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How To Train for an Obstacle Course Race

Now that I've completed the Tough Mudder, I want to take the opportunity to go over what all of us did to get there.  There are a lot of ideas floating about on the world wide web as to how to train for one of these races and I've seen a lot of plans.  Many of which are overly complicated, too deficient in volume, too abundant in intensity, and mostly complete nonsense.  Many of the theories about training for these races fall in line with the philosophy that tired, sore, and possibly injured is the most effective.  The truth is, however, it is far more effective when you train in a way that improves your abilities without being chronically tired, sore, or injured and most importantly, is specific to your goal.  High-intensity, non-specific conditioning may feel like good exercise, but it is not any way to train for something specific.  Training is important, but smart planning and recovery is more important.

There are some very basic training principles that are common to all people and its not because some brilliant training guru came up with them.  Its because the principles are not about training, they are about how the human body reacts to stress and stimulus.  An understanding of basic physiology will tell you far more about how to train intelligently than all the training books in the world.  Understanding the principles of Adaptation, Overload, Accommodation, Specificity, and Individuality are necessary to develop a good training plan.  Ultimately, a good training plan is far simpler than we tend to think it needs to be.  That doesn't mean its easy, but it is not terribly complicated either.  If you have the time and motivation to train efficiently, there is very little you can't accomplish.  I'm not saying you can beat world records or make it to the NFL training camp, but for the average person, a lot of things may seem out of reach that really aren't.

I'm not going to give you a crash course in physiology right now, but I'm going to give you some basic rules that I follow when I develop a training plan.

1.  Segment your training so that you improve the qualities that take the longest to improve first.  For these races, you need aerobic base (from running) and full body strength.
2.  When training for the event itself, train specifically.  Practice specific skills, work up to specific distances, and condition yourself as close to race day conditions and demands as possible.
3.  Be willing to adjust the training as you go to accommodate individual differences.  

The first phase of segmented training is a Rehabilitation.  Not everyone needs this phase, but this if you haven't trained in while, are recovering from any injuries or noticeable imbalances, or are simply transitioning from another sport, activity, or competitive season. We also refer to this as the "Fix what's broke" segment.  Depending on your fitness levels and your goals this could take as little as four weeks and as many as twelve or more.

After Rehabilitation comes Accumulation.  This is usually the longest block and is when you improve the qualities that take the longest to improve to establish a solid base.  These are simple to identify for an obstacle course race:  strength and aerobic base. As I've mentioned before, for most beginners, doing pretty much anything will result in them being stronger and more conditioned.  However, doing pretty much anything will not necessarily keep them progressing past the "novice period" and it wont' really condition them to do much more than their specific activity.  Therefore, if you are weak, you need to focus specifically on getting stronger, particularly your ability to push and pull yourself vertically and horizontally through space.  Don't worry about climbing walls and crawling under barbed wire at this point.  If you are weak and deconditioned, you need to strengthen your entire body, particularly the muscles that support your major joints and your spine.  Simply strength training for this purpose will improve virtually all other aspects of fitness and help prevent injuries.  Strength training all your joints through a full range of motion will improve your strength, flexibility, postural endurance, balance, and coordination.  So, why waste time training with a bunch of different methods when one method will deliver the bulk of improvements?  Train for strength, leave the obstacle specific conditioning for later.  Squat, press, pull, and carry your way to a good full body strength base.  

And when we talk about aerobic base, we need it to be specific for the activity we are training for and an obstacle course race requires one to run.  So, you need to get out and run.  Balancing your running and recovery with strength training and recovery can be a bit of a challenge, but as long as you are willing to adjust your distances and intensity as you go, you should be able to sustain both during this base training phase.

Our training group for the Tough Mudder was made up of a lot of different fitness levels and abilities.  Although some of us ran together prior to the group training sessions, most of us were training on our own during the Accumulation phase to improve the qualities that we needed as individuals to do well with this challenge.  Since running was my largest deficit, I put strength training on the back burner and ran as much as possible.  I also train largely with barbells so when I did strength train, I added in a lot more body weight work such as pull ups, push ups, and dips.  My leg work consisted largely of squats, power cleans, and a lot of running.  It may sound strange that I include running as strength work, but for me, running on trails not only developed my aerobic capacity for running, it also helped me develop multi directional strength in my ankles, knees, and hips.  This was partly strength endurance for running, but also joint stability for injury prevention.  Being new to running, especially trail running, I had to be very careful during this phase of my training.

So the prescription so far is pretty simple:  
1.  Run until you have enough of a running base to cover the distance you need to run.  If your body doesn't know how to walk or run the required distance, you are going to have a hard time covering the required distance AND completing the obstacles.  
2.  Improve your strength to the point that you can push yourself vertically and horizontally through space using your arms and legs.  The degree to which you need to do this depends on your race.  If you have to climb a wall, a rope, or traverse monkey bars, having the strength to be able to sustain a flexed arm hang or do a pull-up may be necessary.  However, most of the shorter races do not have this requirement and the obstacles are designed such that you can use both your arms and legs to get over them.  

Once you have your base in place, its time to enter the Transmutation phase.  This means, race-specific conditioning.  This is where you will introduce obstacle specific skill work and combine this with your running efforts into a single workout.  The time it takes to get through this and the level of difficulty you'll want to include will depend entirely on your fitness level and the degree of difficulty of the race.  For the Tough Mudder, we wanted to be able to cover a distance close to the eleven mile distance of the race combined with obstacle stations that would specifically improve our skills for the race.  Notice I said skills and not strength.  During the Transmutation phase, you are not going to get appreciably stronger.  You will however, get much better at the skills you practice.  For example, when we started our 8 week Transmutation phase for the Tough Mudder, I could climb the rope with someone holding the bottom of it and I could get over the six foot wall with a little help.  By the end of the eight weeks, I could go up and down the rope easily and climb the eight foot wall by myself.  Its not because I got stronger, its because I got more coordinated.  Practice makes perfect. 

In addition to these very specific obstacle skills, I included some "non-specific" work as well.  The agility course and prowler push were added to enhance certain qualities such as proprioception, kinesthetic awareness, joint stability, and full body conditioning that would help us on the race.  The mud and the trails would require a great deal of physical awareness to avoid injury and the conditioning would help fight fatigue in the middle of the race.  We were not practicing in muddy conditions and we didn't really know what the terrain would be like so maintaining some exercises that would enhance our abilities to deal with uneven, slippery, or hilly terrain during the race was important.   

So, our goals for this eight week period were to improve our obstacle specific skills and condition ourselves for the combined running and strength efforts.  Now, perhaps it is our age, but all of us training together at that point were used to training in the gym rather intensely and we had all worked up to running at least ten miles by that point, but the first training session was brutal.  It didn't help that it was almost 100 degrees outside, but our first training sessions consisted simply of six obstacle stations with quarter mile runs in between.  This took us almost two hours to complete mainly because we were working on skill development and not on speed.  Over the next four weeks, we gradually increased our number of obstacle stations to fourteen while also increasing the distances we ran to a half mile between obstacles.  For the final four weeks, we stayed with fourteen obstacle stations, but gradually increased our first and middle running distance to two miles each such that the total mileage on our final training day was ten miles.  On our final training day, I also took out the nonspecific strength and skill work (prowler conditioning and agility work) and added in some extra crawling and sprinting.  This took us about three hours to finish.  

During this time, we not only worked on our obstacle specific skills and conditioning, we were figuring out what we were going to wear and bring with us on the course.  It may not sound like a big deal to crawl through mud, but if you've ever done one of these races, you know that mud is typically full of small rocks and you will come out of that mud with your fair share of abrasions.  Because our race was going to be in cooler weather, I decided to go with long pants and knee sleeves under my pants.  I also decided to go with a long sleeved shirt.  The long pants and shirt also help mitigate the bruising you tend to get from moving over obstacles in your bare flesh.  Basically, bare skin can tend to stick to wood and rope.  Instead of gliding over it, with a little bit of sweat and compression, you sometimes actually end up grinding your skin against the obstacle in a way that results in rather nasty bruising.  Lastly, as I had to find out the hard way, running itself can cause your clothes and skin to chafe you.  Chafing means that your skin gets rubbed raw.  This does not feel good, especially in the shower when soap and hot water are applied.   Therefore, if you are not strong enough to catapult yourself over the obstacles, you may want to consider protecting yourself. 

Finally, the last phase is Realization and this occurs at the end of the transmutation phase and includes the event itself or the competitive season if you play a sport.  The hardest thing about Realization is that this phase requires a lot of recovery.  As we transitioned to our last two weeks and hardest workouts before the Tough Mudder, a lot of us had to cut back on our training volume.  Some of us started to notice some more chronic aches and pains as well as some old injuries acting up.  Its important to pay attention to these things during this time.  At Realization, depending on the demands of your training, you are not only in the peak of your physical performance, but also tend to be a bit delicate and vulnerable to injury.  Between our last training session and the Tough Mudder itself, I didn't do anything other than aggressively stretch and go for some long walks.  

So, at the conclusion of all this preparation the Tough Mudder itself was not that bad.  We were able to go the distance comfortably and complete all of the obstacles with relative ease.  This was important because many of them had a bit of fear factor included in the difficulty.  The only obstacles we failed to complete were either hard for everyone, including the twenty year old freaks of nature, or greased with butter.  Being able to sprint up the last obstacle, a steep half-pipe, was quite an accomplishment after more than three and a half hours on the course and running eleven miles.  We were tired when we were done, but we were able to go the distance and enjoy the day which is the most important part.    

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