Training clients for obstacle course races

"Here’s how to train so that you’re ready to have fun yet stay safe."

Warm weather is here, and summer has officially started. That means it’s officially time for obstacle course races. Whether it’s the 12-plus grueling miles of Tough Mudder or the rough obstacles of a Warrior Dash, obstacle course race training has become the cornerstone of fitness for millions. And it’s easy to see why.

Obstacle races push you to your limit. They ask you to give everything you’ve got, and then to keep going. Commonly inspired by the challenges presented in military training, people often wonder, “How would I measure up to that standard?”

There’s plenty of it in pop culture now, too. American Ninja Warrior, the U.S. spinoff of the popular Japanese show, has also done a lot to contribute to the modern fervor for this kind of competition. But there’s an enormous gap between learning about these events and actually jumping into some sort of obstacle course race training, or OCR training. So, what’s the best approach to take and what workouts will get you across the finish line? Here’s how to train so that you’re ready to have fun yet stay safe.

The course

When you decide to start training for an obstacle course mud run like the Commando Challenge, it’s important to know what the course consists of. This means knowing how long it will be, the kinds of obstacles involved, as well as the density of obstacles compared to the running course.

For instance, both Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash average out to having 12 obstacles to negotiate, but the length of the courses is considerably different. A Warrior Dash is about three to four miles whereas Tough Mudder will be a little over 12. As such, preparation for these two events requires similar strength training, but different endurance sets completely. Either way, your muscles will be exhausted at the end, but knowing the course will make the difference between crossing the finish line and going home disappointed. Make no mistake, you will need to train like an athlete and need to understand the sincerity of the training you’re going to undertake. As such, make sure you’ve gotten the approval of a doctor before taking up this challenge.

Also, look into what the obstacles consist of. How often will you need to be able to independently support your own body weight? How often will you need to free climb a rope? How often will you be expected to move your entire body to the top of an apparatus? All of these need to be considered when putting together a training program.

Training program overview

One of the issues people new to obstacle courses experience is the magnitude of upper body strength you need for climbing. It’s one thing when you’re fresh and doing a set of pull-ups after a rest, but it’s a whole other thing to climb a rope after running a mile, then continue to the next objective.

For this reason, it’s important to make sure you’re not just isolating training sessions. Although you will need to spend some days on strength and others on endurance, you will also need to spend time combining these practices into one. Grit and determination must be trained to succeed with these races, and the only way to train grit is to push yourself harder and harder at the gym.

Training concerns

The most-used joints will be lower body and leg joints — mainly the knees, ankles and hips. It is also important that you take proper care of your feet. Do not sacrifice your health for these races.

When something hurts, stop immediately. If you get injured, remember: rest, ice, compression and elevation. Take care of your body and your body will take care of you. Also, make sure you begin training in advance. It can take months to properly build a person’s strength and stamina to the point where they can safely negotiate the obstacles, so make sure you give yourselves sufficient lead time.

Strength training

When it comes to these courses, the importance of strength cannot be overstated, especially as it applies to your grip. This is going to be one of the single most important components of your strength training. Your body weight will likely be all you need to train this, although deadlifts and other such exercises can also be helpful.

Think in terms of rope climbs, most anything with kettlebells, squats, lunges and dumbbell exercises. Also, all different variations and types of pull-ups are important. Any exercise requiring you to lift your body via your own grip strength will come in handy.

In the beginning, the basics will be fine. Target the larger muscle groups and slowly increase weight. Then, as the date gets closer, start to increase loads. Finding the right balance between training pure strength and training endurance will be difficult, and this can be helped by a certified personal trainer.

Endurance training

Plyometrics are a really great way to build endurance, but you must make certain that your form is as perfect as possible. Box jumps are a great way to boost the type of grit and endurance needed for these races. High-intensity interval training is also a good way to push your endurance. It doesn’t have to be overly complex — even something like mountain climbers for longer durations of time can be excellent whole-body preparation for the grueling challenge ahead.

Keep your chin up

There is nothing easy about obstacle course races. They will push you to the brink of your ability, which is largely why they’re attempted to begin with. But there are other benefits, too.

One huge one is that, win or lose, you will feel great about yourself and your accomplishments. Simply completing a tough obstacle course challenge is something that you should be proud of.

The training will be tough, and sometimes you might wonder if you’re even capable of getting through the workouts, much less the race.

These races can be a great motivator and can keep you focused on your goals. So, take a breath and prepare like never before. You’ll be soaked in mud and crossing the finish line before you know it.

Not yet a trainer but want to learn more about training for fitness and health? Check out the ISSA’s personal trainer certification course at You can simply boost your own understanding and know-how or use that knowledge to help others meet their goals for better fitness.