With the growing popularity and complex nature of obstacle course racing, more and more often we are presented with the question, “what is the best way to train for obstacle course racing?” Or, “what are the best exercises for obstacle course racing?” Obviously, running is a huge component, but you also need upper body strength for climbs and pulls, lower body power for jumps (nobody wants to fall in the fire!), strength endurance for loaded carries, core strength for balance, and even specialized skills like spear throwing. In order, here is how you should organize your training to become a better obstacle course racer.
1. Running Endurance
In any obstacle course race, most of your time will be spent running. If you can improve your cardiovascular endurance and running skill (economy), you will greatly improve your obstacle course race performance. Not to mention, the worst case scenario in a Spartan Race is not completing obstacles and needing endurance to get through all of those burpees!
Your training to improve this attribute will follow a typical runners training plan with a few modifications. First, most people will probably want to reduce the total number of running days to make room for more specialized training and weight training. Runners commonly train 5-6 days per week. An average obstacle course racer will want to reduce that to 3-5 days per week. Elites and professional athletes might maintain 5-6 days per week and add more sessions to train the diverse needs of obstacle course racing. An average racer should be able to handle a total of 5-6 total training sessions per week.
Keep at least one long, steady-state run and at least one interval training session each week. From there, adding more running sessions should favor interval style training. This is both because interval training is more similar to obstacle course racing (Spartan Races only have about one quarter to one half mile between each obstacle) and because training for improved lactate steady state is often better than improved VO2 Max (oxygen consumption). Moreover, unless you’re at the front of the pack, you might be waiting, and recovering, for a few seconds before each obstacle. Another consideration is occasionally working in loaded runs to improve performance for obstacles like the sandbag carry.
Long, steady-state runs should be approximately 60-120 minutes in duration at a pace you would consider moderate or your aerobic threshold. Pay attention to your form and technique and practice breathing. Interval running can take multiple forms. Purely anaerobic running workouts are sprints, and while you may not immediately think that will be applicable to obstacle course racing, it is. One of the best ways to improve your lactate threshold and lactate steady state is the use of anaerobic interval training with 10-30 second maximal effort sprints on flat or incline ground. Rest intervals should be 2-10 times as long as the work interval. You can work your intervals all the way up to running/jogging intervals. During which, you can run for 2-3 miles, jog for 1-2 miles, sprint 0.25 miles, and repeat or do fartlek or group fartlek runs.
2. Upper Body Strength
Many obstacles require upper body strength. If you can’t do a muscle up, your upper body strength could be a limiting factor during an obstacle course race. Predominately, you will need strong back and other pulling muscles. This is not to suggest you should never do any pressing exercises, you should. But if you’re bench pressing more often than you’re doing pull ups, you’re doing it wrong. An obstacle course racer should be performing upper body resistance training 1-2 times per week.
Exercises performed should be pullups/downs, rows, climbs, deadlifts, and grip strength exercises. The key here, as well as with other training, is variability. On race day, you’re not going to know if you will be moving atlas stones, climbing rope, hoisting yourself over walls, or all three of those things. Train them all. Be sure to use different objects for your resistance training. That’s not just limited to barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. Do pullups and rows with rope attachments, on rings, or cargo nets. Deadlift with different grips and do some unbalanced (i.e. 2 dumbbells of different weights in a dumbbell deadlift).
Aim for 10-15 total sets per session and allow 3 days of local rest to recover. Local rest means rest the back and arms – you can still train other body parts. Vary between heavy and moderate weights for low (1-5) to high (15-20) repetitions per set, respectively. If it interest you, train concurrently. Between sets of back exercises, you can run, do some sled drags, or jump rope to keep the training more specific. However, if training to increase maximum strength with high load, low repetition training, it will be in your best interest to actually take the boring rest those days. It may be counterintuitive, but having more maximum strength actually helps you perform better on loaded carries than strength endurance.
3. Core Strength, Balance, and Coordination
These two attributes help on nearly all obstacles. Core strength is the bridge between having our feet on the ground while our upper body “floats” in the air and the link between holding the top of a wall and kicking our feet out to the side, up, and over. Abdominals are a durable muscle group and can be trained up to every day, at least 2 times per week. Whenever possible, train the core with obstacle-specific training. Practice climbing over walls or swinging on monkey bars. Unbalanced deadlifts (mentioned in the last section) or other unbalanced weight lifting exercises are a great way to get the core engaged without thinking about it. Of course, deliberate abdominal and lower back training can be performed as well and will follow the same general rules as resistance training described above.
Balance and coordination can be improved often. To improve, an athlete does not need to be creating much or any muscle damage or fatigue. Walk on balance beams, unstable surfaces like sand, step up on to bosu or stability balls, stand on one foot for time, throw spears, or do some light yoga. All of these activities improve balance and can be performed nearly as often as you like!
4. Lower Body Strength and Power
Any obstacles that require jumping or lifting will benefit from stronger and more explosive legs. The trick is increasing leg strength without creating large increases in leg size. Although larger leg muscles would increase their strength, it is not a highly desirable trait for obstacle course racers or other endurance athletes. Larger legs are not just heavier, having more muscle increases their oxygen demand and can negatively affect running endurance. So how do we get a lot stronger without getting a lot bigger?
By keeping the volume of exercise in check. You may think lower weight, higher rep exercise will promote endurance, but it actually increases your training volume dramatically. Now, if the weight is so low that it is more similar to cardiovascular exercise and could be performed nearly indefinitely, that’s a different story. That’s like a loaded run. High reps in this case mean ~10-25 reps. Remember that variation is key, and you don’t need to avoid those rep ranges forever, but the majority of your training should be in the 1-8 reps per set range. These can be with high (80-100% max) or low (30-60% max) loads. Higher loads are obviously to increase strength. The low load is for maximum power development, so the number of reps are still kept low, but the speed of movement is high – explosive. Using these tactics for squats, lunges, and step-ups for 10-12 sets during 1-2 sessions per week are great ways to achieve the lower body strength necessary for obstacle course racing.
How to Get Faster at Obstacle Course Racing
Putting it all together now, a complete week may look like this:
Long Interval Hard Fartlek Run – 40 minutes
Abdominal Planks – 5 sets of 90s
Upper Body Strength Concurrent Session
Single Dumbbell Deadlift – 3 sets of 5 reps each side
Pullups on Rings – 3 sets of 8 reps
Single-Arm Cable High Rows – 3 sets of 12 reps
Hand-Over-Hand Sled Rope Pulls – 3 sets of 25m
* 30s rest, 20s of deadmill, and then 30s rest between sets; 120s rest between exercises
LISS Long Run
Run – 10 miles at comfortable pace
Crunches on Stability Ball – 5 sets of 20 reps
Short Recovery Run
Lower Body Strength
Back Squat – 3 sets of 3 reps @ 85-90% max
Back Squat – 3 sets of 3 reps @ 50-60% max
Walking Unbalanced Dumbbell Lunge – 4 sets of 8 reps each leg
Hill Sprint Intervals – 12 sets of 50-75 meters up, 1-2 min rest walk down
Cool Down - 1 mile jog
Russian Twist – 5 sets of 50 reps each side
Each week to come after the example would follow a progression towards longer distances, greater loads, or more novel and specific exercises. Every 3-5 weeks or as needed, take a deload week. A deload week is a normal week of training but with ~30% reduced volume. So, if you’re going to do 3 sets, only do 2, or if you’re going to run 10 miles, only run 6 or 7.
Run the Best Race of Your Life
If you’re able, running simulated obstacle course races with supplemental training to work on weak areas would be the best. Unfortunately, obstacles are not often left behind when the race is over and community playgrounds only have so much to play on. To get better at obstacle course racing, focus most on improving endurance, upper body strength, balance and coordination, and lower body strength. Embrace your weaknesses until they are strengths, and remember to always keep your training varied and specific!
Still not sure what to do? Check out our 4-week OCR training plan here!