Tips for training clients for obstacle courses and mud races.
We’ve seen many activity trends come and go in the fitness industry, but perhaps none quite as “dirty” as the current obsession with mud runs and obstacle races. While some events are milder than others, many could be described as an “ordeal” that also happens to be a workout. For example, you might find yourself slopping through mud, scaling impossibly high verticals and pushing yourself to the limit—physically and mentally.
The popular Tough Mudder® competition even includes an obstacle with live wires that repeatedly zap competitors with 10,000 volts of electricity, causing burns that have landed a few people in the emergency room (Greenberg et al. 2013). And some competitors arrive at these rugged, strenuous competitions woefully unprepared and quickly get in over their heads.
The popularity of these events has surged in recent years, though the website www.ObstacleRacer.com says attendance may be leveling off. Nevertheless, the fitness industry cannot ignore the fact that a lot of people are entering mud runs and obstacle course races, and there is a good chance our clients will be among them. They need our help to prepare properly.
ObstacleRacer.com says the average obstacle racer is between 19 and 34 years old, with no kids. While each event attracts different gender demographics, Tough Mudder draws close to an even split of men and women.
What do they find so appealing about getting filthy, grimy and generally worn out? A lot of it might be the social experience of doing it together. And, of course, not all of the races electroshock you— there are even tame and fun kids’ competitions, such as the ones from Spartan Race® and Muddy BuddyTM.
Casey Stutzman, director of education at Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan, says an obstacle course competition is refreshingly out of the ordinary: “Most people spend their days stuck in cubicles doing work they do not love for companies they are not passionate about,” says Stutzman, a master instructor for multiple brands, including TRX® and BOSU®. “I believe the human spirit needs a steady diet of excitement, challenge, fear and adventure to feel alive. Mud-run events tap into those emotions and can help fill a void in people’s lives, even if only for a few hours.”
These competitions appeal to people already participating in more traditional athletic events but looking for something new. “The difference between many mud events and other competitions like triathlons and road races is twofold,” says Rod Macdonald, vice president of Can-Fit-Pro and a competitive athlete and coach based in Toronto. “These events look more fun, and many of them allow team effort. The latter is important because it helps with accountability in training [and] disperses the stress of the event.”
As Stutzman puts it, “You can only run so many half-marathons before needing a new challenge. These events are so outside of most people’s box and not something we can easily recreate ourselves, which makes them very attractive.”
“Plus,” adds Stutzman, “there’s beer.”
Entrants in events like Tough Mudder are greeted at the finish line with a beer, another sign of the appealing social atmosphere. Sometimes these challenges are called MobTM events, for mud, obstacles, beer.
However, anyone who signs up for an obstacle challenge for the fun and the beer will soon confront the substantial physical and mental demands of these races. That’s where we come in: Fitness experts can help clients train, mentally and physically, for a mud or obstacle event so they are able to finish safely and with a satisfying sense of accomplishment. Our experts share their tips.
Any activity that encourages people to get moving is a step in the right direction. And you don’t have to be in Ironman® shape to successfully complete a mud race. However, if fitness professionals can “get to” clients before they set foot on a mud or obstacle course, we can help ensure they have the best and safest experience possible.
Says Stutzman, “When I ran Tough Mudder, I was blown away by the number of people I overheard saying, ‘I just signed up yesterday and haven’t been training at all.’ While on the course, our team noticed each aid station we passed had more people than the one before it. “
These events are meant to be fun, but they are still intense and challenging, even for fit individuals,” Stutzman says. “Jumping into something like this with no preparation is not wise, in my professional opinion. I think a large portion who sign up are ready to handle [the events], but there is also a large percentage that is not prepared at all or has not prepared correctly.”
Macdonald, a four-time Ironman finisher who has competed in Tough Mudder and multiple adventure races, says, “Some people are unsure of what to expect and then try to ‘wing it’ on race day, which is inherently more dangerous when you are dealing with scaling walls, electricity, fire and other slightly less dangerous obstacles.”
Despite these difficulties, obstacle events are not reserved solely for extreme athletes. Many races offer competitors the choice to “opt out” of a daunting obstacle (sometimes with a penalty), and some events offer less intimidating obstacles overall. That creates multiple options for a variety of clients who wish to try a new challenge in a social environment.
Hayley Hollander, a personal trainer and veteran of Tough Mudder, the Mud Run and Muddy Buddy, says that although these events may not be geared to everyone’s fitness level, the nature of teamwork inherent in a lot of events makes them accessible. For example, “Tough Mudder has created a course that cannot be completed without a team to help you: The walls are drastically high and require a lift from a friend, the rope ladders have to be held by a friend, and barbed wire needs to be lifted by another person while you crawl through,” she says.
“[As for training,] it is up to the fitness professional to assess the abilities of the client wishing to participate and what activities and workouts could prepare [him or her] to engage in an event of that nature,” says Hollander, director of training and education for PTA Global and cofounder of Advanced Training Performance in Las Vegas.
Read on for ideas that can help you plan programming and classes for clients who are gearing up for obstacle-style events.
Major Training Considerations
Course lengths and numbers of obstacles vary among the many events. Some courses pit you against other competitors and the clock; others emphasize finishing at your own pace. How clients train may depend on the specific event they’re hoping to participate in or have already registered for. For example, Tough Mudder says on its website that it’s “probably the toughest event on the planet,” whereas Ruckus positions itself as an “adult playground.”
For starters, clients gearing up for an obstacle challenge or mud run should have a base of cardiorespiratory fit- ness. “If they are not fit enough to even walk, let alone run, 16–20 kilometers, they should not attempt a race of that distance,” says Macdonald. But do not make the mistake of designing a training regimen that’s too heavily focused on running.
“Running is important but not enough,” says Stutzman. “Overdoing the running to build up your cardio is a bad idea. Think of these events as athletic endurance events that require balance, mobility, strength, stability, endurance and power. To be successful, people have to train like an athlete, not just a runner.”
Since mud competitors perform exercises well outside the usual gym routine, personal trainers must be creative when preparing appropriate training protocols. “The athlete needs to have a combination of body awareness, muscular strength and muscular endurance developed through body weight training,” says Macdonald. “This includes the ability to perform crawling, climbing, throwing, lifting, balancing, jumping, and pulling of their own body weight, as well as external sources of resistance. These requirements may be used in short, powerful bursts or in a sustained manner.”
Think movement skills, as well. “Lots of jumping means learning to land. Lots of climbing means learning to pull,” says Stutzman. “Some obstacles require fast movement and explosiveness. Some require a level of ‘physical problem solving.’ Many require moving side to side and/or rotating.”
Macdonald suggests exercises such as the following to help prepare clients for the various challenges they might face on an obstacle course:
- chin-ups and pull-ups, including hanging and traveling (walking hands right and left).
- corncob pull-ups (where you pull up to your left hand and then shift over to your right hand before lowering)
- chin-ups using a rope, or a towel to simulate a rope (rope/towel looped over top of bar)
- high-incline treadmill walking and running, including high-incline treadmill circuits coupled with body weight movements to help with the peripheral blood flow changes needed for these events
- plank crawls, straight-arm leg drags, farmer’s walk (walking on various terrains while carrying heavy weights in each hand for grip strength, muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness)
An online article in Journal of Exercise Physiology (Mullins 2012) illustrates how to use elements of the outdoors and/or playground equipment to mimic obstacle exercises. It suggests, for example, doing low hurdles over boulders or curbs, vaulting over park benches, maneuvering under low-hanging ropes or chains, and climbing poles and chains on a swing set.
“In a nutshell,” says Stutzman, “training has to have a little bit of everything”: endurance, strength, power and/or interval training, core stability, balance, mobility and recovery.
Developing a Mud Mentality
The prospect of competitively scrambling through small spaces, maneuvering under barbed wire, and leaping off a 15-foot platform into cold, muddy water requires more than physical prowess.
“The mental component is just as important, both for the safety and success of the client [and for] the enjoyment of other participants,” says Macdonald. “For example, if a client gets stuck in a confined space because they never trained for it, or gets spooked, they become a risk to themselves and others. In my opinion, the client needs to be able to identify what they are capable of or not, and be able to self-select out of an obstacle if it is too much for them.”
Says Stutzman, “You could make an argument that there is more of a mental challenge in these events than a physical one. For an event like Tough Mudder, you are just never comfortable, and after 2–3 hours of discomfort, it begins to wear on you. Add fatigue and exhaustion to the mix, and you are looking at the perfect storm for a mental breakdown.”
Clients get hot and sweaty in a gym, but there is air conditioning, and there are towels on hand. If it’s raining outdoors, they can stay dry and relatively comfortable on a treadmill. However, a treadmill workout doesn’t properly simulate an obstacle course experience.
“When doing our Tough Mudder training programs, we had what we called ‘Embrace the Suck’ workouts,” says Stutzman. “These were designed to be as uncomfortable as possible so people could practice ‘embracing the suck’ by putting on a smile and moving on. My favorite was when we had the team doing a pretty crappy workout while listening to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ on repeat for an hour.” Stutzman says learning to be mentally strong is key to finishing with a smile.
Counting Down the Training Days to an Event
Macdonald says lead time for training depends largely on how well clients have already prepared and the nature of the specific race they want to enter. “If the client is already well-prepared, then as little as 2–4 weeks might be sufficient,” he says. “However, if the client is unfit or wants to compete in a very challenging race, then [he or she] might need 6 months or more to build up the fitness, structural tolerance and technical ability to safely participate.”
For Stutzman, 6 weeks of lead time would be a “bare minimum,” even for fit clients. If someone is nervous about being ready for a challenging event, he recommends a little longer, such as 7–12 weeks. “I am a big believer in being overprepared,” says Stutzman. “Preparation builds confidence; confidence leads to enjoyment.”