5 Tips for Kicking Ass in Obstacle Races

Obstacle races are all the rage right now!

A combination of trail running, military-style obstacles, and even fear-inducing challenges (in one race, we had to eat raw jalapenos – and then run another 6 miles. WAH), obstacle races take competitive and for-fun group races to the next level. 

They can be fun for the amateur and adrenaline junkie alike, but no matter your level of fitness and courage, be prepared for a daunting challenge, both physical and mental.

You’ll need to run, sprint, jump, crawl, carry heavy things, pull your own bodyweight, “dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge” (Name that movie!) and even swim, and sometimes all in mud.

Good grief. The designers of these races are surely masochists.

Therefore, your training needs to reflect those demands. Do you want to learn how to kick ass in an obstacle race

Of course you do. :::fist bump:::

Here are 5 training tips for your next obstacle race.

1) Strengthen Your Stabilizers

Your what? Your core muscles.
Your core muscles have two functions – stabilization and exerting force.

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When stabilizing, you’re resisting force placed upon you. So you don’t, you know, fall over when something presses against you. 

When exerting force, you’re recruiting core muscles to accomplish something. That might be balancing, pushing, pulling, even things like….. coughing. Or vomiting.

Yeah wow. Ew.

Anyhoo, I like to think of my core muscles like the trunk of a tree. The branches and roots depend upon a strong solid trunk, and can be only as strong as the trunk allows them to be.

Therefore you’ll want to train your core to stabilize – think planks – and to exert force – think knee tucks, reverse crunches (hip lifts), and woodchops.

2) Incorporate Obstacle-Specific Exercises into Every Workout

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You don’t need to completely change the way you exercise, but it makes sense to train for what you’re about to do. Not just because you don’t want to make an ass of yourself out there, but because you don’t want to HURT yourself out there.

Most races will give you sneak peeks at the types of obstacles you will encounter. After looking at a few sites, common themes will emerge – climbing walls, crawling under things, wading through deep muddy waters, and so on.

Once you have a feel for the types of obstacles you’ll encounter, decide which exercises will help you develop the strength needed to complete those obstacles. 

Which brings us to….

3) Train What You’ll Do

You’re going to crawl, so get low.
Suggested Exercises: bear crawl, plank walks, spiderman push-ups, roll-ups and v-ups, superman variations, inchworms, sumo squat pulses, wall sits

You’re going to climb, so build your posterior chain. (Haha I said posterior chain.) That means your backside.
Suggested Exercises: box jumps, squat jumps, deep lunges, hill sprints, tuck jumps, long jumps, dead lifts, bridge

You’re going to pull your bodyweight with your arms, so practice pulling.
Suggested Exercises: bodyweight rows, cable rows, rowing machine, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, battle ropes, suspension strap exercises

You’re going to carry heavy things, so pick up some heavy shit and carry it. (I’m sorry I said shit.) (Not that sorry.)
Suggested Exercises: farmers walk, walking and/or lunging with dumbbells overhead, weighted squats, sandbag lifts and carries, clean and presses.

You’re going to need a strong grip, so hold heavy things for a long time.
The two best ways I’ve found to improve my grip strength:

1) Sandbells, as you cannot even hold the damn things without challenging your grip, and Sandbell
2) Barbell Complexes – Barbell complexes are a series of 3 or more barbell exercises in a row. However, the grip challenge comes into play when you don’t set the barbell down between exercises, even if you’re “resting.” Try it. Do 10-15 reps each of overhead presses, bicep curls, bent-over rows, and deadlifts, without ever setting down the bar.


You’re going to hop, skip, jump, and balance, so work on your agility. Remember how as kids we said the floor was hot lava? Or step on a crack, break your mother’s back? Incorporate some agility work by creating obstacle courses and completing them as fast as you can.
Use an agility ladder for drills (don’t have one? Pretend! Or go old-school and draw one on the pavement with chalk!).
Use a playground to train so you have to go over, under, around, and through things.
Additional Suggested Exercises: agility ladder drills, tires (take a giant hop forward or laterally and land on one foot), or visit this page for a fantastic list of agility drills. 

You’re going to start and stop, so train with intervals. (You knew this was coming.) Obstacle races have you running, sometimes great distances, and then taking on demanding physical challenges.

Running alone is challenging.
Obstacles alone are challenging.
The combination is evil and will test you, physically and mentally.
So train that way.

Find out the average distance between obstacles, and be sure you can manage those distances, as well as the cumulative distance (see #5 below).
Then, incorporate your HiiT exercises.

Better yet, if you can learn the distances AND the order of obstacles from the race’s website, even better. Then you can really program your training to match – and exceed – what you’ll do.

I like to run on the treadmill for several minutes, then stop and do burpees, box jumps, renegade rows, or other equally challenging exercises for 1-minute or longer. Rinse and repeat x A LOT. 

Need more ideas for Interval Training? Why, I thought you’d never ask!
This week’s HiiT workout:

4) Go (Well) Beyond Your Comfort Zone

An obstacle race is sure to challenge you in ways you never imagined, so you’re less likely to be surprised if you repeatedly train outside your comfort zone.

Think you can’t do one more rep? Dare yourself try.
Think you can’t go 10 seconds longer than last time? Will yourself to do it.
Think you can’t get faster? Gradually increase your pace during training, even if means sacrificing time or distance.

mind over matter

Because trust me, you CAN.Tip: As soon as your brain screams I can’t go on, go just a little bit further, a little bit longer, do a few more reps.

You know this because even after your most challenging workout, you’re able to get up, drink water, grab your things, and walk to your car.
You DO have fuel left in the tank. Maybe not much, but enough.
Enough to push yourself just a bit farther than you thought you could go.

Caveat: As long as you can do it safely. I never, EVER promote pushing yourself to the point of sacrificing proper form and safety for one more rep. But I DO believe that most times, we can do just a bit more than we thought we could.

5) Train for Distance

When I did the Great Urban Race with my husband and sons, I made the mistake of not training for distance. I train almost exclusively with intervals – shocker – and I thought that because the race involved running from checkpoint to checkpoint my interval training would be more than adequate.

It helped, for sure, but….  Um……  we ran somewhere between 7 and 9 miles! In 95 degrees and 90% humidity! While wearing costumes! (stupid effing leg warmers from hell.) And that isn’t something you “just do” without prior training.

(Well, my kids did. The jerks. I managed the 1-3 miles between checkpoints in a slow-and-steady fashion in order to maintain my sanity, and they repeatedly had to wait for me, occasionally turning around and screaming, “MOM. Come ON!” It was probably a good thing I didn’t have enough energy to scream, “EFFFFFFF YOUUUUUUU.” But I thought it. I’m not gonna lie.) 

If you typically do high-intensity interval training and have the anaerobic part down  :::fist bump:::  then you’ll want to incorporate distance training to increase your cardio base.
(On the flip side, if you have fantastic cardio endurance thanks to frequent long, steady runs, you’ll want to add high-intensity interval bursts to your training.)

pretty muddy logo

Now that you’re all geared up for an obstacle race, why not join me for one? I’m planning to run the Pretty Muddy in Chicago in August! In fact, I’m giving away 4 free race entries! You can enter to win HERE – only 12 hours left to enter! –  and if Chicago isn’t convenient for you, there are three other race locations.

Have you run an obstacle course? 
What advice would you add for those doing their first one?
Tell us in the comments below!


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“Don’t fear failure.
Not failure, but low aim is the crime.
In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
– Bruce Lee

If that’s you, let’s chat


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