Am I fit enough for an obstacle course race?
with advice from
Joy Winchester, HFS
With long-distance races proliferating across the country, many people have been looking for a new fitness challenge. Enter obstacle course races like the Tough Mudder, where competitors complete military-like challenges “designed to test physical strength and mental grit.” But are they safe?
There are a variety of benefits to these challenges. “You’re not just walking or running, but also using strength, flexibility, and balance,” says Joy Winchester, a fitness instructor at the Take Charge Fitness Program, a wellness facility run by Clinton Physical Therapy Center (a Physiquality network member in Clinton, Tennessee).
Another unique aspect of these races is the teamwork emphasized by these challenges; at the Tough Mudder, for example, the race emphasizes camaraderie over individual finish times. This environment encourages fun, notes Joy, which makes it feel less like a workout. (Plus, as we’ve pointed out in the past, you’re more likely to finish a race if you’re not alone.) As the New York Times described it a few years ago, “The idea of Tough Mudder is not really to win, but to finish. And to have a story to tell.”
And, like any race, setting a goal and training for the event can help you get back on track with your exercise regimen. But given the challenges you’re preparing for when training, side effects often include improved endurance, improved athletic performance, and weight loss.
However, both health practitioners and race organizers warn that these events are not for everyone. First, the level of these challenges are often quite advanced; obstacles listed on the Tough Mudder site include a ring of fire, a human hamster wheel, an electrically charged field and a plethora of wall climbing features. Such difficult events mean that anyone with pre-existing conditions, anything from simple knee problems to those with chronic heart and lung concerns, should probably avoid such races. Frankly, anyone considering such a race should talk to her physician or physical therapist about whether she is fit enough to complete the event.
Keep in mind as well that parts of these courses will involve mud, creating a slick running surface, and sometimes even ice, which can affect how your muscles will react to the activity. And as these courses are usually on uneven terrain, Joy advises those in training to get used to running off-road. Be particularly cautious about the water challenges; reports have surfaced from several races about drowning and other serious injuries.
A less common obstacle for some people is the mental challenge of facing such varied tasks throughout a race. (Compare this field to preparing for a marathon; in a marathon, you know that you’ll be required to run 26.2 miles, and the race route is given to you in advance, so you’ll know how many hills you’ll face, what the terrain will be like, etc.) One blogger points out that “mental preparation [for these races] is a difficult feat, especially for a first-timer. If you can’t shake the feelings of anxiety and stress, a race like this may not be for you.” She notes that lacking confidence when faced with the physical challenges of these courses can quickly lead to injurie — losing your focus on something like the fire obstacle, as one woman did in Texas, can lead to some serious burns (or worse).
Race organizers and healthcare practitioners agree that the best way to reduce the chance of injury is to train well. Joy suggests going to the local playground, where you can climb and swing, do pull-ups, and crawl through obstacles. The American Council on Exercise has posted a variety of high-intensity workouts to help prepare for the bursts of energy necessary to complete obstacles. And read through the race’s website, as many will offer tips on how to prepare; the Tough Mudder website has sample workouts for three different fitness levels.
As with any activity, be cautious and listen to your body. Pain is your body telling you to stop. If you start to feel pain during the course, seek out one of the medics on site, who will do an evaluation and consider whether you should continue the race. If you start having chronic pain during your training, talk to your physical therapist about your exercise regimen, and whether the race is worth the risk.
Do you need to find a physical therapist to help you train for a race?
Click here to find a PT in your neighborhood.
For further information, look through our selection of articles on fitness, in addition to the below links:
Marie, Savannah. Should women do obstacle course races? 3 reasons why they should and 3 reasons why they should not. ThoughtfulWomen.org, September 6, 2014.
Eldred, Sheila M. Is the Tough Mudder too dangerous? The Discovery Channel, April 28, 2014.
McCall, Pete. Training for obstacle course races. American Council on Exercise, February 28, 2014.
Washicko, Cynthia. Are you tough enough to complete a Tough Mudder? The health risk, and reward, of adventure-style races. The New York Daily News, August 1, 2013.
Wells, Carrie and Pamela Wood. With rise of extreme races, fun comes with risk. The Baltimore Sun, May 25, 2013.
Tomich, Jill and Peter Lavelle. 4 ways to train for an obstacle course race. Active.com.
Beil, Laura. The dangers of a mud run. Women’s Health, February 6, 2013.
Bidanec, Astrid. 6 benefits of participating in mud runs. The Examiner, August 27, 2012.
Fell, James S. Not motivated? Sign up for a race. Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2011.
Branch, John. Playing with fire, barbed wire and beer. New York Times, April 28, 2010.