The sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) is growing massively, and each year sees more and more races opening their doors to a growing audience willing to get wet, muddy, and sometimes even electrocuted all in the name of taking on a physical challenge for fun!
So what can you expect in an OCR?
Essentially, what defines an obstacle race is a running distance on foot broken up by a series of obstacles to pass through until you reach the finish. What these obstacles entail can vary quite a bit between races but usually it’s a combination of crawling and climbing (think barbed wire, walls, ropes, rigs), carrying objects (like logs, tyres, buckets), with a mixed terrain across hills, hurdles, mud and sometimes freezing cold water!
Races vary in distance and difficulty, ranging from non-competitive fun runs to chip-timed events where you can qualify for the OCR World Championships. In the less competitive events, the obstacles require less skill from a difficulty point of view. However, when you get to the more competitive races, the obstacles get harder and there are often penalties for not making it across the obstacle successfully.
What makes a decent OCR competitor?
As an OCR athlete you really need to be an all rounder – possessing a range of athletic qualities from strength to speed and endurance. You need a good engine to ensure you can cover the race distance, strength to get over the obstacles and to be robust enough to prevent injury, and speed to move through the race quickly.
How to prepare for an OCR
So how do you train for such a multi-skilled event? One of the biggest mistakes that people make when training for an OCR is to try and mimic the race environment without building strong aerobic and strength foundations first. OCR training shouldn’t just involve running with a weight vest or log and a few rock climbing and circuit training sessions thrown in during the lead up to a race. A strong fitness and strength base is key, to begin with, before moving on to more technical obstacle work.
Essentially a training plan needs to include a progressive running programme and a compound (full body, multi-joint) strength programme first and later down the line, the development and refinement of technical obstacle work.
A closer look at the skills:
Sounds really obvious, but given there might be several kilometres between obstacles, you do need to make sure that you can cover the distance that you’ve signed up for. If you’re not as confident with long distances, perhaps a shorter 5km might be what you should start with initially. You need to pick a distance that you can confidently complete, and your training plan should be progressive to ensure that your running improves over time.
Once you’ve got a decent running base you can also incorporate some hill work as the terrain across races is likely to include some hilly trails – so working on speed and efficiency coming both up and downhill will be things to work on.
2. Strength work
You’ll need to possess an array of strength qualities but being able to master your own bodyweight is absolutely key. From scaling walls to pulling yourself through trenches and climbing ropes, you’ll need to possess a reasonable amount of upper body strength to get through these successfully. Bodyweight pulling (e.g. ring rows, pull-ups) and pressing movements (e.g. press ups, dips) will improve your strength and endurance to ensure you get across obstacles with less fatigue.
In addition to this, strength training with weights will ensure you build a strong foundation, which means you’ll be more resilient in a race, improving recovery and reducing the risk of injury. Compound movements (e.g. squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing) are great to focus on as they work large muscle groups at one time.
Part of your strength training should incorporate carries. From buckets to logs, atlas stones to chain drags, being strong is where you can pull yourself apart from just being a good runner in a race. There are many variations, and you can vary the way you carry the load and the type of weight you use. From farmers carries with kettlebells, to pinch grip plate carries, to carrying a heavy slam ball in front of you – there are many ways to build these into strength sessions and work on some conditioning at the same time.
Here are some exercises to help you with your strength for carries.
4. Grip strength
As training gets more specific, grip work is something you’ll need to work on – especially as races get more technical and have more hanging based rigs. You can work on this through a combination of weighted holds and carries (as above), but also through hanging exercises. Examples of these include dead hangs (hanging from a bar), pull-ups, to more advanced hangs off nunchucks/cannonball grips.
Here are some exercises to help you with your grip strength.
5. Technical obstacle skills
When you have mastered the basics of strength and running and you want to take your training to the next level – it’s worth getting down to an obstacle course training centre where they have harder rigs set up. Your strength gained in training will mean that you’re strong enough to try any ninja warrior style obstacles, moving between hanging ropes and other objects.
If you are looking to take up OCR training, and want to get ready for a race, it’s worth speaking to a coach to help you develop a progressive plan to ensure that you're fit, strong and technically proficient come race day to perform your best.
Training aside, they’re fun to do
Regardless where you’re at on your OCR journey, races provide a great sense of physical accomplishment and there’s a real community spirit that makes taking part an enjoyable experience.
You can go in a group of friends and help each other around the course, or if you’re more serious you can compete against your mates. Either way, the atmosphere is always positive and encouraging – and you get a medal at the end of it to show that you’ve been there, kicked ass, and got the T-shirt!