A Beginners Guide to Obstacle Course Races

Obstacle Course Races (OCRs for short) are off-road running races that combine obstacle challenges at regular intervals to ramp up the difficulty. The races are available at numerous distances from 4km all the way up to 30km, with even a 48 hour challenge out there. Each race has a set number of obstacles designed to test not just your leg strength and stamina, but also your upper body, core strength, balance and technique. However, the addition of these obstacles is not only designed to purely make the race tougher, they also make it and more exciting and interesting running experience that incorporates elements of team work to make it particularly fun for teams and groups.
 OCRs have been around for over 25 years but popularity have massively surged over the last two or three years. There are loads of OCRs all over the UK, with some of the biggest and better known being Tough Mudder, Reebok Spartan Races and Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest. Last year in the US more people took part in Tough Mudder than in marathons, and that’s just one of the many OCR organisations. In the UK in 2015 there are now more individual OCRs than half marathons and marathons combined.
One of the main attractions to OCRs is the enjoyment and camaraderie that racers experience over the standard individual and monotonous road races. It is very common to see racers embracing the atmosphere of the event and helping other racers, and often strangers, up and over obstacles. Because of this, OCRs are not just great for teams or groups, but also individuals as there will always be someone there to give you a boost over the obstacle or help you through the long running portions.

How fit do you need to be?
The general rule of thumb with OCRs is that ideally you to be able to run continuously for 30-40 mins in order to be able to complete a 4-5km race. Although the length of the race is broken up by the obstacles and you won’t be continuously running, a good level of basic cardiovascular fitness is advised. Basic strength exercises, particularly for the upper body will be a huge advantage when it comes to completing the obstacles, which can be very physically demanding. Beginners and people new to OCRs should aim to participate in the 4-10k races first, before attempting any of the tougher events.

With OCRs it is pretty much a certainty that you well get wet and very muddy. With that in mind it is essential that you wear appropriate clothing so that you aren’t miserable for the rest of the course. Anything cotton is a big no no. Cotton articles of clothing will soak up any water and become waterlogged, leaving you lugging around extra weight and keeping you wet and cold for far longer. Compression or quick drying are clothes are a much better option, they will keep you warm and dry much faster. Ideally, foot wear needs to be lightweight, dry quickly and with good grip. As we’ve already stated, you will get wet and muddy, making appropriate shoes essential. As with clothing, you want shoes that are light weight and dry quickly, you don’t want the added weight and heat sapping properties of waterlogged shoes. Shoes with deep grip are also important as the courses get very slippery. Not only will this help you scale the obstacles more easily, but it will also help to reduce the risk of injuries. A pair of grippy gloves would also be extremely useful, especially on some of the colder events.
    It is a very good idea to bring a change of clothes, a towel and a bin bag for your wet and muddy gear. Once the race is finished it is a good practice to get out of your wet gear and into your clean clothes as soon as possible, especially if it is a cold day. This will help to reduce risk the onset of illnesses like cold or flu.

Training for the race
OCRs are different from regular running races as they use regular obstacles to test not just your stamina but also your upper body strength, core strength and balance. With that said, your training will need to reflect the challenges OCRs present you. The first point to start is focus to on your ability to run long(ish) distances. Although the race will be broken up at regular intervals with obstacles, offering you quick rests, you will still be running upwards of 4 km for the shortest races. The most effective method to prepare you for this is to beginning running outside slowly increasing the distances, particularly in parks and trails where the terrain is going far closer to that of the races, as the uneven surfaces of the race are far more tiring than just pavements or roads. Unfortunately, the gym treadmill just won’t cut it for OCRs. What’s more, outside and park running is free and you can do it at anytime.
    Strength training is also an important aspect to consider and will be tested on the majority of the obstacles. Again, you don’t need a fancy gym membership for this, exercises like pull ups, press ups and sit ups will go a long way to building upper body strength. Most modern parks do have equipment to help with this, pull up bars, monkey bars and even some basic gym equipment. However, a gym membership is advantageous and can offer you more options and methods to build up strength, particularly if you aren’t strong enough go directly into pull ups etc.
    Entering OCRs with a group of friends is a great way to ensure the enjoyment and success of the race. Training or racing partners can help to keep you motivated and push you to do better. They can also be a big help with some of the obstacles during the races. Even more importantly, if you are competing with friends you will enjoy it far more, which will stop you focussing on how tired you are. Enjoy the race, it is meant to be fun!

Beau Scott     
BSc Sports Biomedicine and Nutrition