There is a common misconception, especially between beginning obstacle racers, that you have to be strong to do well in an obstacle course. In reality, it helps more to have technique and experience… and both come with practice. Improve your fitness and your race day performance by practicing some of the following skills.
Barbed wire crawls (AKA low crawls) are a staple of obstacle course races around the world. Many are barbed wire, others are plain wire/string, and some are tape. No matter what you’re crawling under, the principle is the same: You need to get down low to the ground and keep moving forward. How low do you need to get? Lay on your side (shoulder) on the ground. Barbed wire will likely be within one or two inches of your high shoulder (see the protip below). There are often short areas of the low crawl where you will be required to have your chest/stomach completely on the ground in order to continue.
When practicing your low crawls, be sure to keep your head, chest, and butt as low as possible. If any of them start creeping up during the race, you risk getting stuck in the barbed wire and losing time trying to untangle yourself. 100 meters is a good practice distance. If you need to make this exercise harder, try it with a weighted backpack.
Racers notoriously struggle with wall climbs, and the Berlin Walls at Tough Mudder are generally the worst. I have seen teams spend over five minutes trying to figure out how to help each other over these walls. At World’s Toughest Mudder 2012, I watched racers opt for ice baths in 30 degree weather over trying to tackle a set of walls. Sure, you can have other racers give you a boost mid-race, but wouldn’t rather be able to get over of these walls in a flash, without any help?
Why are wall climbs so hard? Because they require more technique than most people want to admit, and most racers don’t go out of their way to practice them. Find a nearby wall that is just tall enough that you need to jump to reach the top (this forces you to start from a dead hang). Practice the techniques in the video below… you only need to reach one of the slowest two levels.
When you master this technique, as long as you can reach the top of a wall, you can scale just about anything!
Climbing Hills (with Weight)
Carrying tires, sandbags, cinder blocks, logs, and heavy stones… it doesn’t matter what the weight is, but it’s likely you’ll find something of this nature in a race. Throw in the fact that most races are run on hilly lands (even ski slopes) and you’re just asking to haul something up a mountain. Get ahead of the game by either strapping on a weighted pack or grabbing a sand bag from a local store and carrying it up a large hill repeatedly. We’d suggest hauling 50-65 lbs for men and 30-50 lbs for women.
Grip strength and hanging ability are keys in some of the more difficult obstacle races, and monkey bars are a staple test of these skills. Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are particularly difficult because of the height differences in the bars (Tough Mudder inclines and declines while Spartan Race alternates high/low bars). To practice, go to a local playground and practice traversing the monkey bars as many times as possible without stopping for a rest in between. You’ll be able to breeze through these sorts of obstacles in no time.
Though few races incorporate the rope climb into their races (cargo net climbs are generally the closest you’ll get), it has become a staple of the Spartan Race series and one of the most penalized obstacles on their courses (read as: people struggle to complete it).
Rope climbing, again, is more about technique than brute strength, but few people have a rope available for practice. If you do find yourself in a gym or other location with a climbing rope, follow the guide below to ensure an easy climb.
Looking for some exercises to help prepare for your next race? Check out our list of 5 Perfect Obstacle Race Exercises.
Have any additional skills that may come in handy for a future race? Let us know in the comments below.