which are exercises that involve jumps. This physical activity can be incorporated into your weekly run sessions. Limit plyometric training to twice a week due to the muscle effort required and soreness that is anticipated following such exercises.

Some examples of plyometrics you can add to your OCR training:

  • Box Jumps: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart in front of a firm surface that is about 30cm high (or up to 50cm). Squat down then jump up onto the elevated surface and land firmly on both feet. Step back down and repeat 5–15 repetitions for 3–5 sets.
  • Burpees: While standing, kick both legs back and land on both palms in a push-up position. Do a push-up and curl legs back under the body to allow yourself to jump upwards, reaching hands overhead. In some obstacle races, these are done as a penalty when you can’t clear or fail an obstacle.
  • Bounding: Run for about 10–20m with wide, long strides, leaping up upon foot landing.
  • High Knees: Run forward with short, quick steps, bringing the knees up into the air, flexing the hips, knees, and feet. Keep arms pumping and land on the balls of your feet.

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Upper and Lower Body Strength Training

The strength required to tackle obstacles is at least that of your body weight and more, as you have to climb/jump/carry sandbags and climb or run. Exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and squats form the basis of strength training for such races.

Exercises performed in explosive movements (functional exercises) such as jump squats, burpees, and kettlebell swings improve your dynamic strength. You can even consider doing plyometrics with a weighted vest for added strengthening. For strength training, increase intensity progressively.

Start with lighter weights and more repetitions of movements, then increase the load gradually with one to three sessions per week of training dedicated to strengthening. Combining endurance and strength training is useful, as running with weights and scaling ropes after running a short distance are expected routines in obstacle racing.

Ensure that you are giving yourself one to two full days of rest per week in order to reap the benefits of the training regime. Rest should be a part of your training programme. Give your body time to recover to improve further.

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Nutrition: A Healthy, Balanced Diet

To prepare for OCR races, make sure you are getting the nutrition you need.

To prepare for increased caloric expenditure when you’re training intensively, ensure that you increase your dietary intake appropriately as well. Since training requires more strength building components, do include more protein in your diet. Step up on hydration as well.

Related: Power Up With Sports Nutrition

Shoes and Attire for Obstacle Course Races

Preparing for an obstacle course race includes wearing the right attire.

You will definitely get dirty in the race. An obstacle race is certainly not the time to bust out any “fashionable sportswear” while crossing the finish line. Tight-fitting clothes should be worn—go for sports bras/tank tops, compression tops and shorts/bottoms that do not absorb perspiration. You should have trained in these clothes before you race in them.

As for footwear, off-road or CrossFit shoes are suitable. Choose a pair of sports shoes with good traction that you’re comfortable training in. If you are used to wearing fitness weightlifting gloves in your training, consider using them as well for the race to protect your hands and improve your grip as you pull yourself over walls or conquer the monkey bars. Don’t forget to have fun and make new friends along your journey toward this new challenge in your life!

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Obstacle Race Day Checklist

Make a list of things to bring for your OCR.

  • Race belt that allows you to fit some small personal items and gels or other race nutrition
  • Sunblock lotion, sunglasses, hat
  • Your training watch
  • A set of clothes and shoes to change out into post-race
  • Toiletries and towels (if there are baggage drop-off areas and allowance for wash-up post-race)

By Dr. Kelvin Chew, Senior Consultant Sports Physician. This article was first published in Caring Magazine Mar/Apr 2016

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