Last Updated on December 1, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
You’ve seen the crazy photos your friends have posted online of them covered in mud, swinging across monkey bars, and jumping over fire pits. You’ve faced your fears and finally pulled the “registration” trigger to join them: you’re going to do your first mud run. Which leads you here, wondering how to train for a mud run /obstacle course race.
I’m glad you asked.
Now, I’m far from an elite in this sport (like my awesome pal Margaret from Dirt in Your Skirt…check out here first time/FAQ post here). However, I am an avid runner, somewhat experienced obstacle course racer (otherwise known as “OCR”) , I have a degree in exercise and sport science, and am an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist. Thus, I know a thing or two about how to train for a mud run / OCR.
Obstacle course races bring something entirely different to the table compared to typically foot races. A chance to run a race, to laugh hysterically at yourself as you play in the mud, and a chance to truly test your limits to see how tough, mentally and physically, you can be.
YES you will face obstacles that bring you out of your comfort zone (let me tell you about the first time I faced “Fire in your Hole” at a Tough Mudder…). But what is life if not a great adventure? So bottom line: do not be intimidated. Sign up, train hard, and most of all BELIEVE in yourself. Be it your first race or your 15th…you CAN do it.
How to Train for a Mud Run
This training guide is a general outline for the healthy individual. Please consult your physician before beginning a new fitness routine. *
I can not tell you exactly what obstacles you will face during your first obstacle race. Every single race series, even from location to location of the same series, will present you with a different course and different obstacles. Some, like the Spartan Race, like to keep those obstacles top secret before the race. You will not know what you will face on the course until, well, you are facing it head on.
Other race series keep things pretty standard. A quick visit of their website will let you know what you are in for. Either way I can give you these general training guidelines.
This is the most important part, so pay attention class. An obstacle race is not your average 5k. You will need to do SO MUCH MORE than simply run. That said….YOU STILL NEED TO RUN.
I can not tell you how many OCR’s I’ve done where I’ve heard people say “holy cow, I didn’t think there would be this much running!” Well folks, 3 miles is still 3 miles, a 10k still a 10k, so on and so forth, you get the idea. The obstacles are not placed one right after the other, you need to somehow cover the distance between them. And that is usually done by…you guessed it…running.
So all of that said, you need to run during your obstacle race training. If you are a brand new runner, I suggest starting with a couch to 5k type program (one can be found here). Of course, the effort required for an obstacle course race is far greater than a regular 5k, however, this type of training plan will ensure that you are building your mileage properly, to avoid any overuse injury.
If you are already an avid runner – keep it up. Four or more days of running, including one long, slow distance day and one interval/speed training. Treadmills and road running are great, trail running, if possible, is even better. The agility required to navigate technical trail best simulates most of the nonsense they make you run through on OCR courses.
This is a fancy term for strength, flexibility, speed, and agility all rolled into one. Basically, what can you do to make yourself faster, stronger, and better at what you do daily in life? Better yet…what can you do to make yourself faster, stronger, and better at all of the obstacles you will be presented race day? You will not run up to an obstacle and be asked to lift a 15 lb dumbbell for 10 repetitions, so why would you train that way?
The best part of functional training…it can be done on little or no budget. No equipment necessary, just your body and your willpower. Combine plyometrics (exercises that help build explosive power and speed…like box jumps, burpees, jumping lunges, etc) with strength exercises…especially body strength exercises (push ups, pull ups, planks, squats, lunges, etc) with minimal or no breaks between exercises to also build your cardiovascular endurance.
For the beginner the idea of coming up with your own crazy routines may sound intimidating. So use your resources: scour the web, sign up for the free daily Spartan WOD (workout of the day) email, ask a trainer, find a training group (like this one!) . DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED: I assure you the OCR community is incredibly supportive
The best part about this type of training? It’s completely scalable…meaning, it’s just as good for the beginner as it is for the expert. Modify exercises that are too hard at the moment. Do as many rounds as you can in a pre determined amount of time (also referred to as “AMRAP”…”as many rounds as possible”) to push your limits each time.
Do things that are out of the ordinary and push you out of your comfort zone. Carry sandbags, logs, or rocks on a hike. Stop every 1/4 mile of your run for some burpees or squats. Climb over things, and crawl over them too. BONUS POINTS if you can do these thing soaking wet, possibly a little cold, and muddy.
During your race you will face things such as barbed wire army crawls, 8 foot walls you must scale over, heavy things you must carry and so much more…many of which you may not even have imagined before the race. So be creative with your training. Become a well rounded athlete. Be ready to face ANYTHING. (Gym training tips can be found here)
OCR RACE DAY PREP
Just like ANY OTHER RACE…do not try anything new on race day. OCR is no exception. Not a new sports bra, not a new pair of sneakers, and especially not any “new” food. Whatever you ate for breakfast the morning before a training run: eat the morning before your race.
This goes for dinner the night before. The idea of carbohydrate loading is far more than eating a giant bowl of Alfredo the night before the race. Believe me, as you are crawling on your belly under sharp barbed wire, you are gonna wish you didn’t do that!
Research different nutrition options and TRY THEM OUT during your training. Find what works for you, and stick with it! If you think you may need food or water during the race, figure out how you are going to carry it. A hydration pack is usually ideal for longer races, as it keeps your hands free to tackle the obstacles.
You are going to get dirty. Wet, muddy, downright disgusting.
If you don’t, you aren’t having enough fun!
Your clothing and your shoes will quite possibly be destroyed. I’ve managed to salvage a few things here and there, but typically not without a permanent mud stain and/or barbed wire snag.
Now, before you go and grab your grossest cotton tee shirt and old sneakers in the back of your closet, keep this in mind: as mentioned before, don’t try anything new on race day. Just as no one enjoys gastrointestinal issues, no one enjoys the evils of chafing. Wear something that is somewhat snug (helps in the water), fast drying (tech gear), and something you wouldn’t mind throwing away at the end.
As far as sneakers go: wear what you have been training in. Most races have a shoe donation pile at the end that will put those muddy kicks to good use instead of simply throwing them away.
Relentless Forward Commotion Tip: if you really want to keep your clothes, black colored items works best for post race clothing salvage!
You trained hard, you showed up to the race, and you are toeing the finish line. The three most important tips I have for you at this point are :
Seriously, you are crawling through MUD, can’t you hear your mom yelling at your 6 year old self? Splash in that puddle, don’t tip toe around it. You came here for a reason, get dirty!
Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Wall too high to get over? Ask a fellow participant for a boost. There is something very different about the OCR world. The camaraderie is like no other. Heck, you may even face necessary teamwork. If you need help, I promise you it is there, do not hesitate to ask.
BELIEVE IN YOUSELF
You are capable of far greater than you believe. Now is the time to test your strength, to see what you are made of. DO IT.
SOUND OFF: Have you run a mud run or obstacle race? Have any advice you would like to share? Or are you a first timer? Have any questions you would like answered?
I hope this post was helpful, but I realize may not be thorough. Thus, I’m not only going to reply to all of your questions posted in comments below, but will add/edit this post as necessary to address some FAQ’s from my readers.
*Disclaimer: Although I am an ACSM EP-C, please consult a physician before beginning any diet or exercise plan. If you choose to do any of the workouts featured on this website, you do so at your own risk.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.
I am headed for my first obstacle race in may this year (Tough Mudder). I followed my husband and his team last year and took pictures, and watched a lot of folks go through obstacles. Not only did it take away the “scary” aspect and make me want to participate, it gave me a lot of insight into preparation. If I may share:
– Be prepared for bruises and scrapes. These will happen, and it is ok. If you want to protect your skin, wear long sleeves, tights and gloves. No one will look at you differently if you do.
– If there are hills on your obstacle race route, be ready for them. You may have lots of running endurance (ie 3 weekly runs in training), and upper body strength (ie you are a push up master) to pull over the walls etc, but if you don’t have good leg stamina, you will collapse at the top of the first march up that hill, your calves and quads shredded. Squat with weight, load your leg muscles in training to build a better base. Run hills. Lots of them.
– Don’t be upset if you can’t “do” an obstacle on your first try, or have to go around. Come back next time, do better. Obstacle races are so much more than a race, they are a personal, physical challenge. Now you know what to train for next time!
– Leave your phone/fitbit/non-waterproof watch in your gear bag. It will get ruined (seriously I saw folks with iPhones on course… Really…) If you are running with a team, have one person wear the waterproof Garmin for the whole team. Why fuss with stuff you don’t need to?
– Wear ID of some sort other than your forehead grease-pencil number. I wear my Road ID on my wrist every time I go for a run, and at the gym. Especially if you have any medical conditions, like I do (Diabetes T2).
– My husband’s team was lucky, they had me! I followed them on the entire course, carried all their valuables safely on me, and stood at each obstacle to cheer, scream, hug and otherwise motivate them. If you can arrange it, have a team “Mom” or a supporter who is not running. The help after to bring gear bags to tired folks, grab water, untie waterlogged knots in shoelaces etc is awesome.
Great article, and encouraging! Love reading your insight and your experiences. 🙂
Wow…this article helped me…and so did your post!! Thanks Soo much guys!:]
Great article! Obstacle races are huge right now and you are the master!
I’m bookmarking this for post pregnancy bucketlist item. 🙂
Haha just like Katie said, this is being saved for my post baby plans. Definitely want to dominate a mud run with the hubs later!
this is so so so on my bucket list.
KC, check with your optometrist about some sport-oriented prescription goggles. A friend of mine is a surfer and wears those when he’s out catching waves.
this is so so so on my bucket list.
WOW! You are inspirational! Mindi was right, she said I’love your blog. She has been a HUGE inspiration to me and now I can add another!
I am a beginner runner (I ran on and off in college) and going minimalist. I’v started with the C25K program. I’ve bookmarked your site for when I need inspiration.
Thanks for the help! 🙂
Great tips! I’m thinking of doing an obstacle race this year, but I haven’t made my final decision yet. I’m a little intimidated!
I’m doing yorkshirewarrior.com this April so this is gonna be very useful thank you.
Wow, great post. Ive done a few obstacle racesbut nothing like that. Very impressive.
Im a new blogger posting about becoming a new father and juggling racing and raising a new baby. check me out…
I didn’t catch any sarcasm or intimidation- you are very matter-of-fact and actually, spot-on with your recommendations for preparing for an OCR. I did one Warrior Dash, ONCE, and am itching for more! I’ve been bitching about the cost attached to a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder, but ultimately, I know you can’t put a price on an experience like that, so I’m gonna bite the bullet and do one this year.
I did Tough Mudder and unfortunately I was one of the people that didn’t realize how much running there was. It didn’t help that there was 3 extra miles on it. I loved it and I can’t wait to do it again.
All great advice! Take a camera! I had. Mt waterproof/shockproof camera and got fun pics as we were in the water, going over walls etc. try to know the terrain somewhat. The one I did had stacks of hay to climb over. That made me an ichty sneezy mess. If you have allergies take something ahead of time.
HEATHER @ runfastermommy!
@concretencoffee.com – if you volunteer for half the day at a Spartan race, you can race in a wave later in the day or get a free entry to use at a later date (even the next day, they are usually sat/sun!)
Renee @ Bendifulblog
I LOVE this post! And having run my first warrior dash this year you are correct in how to train. Thanks for the great post. Hopefully this year I will knock it out of the park with my warrior time thanks to your tips.
So happy I found your blog! Ive done a few halfs, one full and several smaller races but now Im about to tackle my first obstical run – a warrior dash 5k in May and a tough mudder in June.
Does anyone have any tips for those of who are blind without glasses? Lol I have a severe stigmatism and can’t wear contacts but can’t see well without my glasses and my depth perception is shot without them. Any ideas? Or just suck it up and do it without them? 🙂 Thanks for the tips though. My husband is deployed and there is a mud run here in a month and I’m considering doing this without him, which scares me. So I’m trying to overcome my fears and do it. Your tips on what to focus on to train are great!
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The advice I always give is BE POSITIVE. Some people don’t realize that being negative during the race is the biggest obstacle you face. Sometimes the mental is harder than the physical. If you don’t think you can do it, and you say that to yourself over and over again – you’ll never finish.
Totally jazzed my bro was featured in the spartan magazine for being 56and racing and had heart surgery in the middle along with diagnosis of RA. Just finished a new race today. I am 2yrs younger and am determined to do the same. I also have the same family gene pool but look forward to the challenge thank you for your blog. The doc will hopefully ok all on tues to gear up my training that I have already been doing. Maybe see you in a mud hole one day!
Hi, here’s a neoprene & spandex race cover designed to keep your Fitbit mud and scratch free during competitions. Hope it helps. http://www.mudbandz.com