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Obstacle Course Race Conditioning

Whether you are training for a Warrior Dash or a Tough Mudder, it wise to condition yourself for the combined efforts of running and climbing.  Or crawling.  Or jumping.  Or whatever your race has in store for you.  Switching back and forth between endurance and strength efforts is a bit harder than doing either in isolation.  And a lot more tiring.  The good news is that it doesn't take a long time to adapt to this sort of conditioning so if you have your strength base in place and your endurance base in place, taking a few weeks to combine the two will ensure that your race day is much easier.

Our team avatar.  We're not this old and crotchety, but
getting there.
This past weekend, my Tough Mudder Team, the GeriAtrocities, had our first group conditioning session.  The Tough Mudder is unique in that it is not a race and encourages teamwork amongst the participants to get over the obstacles.  In fact, some of the obstacles are literally insurmountable without help from your fellow Mudders.  The goal of our training this weekend was not just to begin to condition ourselves for race, but to work together as a group in figuring out how we are going to approach each of our obstacles.  We have to take into account that we are all older than the average participant; we all have our own strengths and weaknesses, this is a long race with lots of obstacles, and fatigue may throw us some curve balls.

In a previous post, I reviewed what the obstacles are that we are most likely to encounter and characterized them by the dominant quality they would require to complete.  It went something like this:  this will suck because it will make your legs tired, this will suck because it will make your arms tired, this will suck because it will make your core tired, this will suck because its mean and scary . . .

Some obstacles are impossible without teamwork.
However, the skills/strengths needed for this race are pretty easy to identify.  Some are obstacle specific whereas some can be trained with more general strength and conditioning methods.  I have distilled our race training down into 8 different categories or stations.  Over the next eight weeks, we will be combining each of these stations with running intervals to get us used to the efforts required for both.  However, we will start with an approach that optimizes specific strength and skill development before transitioning to a pure conditioning effort.  If you've never climbed a wall before and your first attempt is a speed focused effort while exhausted from running, well, that's just dumb.  The progression for every new skill learned should be technique first (can you perform the task well), strength second (can you perform the task well consistently), and then power and/or speed (can you perform the task at the desired speed or intensity).  Trying to develop a new skill while also trying to do it as fast as possible doesn't work so well.  So, these first few weeks, the obstacle stations are strictly skill practice and strength work.  This will naturally transition into speed and conditioning work as we get more proficient.

So, what are the obstacle stations?  I designed eight stations that focus not only on obstacle course specific strength and skills, but injury prevention.  Hypothermia and injuries are the primary reason people drop out of these races.  No need to get injured if we can avoid it and there are some very simple things we can do to improve our chances.

Maxine had no troubles with the wall.
The first one is the Wall.  There's really nothing like climbing over a wall and the Tough Mudder course has a lot of them.  I'm not really sure how high they are, but they look to be at least ten feet in height.  Obviously, some of us will need a boost to get our arms to the top, and although pulling yourself up is part of the challenge, being able to pull a leg up and grab the top of the wall with your foot is the other challenge.  This requires a strong core, especially for repeated efforts.  The other challenge to the wall is getting down.  Who knows what will be on the other side.  Could be a mud slicked downhill slope, uneven ground, sticks and roots and rocks, you just don't know.  So, mounting the wall and then just nonchalantly jumping off is not advised.  You need to be able to hang for a second and see what you're going to land on.

You can't tell, but Suzanne hates the prowler.  I think we
all do.
The second station is the prowler.  We'll probably be repeating this one a lot.  The prowler is both a wonderful and horrible thing to play with.  This past weekend, we used it without any added weight, running if we could.  The prowler requires you to push with your entire body.  The effort is similar to what it will feel like climbing out of a mud trench or trying to get up a steep hill.  The "Everest" obstacle, a half pipe that you have to run up in hopes of catching hold of some helpful person's hand will require a burst of speed and power towards the end of the race.  Working with the prowler will help build this higher intensity endurance and strength both for general race endurance as well as the more strenuous parts of the course.

Not breaking or spraining an ankle is a good priority.  
The third station on Saturday was a combination of what will become two stations eventually,  Agility and Balance, which were done as a circuit.  Agility and balance are crucial to safety on the course.  Agility training is typically used as speed drills for sports, but the main goal is strengthening of the joints in multiple directions and good  kinesthetic awareness and proprioreception.   These last two big terms simply mean one's ability to sense where one's body is in space and respond quickly to one's environment.  For these we had a big tire and some pipes set up as an agility ladder.  The tire we used to jump onto and off of from both a forward and sideways direction.  The point was not to do this for conditioning or speed, but to jump and land solidly with good balance.  We also ran through the agility ladder both forward and sideways.   A good number of injuries occur simply from not securing a good landing or instability in the ankles, knees, or hips when stepping out of your plane of movement.  A little prevention goes a long way.

Can you move slowly and keep your balance?
The balance station was very short, but challenging as well.  One of the obstacles in the Tough Mudder is a very long, very narrow board over water that we have to walk across.  If you fall, no big deal, you're in the water and have to swim.  But, being wet and cold will exhaust you and there are plenty of other obstacles that result in falling or jumping into water.  If you can avoid it, might as well.  I also took the opportunity to combine some strength work for another obstacle, a big cargo net we have to walk under and continually push overhead to reach the other side.  So, the obstacle was simply to walk across a 2x4 raised off the ground while holding two kettlebells overhead.  Now, here was the challenge:  You couldn't go fast.  Each step had to be balanced, one foot in front of the other.  If you move quickly across a balance obstacle, you may make it to the other side, but you're not using balance, you're using momentum.  If you have to stop suddenly, or move slowly because others are in front of you, you're not going to get very far.  Additionally, balance requires a great deal of core strength.  Holding weight overhead requires a great deal of core strength and balance.  So, although the two obstacles this exercise will assist are completely different, the basic quality of core strength will enhance both balance and overhead strength.  Over the next few weeks, this station will get both longer and higher off the ground.

A station I have not yet built, but will be constructed this week is the Over/Under challenge.  This kind of obstacle is present in a lot of obstacle course races and it is deceptively exhausting.  It generally requires that you continually hoist yourself over an object such as a fence, a car, or a dumpster, and then get low enough to crawl under a fence, a log, or through a pipe.  Sometimes its just "over", sometimes its just "under, but when its both, you will get worn out easily.  These obstacles require a good bit of strength and flexibility, but a lot of conditioning as well.

Terry has accessorized his climbing outfit with
socks picked out by our six year old.  
The next station we went to was the rope climb.  There is only one 15 foot rope climb on the Tough Mudder course, but a lot of the obstacles require a good amount of grip strength so rope climbing will serve multiple masters as well.  Rope climbing requires upper body strength, grip strength, and a lot of technique.  All of our team members, even those who cannot do a single pull-up, were able to climb the rope because the range of motion is different from a pull-up and you can assist somewhat with your legs.  We also found that if we stabilized the rope for one another, it was much easier to climb.  We all practiced going up the rope a few times before bruises and rope burns made us decide to move on.  One of the things we will be discovering during this training will be what we need to wear on race day to minimize these types of injuries.

We finished up with the last two stations of bear crawls up the hill in the backyard and monkey bar practice.  Bear crawls, like the prowler, are great for hip and full body strength and conditioning.  They also help with mobility and we will eventually mix these with low belly crawls under rope.  The monkey bars are a Tough Mudder obstacle and require both upper body strength and grip strength, but also a bit of technique.

A close up of one of my bruises.  I have three large ones
from the wall and the climbing rope.  The color is
rather impressive.
It was 90 degrees and ridiculously humid on Saturday so by the time we were done with all the stations and running, we were all completely soaked, bruised, and a little dehydrated despite having gone through almost two gallons of water.  Dehydration and heat stroke are no joke so be careful when training in these kinds of conditions.  Not only should you stay hydrated, try and make sure you are consuming salt to keep your electrolytes normalized.  Believe it or not, pickles and pickle juice are excellent for this purpose.

So, overall, we didn't run that far, but we were out there working for about two hours.  The challenge itself will probably take us closer to three hours to complete, but we will gradually increase our running distances, the number of times we attempt each obstacle station, and the overall training time.  The most important part of this gradual approach is that we will have enough recovery to continue to allow us to train effectively between these weekly conditioning sessions.  The hard work has just begun, but it will pay off in eight weeks.

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