Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Race season is upon us, my friends. Well, technically, for the truly committed it never ended, and depending where you are located your race season may vary. But for the North East it seems some of our biggest races of the year in the obstacle racing world are fast approaching. Last minute questions of what should I bring, where should I stay, what should I wear, and “I have to climb HOW many feet in elevation at Killington?” are becoming abundant from beginner and even some experienced racers alike. Now, I’m certainly not THE expert in the obstacle racing world (that would be Margaret, and I’m sure she’s written about this already), but I’ve been around the proverbial muddy block a time or two, and I find there is no one right or wrong answer to many of the common OCR questions, such as “Should I wear gloves for obstacle racing?” So without further ado, here’s my contribution, based upon common questions I’ve seen and received.
What does OCR stand for?
I know, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Believe it or not I am asked this one multiple times per week. OCR = Obstacle Course Racing. A race that combines obstacles of all types, and typically a good deal of mud. Just as with any type of race, the difficulty of each course varies by series and event. Even though the industry is leaning towards simply “Obstacle Racing” these days, OCR still seems to be the most frequently used acronym. Fun fact: calling an OCR a “mud run” is becoming akin to calling a runner a “jogger”; you may or may not get the evil eye. Not from me, of course, but consider yourself warned. Also, take heed that these races can be highly addicting.
What is the best way to train for an obstacle race?
Well, the “best” way should be answered by the elites that are winning races. But as far as “how to succeed at obstacle races”, what works for me includes a variety of endurance training (running and hiking), strength training (both body weight and free weights), and sport specific training (mountain hiking, carrying heavy things, etc). You can read more about my personal training tips in these articles:
Do I have to do all of the obstacles?
This depends on the race. There are many, many beginner friendly courses out there, such as the Warrior Dash, or even more advanced races like Tough Mudder, that will allow you to skip an obstacle you either cannot complete or do not feel comfortable attempting. There are other courses that assign physical or time penalties if you fail or choose to skip an obstacle. Most notorious is the Spartan Race series, which assigns 30 burpees per failed or skipped obstacle. In most instances, the penalty is to be completed on the honor system: no one is there counting for you. But don’t let another athlete catch you skimping on your burpees…this has become a hot topic in the OCR world, and you may just catch yourself an evil eye or even worse, be the target of horrible internet meme:
In the end, if you are not competing as an elite for placement or money, you need to run your own race. When you cross the finish line only YOU will know if you gave the race 100% of your effort. (So give 100%…)
Do I need to have a team?
You do not need a team to do the majority of obstacle races. However, there are many benefits to having a team, such as camaraderie and someone to boost you over a wall if you need it. Teams can be small, from a handful of people you know personally, to large, regional teams like the New England Spahtens, over 3,000 strong. But if you don’t have a team, don’t worry; obstacle racers are a friendly bunch. Just say the word and someone will lend a hand if you need it.
Should I wear Gloves?
This is one of the most highly debated topics in the OCR world. Not that we have a lot to debate about, but I’ve seen every opinion under the sun, from simply “yes”, to “suck it up and build some calluses”. So what do I do? For a short, warm weather race, I skip the gloves. Nine times out of ten both the gloves and the obstacles you are trying to grip are going to be covered in mud, and the gloves will simply add to the slippery factor. However, for cold weather races (or those where there are still snow on the ground!) I do wear gloves. Because frankly, frozen hands are absolutely useless on most obstacles. Two years ago I purchased a pair of Carhartt Men’s C-Grip Pro-Palm High Dexterity Gloves* (they make a women’s version for those of us with small hands) and they have worked really well for me. Though I still take them off for obstacles such as the monkey bars, the rubber stays pretty sticky despite being wet and muddy. Further, they provide a bit of cushion when carrying things, say a 5 gallon bucket full of rocks without a handle.
Should I duct tape my shoes?
Another common question from first timers who fear that they will lose their shoes in the mud is “should I duct tape my shoes?” I’ll tell you from personal experience: don’t waste your time or money. There are numerous reasons why taping your shoes on isn’t worth the hassle in my opinion. First of all, the tape actually makes the sole of your sneaker slippery, which is not ideal. Second of all, chances are good the tape won’t even stay on in the first place (I’ve seen countless people running with duct tape flapping around off of their shoes). Lastly, if you need to adjust your shoe or whatever reason, you’re going to have to sit there and try to un-tape your shoes. My suggestion is to find laces that you can comfortably tie very tight and secure, or invest in a quick lacing system. In four years of OCR, I’ve never lost a shoe.
Speaking of shoes, what are the best shoes for OCR?
Personal preference, my friends. Shoe choice is as unique as the person wearing them. That said, there are a number of popular shoes in the OCR world, including (but not limited to) INOV-8, IceBugs, Salomons, and of course, the Reebok Spartan All Terrains. My suggestion is to find something that fits, that is comfortable, that has a decent tread to help prevent slipping on ropes, walls, and muddy trails, and that drains really well (because you are likely going to fill them with water eventually).
Can I wash my shoes, or should I throw them away?
The shoe companies are going to tell you that no, you really shouldn’t wash your shoes, as it will compromise the fit and shape, etc. I’ll tell you the opposite: wash ’em. I know there is no way I could afford to replace my shoes after every single race, so I hose them down really well to get the majority of the mud off, and put them in the washing machine, on gentle cycle. Air dry and voila, almost as good as new.
If you DO want to part ways with your muddy shoes rather than bring them home, check the festival area of the race first to see if there is a donation pile. Many races will collect your muddy sneakers, wash them, and either re-purpose or recycle them for various charities.
Should I wear shorts or pants?
It truly boils down to a personal preference. Some races will take it easy on your knees, others will send you army crawling for hundreds of yards over razor sharp, dry rocks. Chances are, regardless of your legs being covered by clothing, you are going to get scratched and bruised. The same goes for the upper body: some people prefer long sleeves, some wear tank tops with arm compression sleeves, some wear simply a sports bra (women) or no shirt at all (men. I don’t know why I felt the need to clarify that for all of you, but I did ). So wear what you feel most comfortable in…just don’t wear cotton or anything else that will soak up water and mud and weigh you down. Tight fitting is best in this case.
Should I wear knee pads?
I haven’t seen this question posed as much recently as I did a few years ago, but regardless, my personal answer is no knee pads. The time you will spend crawling around on your knees is so relatively short compared to the time you will spend on your feet running, and I can’t imagine running multiple miles in knee pads is very comfortable.
Should I wear a hydration pack or a fuel belt?
Again this is a personal preference in most cases. There are some races, such as the Spartan World Championship Beast in Vermont that require you to carry your own hydration. Other races do not require it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a number of (possibly brutal) miles between aid stations. Be wise about your decision to carry – or not carry – hydration on course. Look at average finishing times and compare it to predicted weather patterns. If it is a 30-45 minute course on a cool fall day, chances are you do not need to bring hydration along. If it is a 12+ mile course with average finishing times of 6 hours and beyond, then you might want to consider bringing your own water supply.
As far as hydration pack, hand held, or fuel belt goes, find what you are comfortable training with. I see the question “what is the best hydration pack?” posed almost daily on various OCR forums, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. But since this is my blog post, I’ll tell you that I personally am in love with the Nathan Intensity Vest. 2 Liters, designed for a female body, and doesn’t move/bounce/annoy me in any way. That poor thing has been through the wringer, including the 2012 Spartan Ultra Beast and the 2013 World Championships Beast.
Pro Tip 1: Take your pack off when going under barbed wire crawls and hang onto it. It will save you the discomfort of rolling over it, as well as the possibility of snagging it on the barbed wire.
Pro Tip 2: The Camelbak Antidote Thermal Control Kit includes a killer cap that pretty much keeps all mud out of your hydration pack’s mouth piece. This isn’t what it was designed for, but I can tell you it works really well .
What should I eat before the race?
This question is frequent not only in the OCR world, but from first timers in any endurance event. And the answer is always the same: NOTHING NEW! Eat exactly what you eat before your training sessions. If you want to try some sort of new energy bar or gel, make sure you have trained with it. A food that you normally eat may upset your digestive system when paired with high intensity activity, and believe me when I tell you that the middle of a race is NOT when you want to make this discovery.
Can I bring my MP3 player?
You can…but you shouldn’t. First of all, mud + water + electronics never equals a good idea, in my opinion. Second of all, you don’t want to miss what’s going on around you. Not only from a “you don’t want to miss the experience” point of view, but from a safety point of view. There is far more going on in an obstacle race than your average half marathon where pretty much everyone is in their happy running zone. The risk factor is much higher, so you need to be aware of your surroundings, and able to hear volunteers instructions and warnings, and other racers alike. Plus you are going to seem like a real jerk when someone asks you for help over a wall or something similar, and you blow right by them because you can’t hear them.
Can I bring a camera?
Again, you can, but mud + water + electronics hardly ever equals a good idea. That said, there ARE cameras out there designed with crazy, muddy, adventure in mind, such as the GoPro series. Most of the action shots you see on this blog are taken with a GoPro HERO3: Silver Edition camera. However in most instances, the event will have photographers on course. It is often a gamble as to whether or not they will get a good photo of you (or whether or not they will charge you for a copy of the picture), so if you absolutely have to have photos of your day, invest in a GOOD waterproof/mudproof/shatterproof camera, or run with a friend that has one.
What should I pack for after the race?
This will vary by individual, but here are some general suggestions:
A backpack or bag: You will want to bring some sort of storage bag, not only to stow your dry clothing for after the race, but to store items such as identification, cell phone, car keys, or anything else that you do not want to get muddy, or worse, possibly lose on the race course.
Towels and plastic bags: Bring a towel, or if possible, bring a few. While most races will provide you with a place to hose or shower the excess mud off, you will want a towel to dry yourself off with. The towels may also come in handy as a cover up while changing, or even sitting on, either at the venue or in your vehicle. A garbage bag, or a simple grocery plastic bag or two, will be useful in storing your wet clothing. Plastic bags are also useful to sit or stand on while changing.
Clothes: Bring a full change of clothing, including a top, bottom, underwear, socks, warm layers such as a sweatshirt, and any other important clothing items you may require. Chances are, everything you wear during the race will be soaked or covered in mud. Do not forget an extra pair of shoes. If warm enough, sandals may be an ideal option, as they are easier to take on and off while changing out of wet and muddy clothes.
Money: Be sure to bring some form of money to the race. If at all possible, bring cash. While it varies from race to race, most venues charge fees for things such as parking, spectators, and checking your bags. You may also want to have money to spend on items such as post-race food, beverages, or souvenir merchandise from various venders.
Why are these races so expensive? And how can I ease the damage on my bank account?
There is no doubt about it, obstacle racing is a very expensive sport, especially when compared with traditional road running. If you consider the increased risk of this sport versus traditional road racing, one can only imagine the significantly higher insurance fees that must be shelled out by the race organizers. Further, a traditional road race typically requires far less equipment, setup, and breakdown than an obstacle race. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it only makes sense that registration fees are going to be higher.
BUT…there are numerous ways to spare your bank account and still race . Many races offer a free registration to volunteers, either the day or weekend of the race, or for a future event. Further, most races have a number of promotional codes floating around the internet; so do not hit that “register” button until you search for one of those codes. Lastly, almost every race (OCR or not) has an increasing fee schedule; if you sign up well enough in advance, you can take advantage of steeply discounted prices.
So there you have it…for now. Have questions to add? Please do! I’d love to add to this post. Comment below, or shoot me an email, and I will answer you and add it to this list!
* affiliate links are used in this post
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.