How to Train for an Obstacle Course Race — Under Quarantine
Gyms are closed. Parks are shuttered. And, in most big cities, maintaining social distancing guidelines makes sidewalk running a major challenge.
Now’s your opportunity to adapt. After all, that’s what obstacle course races are all about. You can even leverage the circumstances surrounding the life-changing obstacle of our time — the COVID-19 pandemic — to finish any upcoming race even stronger, says Todd M. Cambio, C.S.C.S., a master Spartan instructor.
Here, we break down some of the most common — and challenging — obstacle types you’ll find in a Tough Mudder, Spartan, or other obstacle race. Read on to crush them with creative at-home equivalents.
Climbing and Hanging Obstacles
Rope climbs, monkey bars, hanging rings — for a lot of races, the hardest aspect of these climbing and hanging obstacles is grip strength. And the most true-to-race-day training strategy is performing hanging exercises.
Props to use
“Hang from chin-up bars, tree branches, or off the edge of your deck [provided it’s sturdy enough],” Cambio says. The edge of a heavy dining table is another option, as is placing a broomstick on the backs of two heavy chairs to serve as a homemade pull-up bar.
Just make sure you’re taking the necessary safety precautions:
- Hang only from something sturdy that can easily support your weight.
- Make sure you aren’t more than a foot or so off the ground in case your grip slips.
- If you have padding you can place beneath you, do it.
How to use ’em
“I recommend trying to hang from anything you possibly can for minute intervals, with a goal being to accumulate a total of five minutes hanging,” he says. If you’re training for a sprint-distance race, limit yourself to shorter rest periods of about 30 seconds to a minute between hangs. If you’re training for a longer endurance course, give yourself 90 seconds to a couple of minutes. Both strategies are meant to replicate how much rest your grip will get between obstacles on race day.
Once you’ve mastered a dead hang, try progressing with chin-ups, pull-ups, and toes to bar (or tree branch). These will up the amount of load placed on your lats, traps, core, and biceps that you need to not just hang, but hang while dynamically moving from A to B.
“If you have the luxury of dumbbells or kettlebells, you can add in even more ways to build raw strength, muscular endurance, shoulder health, and core stability,” he says. “Things like farmer’s carries, overhead carries, and bent-over rows are great grinds for climbing and hanging obstacles.”
Lifting and Carrying Obstacles
Carrying obstacles challenge the entire body as a cohesive unit. They hit your grip and core stability, as well as upper- and lower-body strength.
Props to use
You might not have an atlas, gravel-filled bucket, or sandbag at home, but you probably do have a duffle bag that you can fill up and weigh down. Packed suitcases, reusable grocery bags, and water jugs of varying fullness are also options as long as the weight can be carried safely and is heavy enough to challenge you to walk for a couple of minutes before needing to put it down.
You can even fling a kid or significant other over your shoulder, Cambio says. That’s handy because, in obstacle course races, lifting and carrying obstacles generally involve moving things that are big, awkward, and don’t have easy-to-grip handles.
How to use ’em
Try both double-arm and single-arm carries. “Work toward two-minute intervals [alternating two minutes of work and two minutes of rest], and accumulate 10 minutes of total time,” he says. “You want to spend a lot of time with carries for the simple fact that these obstacles are pretty long in nature during a race.”
Whether they involve moving through mud, under barbed wire, or both, crawling obstacles require strength and endurance in both the body’s pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, and triceps) as well as the core. Plank and push-up variations are great for developing all of the above.
Options include the plank push-up, plank jack, Spider-Man plank, plank to low squat, and traveling push-up, which involves stepping your hands and feet out to one side each time you return from the bottom of the push-up.
Hip mobility is also a huge component of efficient crawling, Cambio says. Practice getting as low as possible in squats, and opening up your hips with dynamic stretches like the world’s greatest stretch and pigeon pose.
Running and Hill Obstacles
“These can be a bit more challenging if you can’t get outside or don’t have access to cardio machines like a treadmill or bike,” Cambio says. “That being said, you can always do running mechanics in your house. Things like running in place, skips, fast high knees, line drills, and agility-ladder work using simple masking tape.”
As for hills, if you have stairs in your house or apartment building, take advantage of them. As you progress, Cambio recommends doing them wearing a loaded backpack. It’ll help you build even greater strength and aerobic capacity.
Also, by performing traditional bodyweight, dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance-band exercises with high-rep schemes (15-plus), for time (try to work your way up to minute-long sets), or as fast-moving circuits, you can zero in on your muscular endurance and aerobic power with minimal floor space.
Various obstacle course races integrate burpees, and they’re a big part of any Spartan race. (To get out of an obstacle, you’ll have to perform 30 burpees.)
“Do you eat every day? Do you drink every day? Do you breathe every day? As an obstacle course racer, you should do burpees every day,” says Cambio, who recommends a daily practice of anywhere between 10 and 30 reps (but not many more than that). “The key here is: Do not crush yourself every day with them.”
“If you keep the volume low and the form high, you will gain mobility, stability, strength, endurance, coordination, and athleticism,” he says. To perform burpees with safe and effective form, focus on performing all reps with total-body tension and control.