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10 Tips When Preparing for Your First Obstacle Course Race

People climbing at the top of a mountain, text on the bottom left "10 Tips for preparing for an obstacle course race"

By Kevin Hoover, contributing health and fitness writer

Spartan. Tough Mudder. Warrior Dash. As different as the names may be, they’re all representative of a sport that has been presenting fitness enthusiasts with new challenges for the better part of the last decade.

An Obstacle Course Race (OCR) isn’t just a 5K. Nor is it a triathlon, or a strength-training competition. It’s the best elements of all those events rolled into what has lovingly been described by devotees as a sufferfest, and it’s going to push your body and mind to the limit.

Don’t expect to just pay your entry fee and tackle this like another typical foot race; an OCR is anything but. Preparing for an event of this caliber is going to require some work on your part, and the following tips will help ensure that when you do step up to the starting line, you’ll be ready for whatever the course puts in front of you.

Engage in multifaceted training

Woman climbing over wall

Athlete scaling a wallWhen getting ready for your first OCR, should you lift weights? Run? Commit some time to flexibility training?

Yes, yes, and yes.

An OCR can serve as the ultimate test of muscular strength, cardiovascular health, and mental preparedness. Therefore, you shouldn’t limit yourself to one type of training. Balance cardio work with resistance training, and don’t forgo stretching. Trying to scale up walls, squat to hoist up heavy stones, and jump over hurdles is substantially more difficult when trying to do so with poor hip flexor mobility.

Hit the (jungle) gym

During any given race, you’re going to be climbing, crawling, running, lifting, squatting, and about a million other things you can’t even begin to imagine.

Sport-specific training makes sense when you know exactly what you’re training for, but it simply isn’t possible when preparing for an OCR. So instead, you’ve got to do the best you can with what you’ve got, and that should include methods that may seem a little unorthodox.

Go to your local hardware store and buy some rope and a bucket. Tie the rope to something heavy and drag it around your yard. Fill the bucket with dirt or rocks and carry it. Head to the park and climb the monkey bars. These are great ways to mix up traditional training protocols and force your muscles to adapt to many of the movements that you’ll have to perform on race day.

Train smart, recover smarter

Man stretching grabbing shoe

Stretch and recover

Committing to participate in an OCR may motivate you to take your training to levels far outside of your comfort zone, and that’s a good thing. But if you’re a 5-day-a-week gym rat that’s now just starting to log miles on the racetrack, don’t expect to be able to continue hitting the iron as frequently.

Make time for rest, be sure to eat right, and balance your training with some necessary “me time.” In the final days leading to the event, eschew any strenuous activity and focus solely on recovery. The last thing you’ll want to do is ruin the experience because of soreness or a pulled muscle.

Race in the same clothes you train in

Race day may seem like a good occasion to splurge and buy a new pair of shoes or trendy leggings, but save ‘em for an after-race reward.

A multi-mile trek over the river and through the woods isn’t the best place to break in a new pair of kicks or deal with chafing that comes from garments that haven’t properly been broken in.

Participate in the same clothes that you’ve been training in, as long as they’re in decent shape. As a bonus tip, steer clear of 100% cotton clothing. It soaks up water like a sponge, and considering you’re going to be neck deep in the drink on more than one occasion, you don’t want anything weighing you down.

Dress for the day

Athlete walking in the woods near a waterfall

Running a trail through the woods

Rain, blazing hot sun, and puddles of standing water that are ripe for attracting bugs can turn your photo-op into a photo-oops. Plan on bringing sunscreen, bug spray, and dress for the weather (including a change of clothes for when you’ve finished). Worse case, you can always leave anything you don’t need at the bag check station.

Also, if you’re considering baring some skin while competing, consider this: The barbed wire is real, as are the sticks, stones, and thorns that you’ll encounter along the path. Prepare accordingly.

Expect the unexpected

OCRs are constantly changing. There may be new obstacles, different paths on a familiar course, or a completely new layout. The organizations that hold the races sometimes offer a small peek into some of their more popular offerings, but with even a shorter 5K event cramming in upwards of 30 challenges, you should expect to encounter some things that you haven’t before. And that leads to the next tip…

Be prepared to help (and to be helped)

Racing is even more fun when done with friends, but if your regular crew isn’t as willing to compete as you are, don’t fret; you’re about to make several hundred new friends.

With 10-foot high walls and steep climbs up muddy embankments around every turn, expect to need help at some point, and don’t be shy to ask for it. Just remember to pay it forward and reciprocate any assistance you’re given.

All who start, finish. That’s the golden rule.

Carb up

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If you’ve ever competed in any sort of endurance event, then this is a no-brainer. Your body needs carbs for energy; heck, it even prefers them, and being in the middle of a 300-yard crawl through the mud is no place to let your tank run empty.

In the days and hours leading up to race time, you should be prioritizing carb ingestion over other macros. A complete product like :Jet Fuel supplies a tri-carb blend of maltodextrin, glucose, and sucrose, as well as important electrolytes and a bit of caffeine* to keep your brain firing on all cylinders, something you’ll appreciate long after your physical capabilities have been taxed beyond exhaustion.

*INFINIT Nutrition's :JET FUEL formula contains 125mg of caffeine per serving. Read more about caffeine and it's effects on athletic performance.

Label your stuff

This is one of those things that may seem so insignificant that you never give it a second thought, which is exactly why we’re including it here.

Put your name on anything that belongs to you.

Be it a sticky label on the outside of your GoPro to scribbling in permanent marker across your bag, making sure that your belongings are clearly noted as such will lessen the chance that you go home with someone else’s stuff, or vice versa.

Don’t forget to have fun

Your first OCR is going to be an experience the likes of which you’ve never had before. The fear of the unknown, wondering how you’ll measure up, and trying to figure out how to overcome all of those obstacles may weigh heavy on your mind.

However, rest easy knowing that there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Many of these events hold competitive heats designed for the uber-fit who are racing for time, rank, and sometimes prizes. For your first outing, stick to what are known as open races, designed for individuals of all fitness levels. That’ll allow you to take all the time you need to get a feel for the course, take in the sights, and enjoy the camaraderie of working with others.

So get out there, help where you can, do what you can, and have the time of your life. And when it’s all said and done and you’re chugging your complimentary beer at the finish line, revel in the knowledge that you’ve accomplished something that so many others only ever dream about.

About the Author

Kevin HooverKevin Hoover is a freelance writer based out of Nashville, TN. Kevin is a licensed physical therapist assistant, and his background in the sports nutrition industry spans close to 20 years. His professional experience, as well as a lifelong love for writing, propelled him into the world of freelance authoring, where he specializes in the creation of health, fitness, and nutrition related content. For more information, contact the Kevin at thewritekevin@gmail.com