Guest Post By Rich Ryan
If you want to succeed at Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) events like Tough Mudder and Spartan Races, you need to begin with a solid plan that includes getting strong first. Then, you need excellent execution.
Don’t just throw mud at the wall (literally!) to see what sticks.
Among the more or less random ideas people often try:
- Picking up the heaviest thing they can find on a run
- Wearing a weight vest for every activity
- Going rock climbing and playground training
- Doing CrossFit and weight training
- Getting out to run on trails and hills
- Races, Races, Races
But there are better paths to take if you want to discover…
Take my friend Brad. He’s caught the OCR bug big time and has become a bit of a junkie. Our conversations usually go something like this.
“What do you have going on? What’s new?”
“I have a Spartan Beast next week, a Terrain Race in two weeks, and near the end of the month, I am doing a Toughest Mudder. Then next month I have two in the first few weeks.”
“Wow, man. That seem’s like a lot. How are you holding up?”
“Well, My ankles are pretty much swollen all week, and I have some lower back pain when I start to run. So, I keep it low key until the weekend. But I freakin’ love it!”
“So, what are you doing to train for these races?”
“You know, I run a bit, I’ll throw on a weight vest and hike, and I try to get to CrossFit once or twice a week.”
“Got ya! So, what’s the deal with the races? What do you want to get out of them?”
“I think I can be competitive! I want to qualify for Worlds.”
While Brad is pretty advanced, and his dedication is commendable, he’s still making the same mistakes as newbies:
- No base work
- Ignoring weaknesses
- Racing too often
Brad just wants to race and doesn’t quite understand how to help himself improve as an OCR athlete. His training is intense but lacks direction.
Don’t be like Brad. Train smarter to get better results. This post will explain how. For an even more detailed plan download my FREE step-by-step guide.
Stop Trying To Do Everything at Once
Many OCR athletes try to do everything at the same time and end up accomplishing very little. They want to get better at carries while getting better at running, while also getting better at their obstacle skills.
But they only have an hour at a time to train a few times a week. So they try to throw everything into the mix every training day. The logic seems to be “if I can simulate the race during training, I’ll improve for race day.”
It’s a seductive line of thought. But it’s mistaken.
You first need the baseline fitness required for each task. Only then can you work on improvements. For example, to become a faster runner, you need to practice running fast. Running with a weight vest or with a log will literally weigh you down. You will not be able to run as fast as you need to in order to create a response for your body to adapt.
The same goes for your carries. If you want to get better at a bucket or log carry, you need to create an overload to become stronger. The bucket or log itself is not heavy enough for your body to need to build muscle.
Still puzzled? Think of another sport. Let’s take basketball. If you wanted to get better at shooting free throws, you wouldn’t only practice shooting three-pointers. Doing so may help you become a better shooter, but it won’t help you get to your ultimate goal of being a better shooter from the line.
The same principle applies for OCR training. Carrying a sandbag up a hill may help you in the short term, but there are bigger gains you can make to your fitness with a smart running and strength plan.
Which leads us to what I call….
The OCR Training Pyramid
To fully maximize your ability to become a better athlete you must improve following areas. Begin at the bottom of the pyramid and work your way up.
Why Fitness Capacity Matters
Your fitness capacity is how fit you are, relative to your past self and the competition. The best athletes in OCR are the best runners and those who have the highest work rate.
Contrary to what many people think, being the strongest or fastest person at the starting line are not the most important factors for success. What you need, is to be able to work at a high rate for a long duration.
After all, even a short OCR course will take 45-60 minutes to complete.
The best and easiest way to improve your work capacity is to become a better runner. You spend most of the time in between the obstacles. This time is what separates the competitive field from the rest.
How to Improve Your Running
It’s all about planning and progression.
To become a better runner, you need to have a plan to improve. Many athletes run with a group or running friends. They just put on their shoes and head out the door without any real idea of how the workout at hand will help them in the short and long-term.
Create a plan for your improvement and have set benchmarks to check-in on your fitness. These check-ins will then act as a catalyst to change your training stimulus. Work in 3-4 week phases before you check in.
This is where a good coach can be helpful. See more information on my website.
Training Phase Example
Weeks 1-4: Base – easy miles, progression runs, building volume, learning pace.
Weeks 5-8: Speed Endurance – interval-based workouts, increased intensity, building volume, improving sustained pace.
Weeks: 9-12 – Race Planning – race-specific workouts, running on race terrain, simulating race factors, creating a race plan.
The progression of each of these phases is what creates the long-term fitness growth you’re trying to achieve.
I know it is more fun to swing on monkey bars, and your social media post look better when you are carrying a log, but to improve your running fitness you have to run. Sorry for the tough love, but not really. You need to know the truth and start putting in the work.
Base Strength and Power Production
For every obstacle that your encounter during a race there is a requisite amount of strength, mobility, and coordination that is needed to complete the obstacle.
But many OCR athletes try to run before they can crawl. They spend a lot of time trying to improve their ability to complete the obstacle. Instead, they should be building the pieces that make it easier for them to improve.
For example, if you consistently fail the rig or monkey bars, it’s likely that you don’t have the upper body or grip strength to make it happen. Instead of spending your time attempting and failing the rig, you should devise a plan to improve the required grip and upper body strength. This is another place where coaching can be helpful.
You need to build a foundation before you start to build the house. In this case, the house is completing the obstacles, and your foundation needs to be your strength.
The answer is not in a new technique or a pair of gloves that you bought on spartan.com.
It is getting your butt to the gym and getting the work done.
Building Your OCR Obstacle Foundation
Success comes down to four things:
- Compound Moves
How many times have you been literally left hanging at an obstacle because your grip is toast? Poor grip strength can leave you vulnerable during the race and will cost you a TON of time. Add these exercises to your workout routine independently from obstacle specific training.
Key Exercises: Dead Hang, Hand Switch, Towel Hang, Dumbbell Curls, Plate Pinch, Farmers Carry, Bouldering/Rock Climbing
Progress the exercises by adding time and reps each week. This will help your body build and adapt and will show you the progress that you’re achieving.
Grip Workout Example:
4 x Max Dead Hang – 30 sec rest
6 x 10 sec plate pinch
2 x 40 second Farmers Carry (heavy)
Pulling and Back
In every race, there is a time where you are asked to either pull yourself up and over something, or to pull an object from one point to another. Building strength in your back and lats will help you clear a wall, dominate a hoist, and complete a rig.
Key exercises: Pull-Ups, Ring Rows, Pull Up/Ring Row Hold, Rear Delt Flys, Face Pull, Band Pull Apart
Take three to four of these exercises and place them in your routine two times a week.
Pull Workout Example:
Band Pull Apart
3x Max Pull up/Ring Row Hold
Hip hinge exercises are typically your movements like the deadlift and squat. These movements will help you build the most strength and muscle of all exercises. These drills will help you with carries, heavy lifts, and power hiking/hill running
Key Exercises: Deadlift, Squats, Bent Rows, Sandbag Carry, Tire Flip
You get a great bang for your buck during these exercises, but they need to be done HEAVY!
Do one or two of these exercises twice a week. Some examples follow:
Bent Row 5×5
Back Squat 6×3
Sand Bag Carry 2 x 40 sec – HEAVY
Your mobility is more important than you may realize during an OCR event. The best athletes can attack the obstacles without restraint. If you have tight hips or knees, and struggle to bend down and stand up, you will lose time. Working on your mobility only takes about 10 minutes a day and can be the missing piece to your training.
Pigeon Pose / 90/90 Stretch
You will be floored after you work on your mobility, as you’ll feel better in your day-to-day and eager to attack mud and crawling obstacles pain-free.
Now that you have spent time building your strength base you are ready to take on the obstacles.
How To Create A Strategy
One of the most fun pieces of OCR is that there is no single correct way to do the obstacles. You are good to go as long as you get through them. You need to figure out what strategy will get you through the obstacles penalty free.
Play to your strengths. If your single arm hanging strength needs improvement, don’t use a Tarzan swing on the monkey bars. Grab each rung with both hands before moving to the next.
Simulate the race conditions. It is easy and fun to go through an obstacle when you are fresh and breathing easy. However, the point of training is to make race day easier.
You need to be able to simulate what the obstacle will feel like on race day. Chances are when you come up to obstacles that you will not be breathing easy with dry hands. So, create this scenario in training.
3 rounds of:
- 20 burpees
- Monkey Bars or Hand Switches
- 30 seconds rest
The options are limitless when it comes simulating the conditions or race. Be creative and use what you have. You can run and go directly to an obstacle, or do your obstacles back-to-back.
Now that you have a strategy to beat the obstacles you can then work on your speed to get through them as quickly as possible. There is nothing more frustrating than when you run someone down, and you lose a ton of time on them after an obstacle. You improve your speed in obstacles is how you improve your running speed. Do them fast!
Short Burst of Exercises
Do workouts that are brief but aggressive. Go through a rig or a carry as quickly as possible for a short duration. Sprint up a hill with a log, bear crawl 100 meters all out. Build on your progress by adding time or speed. Take sufficient time to rest between each set so that you feel fresh and ready to hit another set with speed.
Speed Workout Example: 10 x 30 secs Bucket Carry Sprint. 45-second rest.
Make an obstacle benchmark so that you can test your fitness and push yourself against a standard that you have set. Check-in with your obstacles fitness and speed.
Benchmark Workout Example
3 Rounds for time of:
* 400-meter run
* Monkey Bars
Now that you have practiced all the pieces that will make you an effective OCR athlete you can dial in your race-day tactics. These are the things that will ensure you have a good race, but will not make up for lack of preparation. Your race tactics include things like the best route to take or hacks that will help your carries and climbs.
A good example of a tactic would be when you grab the bucket carry, and you use a wristband to lock your hands around the bucket. This strategy will help you engage in the appropriate muscles to make the carry easier, but you must first have the requisite muscle strength to get there.
Race nutrition can also fall under tactics. All too often I hear people complain about cramping and trying to find a solution. The solution is in training, not the amount of electrolytes that you drink during or before the race.
Tactics are meant to help you squeeze every bit of performance out of your machine built OCR, ass-kicking body, not to skip steps along the way.
Winning Your Obstacle Course Race (OCR)
The hardest part about training is sticking to a training plan. The best way to put your performance together is by making a program and working hard. Many OCR athlete have a terrible case of training ADD.
There are no shortcuts. Your best bet is no bet at all. It’s a step-by-step guide you can download for free by clicking here.
About The Author
Rich Ryan is a running and Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) coach based in Pennsylvania. He believes in hard work and helping people PR their next race by getting strong first. Do you want to win your next race? Pick up your FREE OCR Domination Guide here.