Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard of obstacle races like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or Warrior Dash.

These events have one thing in common: they are designed to seriously kick your ass.

Tough Mudder’s tagline is ‘Probably the toughest event on the planet’, and whilst it might not be as hard as say, hopping into the Octagon with George St Pierre, these events are still up there amongst things that push your body to its physical limits. 

Not only do you need to be in great physical shape, you need to have a good deal of mental grit too. I don’t know about you, but the idea of carrying a log up a hill doesn’t terrify me nearly as much as jumping into water so cold that even penguins shiver.

The courses vary in difficulty and length, but they all require you to be prepared. Use these 10 tips to get yourself in fighting shape.

1. Pick Your Battles

Do you want to set a good time, or do you want to enjoy the day?

All of these events offer some sort of post-race party and a free beer. Where they differ, however, is in distance and extremeness.

Tough Mudder and Spartan Beast are similar in both toughness and distance (around 12 miles), whereas Super Spartan, Spartan Sprint and Warrior Dash are all much shorter (ranging from 3-8 miles).

If you’re just looking to have a laugh with your mates, you should opt for one of the latter options, but if you’re in it to test yourself and enjoy yourself, Tough Mudder or Spartan Beast are the ones to go for.

2. Buddy Up

obstacle race

Tough Mudder and the Spartan events differ in that Tough Mudder is all about teamwork and camaraderie, whereas Spartan events are about setting a good time.

Either way, you should team up with people who are capable and you can rely on. At the very least it’ll help you stay motivated throughout your training. You don’t need to share every training session, but someone who’ll keep you on track and with whom you can share training tips counts for a lot. And at Tough Mudder you’ll want them there with you during the event.

Plus, once you cross the finish line, you can claim your free beer and bask in the glory together.

3. Train For Endurance

Train like you are going to run a half-marathon.

When it comes down to it, you’re going to be covering some serious distance. Most of these events are between 10-12 miles, so you need to to train for endurance, not strength. Strength helps in these sort of events, but if you struggle to run a few miles you will be so worn out that it won’t matter how many push-ups you can do.

Start training 12-16 weeks before the event. Build up your distance over time, and try to run 10 miles at least once before the actual event. Aside from being good training, it will give you a mental boost.

4. Sprints and Hills

Sprinting is an awesome way of preparing you for short bursts of intense activity, and constant stopping and starting.

There’ll no doubt be lots of hills in the event you decide to take on, so it’s smart to start training on them. Besides, sprinting up hills is safer than sprinting on flat because it decreases the length of your stride. Start with shorter intervals and increase the intensity/duration over time.

If you can’t find a hill, don’t fret. Nothing beats a bout of beach sprints.

5. Master The Burpee

Burpees are the ultimate full body exercise.

They build strength, stamina and aerobic conditioning, so they’re worth doing regardless of which event you’re taking on. That said, Spartan Race will make you do 30 of them as a form of punishment for failing an obstacle, so it’s important that you get good at them sooner rather than later.

To perform a basic burpee:

  • Get in a squat position with your hands on the floor in front of you.
  • Kick your feet back to a push-up position.
  • Immediately return your feet to the squat position.
  • Jump up as high as possible from the squat position.
  • Rinse and repeat.

6. Start Swingin’

obstacle race

Remember when you were in school and you used to love swinging around on the monkey bars? It’s not going to be like that. Not even close.

In these events the bars usually go up at an angle before sloping back down, and they will be covered in mud, which makes them slippery. Unless you want to fall into icy water or be punished with burpees, you need to build some upper-body and grip strength, along with refining your technique.

  • Technique – Keep your arms straight to avoid fatigue, and kick your legs. If you lose momentum it’s going to be tough to get going again.
  • Pull-Ups – Practice pull-ups to build strength in your back, shoulder and arms. They will also help to improve your grip.
  • Grip Strength – To really toughen up your grip, wrap a towel around the bar and grip both ends when doing pull-ups.

7. Get Comfortable

This is your chance to get some of that fancy training gear you’ve had an eye on.

The general rule of thumb is to wear as little as possible.

Any clothes you wear will be getting extremely muddy and wet, which will eventually weigh you down and become uncomfortable. That said, I wouldn’t recommend doing any of these events in the buff (although there might be a reward for doing so), so the next best thing is a moisture-wicking t-shirt and shorts made out of synthetic material.

Most big sports brands manufacture these (Nike, Adidas, Underarmour etc), but it’s not worth spending a fortune as they will get wrecked.

8.  Appropriate Footwear

obstacle race

Like your clothes, your shoes are going to be ruined.

I could sit here and tell you about the merits of particular shoes (trail shoes are thought to be the best), but the best thing to do is wear an old pair of running shoes. As long as they’re still comfy, and fit well you’ll be fine.

Loads of people lose their shoes throughout the event due to them getting stuck in a vacuum of mud. So make sure you lace yours up tightly – some participants even duct tape their shoe to their ankles (I wish I had).

9. Eat Right

Diet plays a huge role in all aspects of fitness, but is particularly important when you’re training for events like these.

Without going into too much detail, you need to eat plenty of protein and make sure your glycogen stores are topped up. This means eating lots of carbohydrates.

The day before the race you should eat plenty of starchy carbs (brown rice, wholegrain pasta and bread) with some good sources of protein (meat, milk, fish etc). The same goes for the morning of race day, but make sure you have plenty of time to digest it before starting.

Throughout most of these events are stations supplying water and bananas. Be sure to make use of them to keep yourself hydrated and well fuelled.

10. Avoid Cramp

When I first took on Tough Mudder I thought I had done everything right. I had the strength, the endurance and the moisture-wicking t-shirt.

And then I got cramp.

Cramp sucks because once you’ve got it the only way to get rid of it is by resting. I was fortunate that it hit me within the last couple of miles and I just made it to the finish line, but if it had occurred any earlier it would have been game over.

Cramp can be avoided with adequate training and ample nutrition on the day. Here’s a short but very useful article on avoiding muscle cramps from Outside Magazine.

The Bottom Line

These sort of events are designed to be intimidating and make your friends and family ask “what in God’s name do you want to do that for?”, but the truth is that they are about much more than proving to everybody how hardcore you are. They’re about camaraderie, challenging yourself both mentally and physically, and fun. Even if that is fun in some sick, twisted sort of way.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned gym rat or a complete novice, everybody from the disabled to the elderly have finished these events. And you can too.

Whatever event you choose to take on, and whatever you fitness level, the advice is the same: start early, start slowly and stay consistent.

That means setting aside plenty of time to train.

That means pushing yourself to go a little bit further each week.

That means training like Hell and knowing at the end of it you will be rewarded with a cold beer and the confidence overcome whatever challenges are put in front of you.

Get out there and start training.

Your team mates are counting on you.