The Most Brutal Obstacles in Racing

Overcoming adversity is a key theme in the obstacle racing world, and the top races continue to test mental and physical grit with brutal obstacles. We’ve collected and ranked the toughest standard obstacles in the industry, from the “shocking” to the utterly exhausting (excluding extreme challenges like the Death Race).

Honorable Mention. Arctic Enema (Tough Mudder)

arctic enemaThe Obstacle: Jump into an ice bath and get to the other side of a divider the only way you can… by submerging yourself entirely underneath the frigid waters.

Though it comes in as one of the least physically challenging obstacles on the circuit, the Arctic Enema makes our list for shock value alone. First-timers, expect your heart to nearly skip a beat and your lungs to stop working for a split second. This obstacle is usually referenced by first time Tough Mudders as the most brutal obstacle on the course. This obstacle is left off the official list since almost all racers are able to get through it… but the faces of the poor souls completing this obstacle tell the real story. The key here is keeping composure by taking a deep, collected breath before dipping under. If you panic, it will just make things worse.


T10. Electroshock Therapy (Tough Mudder)

electroshock therapyThe Obstacle: Run through a field of hanging wires carrying up to 10,000 Volts of electricity. You will probably get a good shock, but pain is temporary… glory is forever!

A few years ago, when Tough Mudder first introduced this obstacle, it would have been rated much higher on the brutality scale. Electric wires were plentiful and extended all the way to the ground. If you were unfortunately enough to get a shock big enough to knock you to the ground and onto another wire, you would continue to get shocked until you could pull yourself out (inch-by-painful-inch) or volunteers came to the rescue. Recently, wires have been cut several feet from the ground to avoid this issue… but it also allows more timid racers to crawl underneath and avoid the shock.


T10. Shocks on the Rocks (Tough Mudder)

shocks on the rocksThe Obstacle: Low crawl through a pit of ice and live wires to the other side of this fear-inducing obstacle.

Tough Mudder takes barbed wire crawls to the next level in the Electric Eel by swapping out barbed wire with electric wires dangling from electric wires (it’s hopeless to avoid touching them, unlike Electroshock Therapy). Add a nice layer of ice to crawl through and you get Shocks on the Rocks. Crawl as quickly as you can through the hanging wires and enjoy guessing which part of your body will get the next zap.


9. Traverse Wall (Spartan Race)

traverse wallThe Obstacle: Traverse the length of a vertical wall using small 2×4′s as hand- and foot-holds.

This obstacle is a rock climber’s delight, as it takes technique, lower body stability, and grip strength to quickly reach the bell at the end. Stay as close to the wall as you can, making sure you have solid foot placement at all times. Footwork goes a long way towards keeping your arms and legs loose and moving across the wall swiftly. Beyond that, this obstacle is simply a matter of endurance and will.


8. Funky Monkey (Tough Mudder)

funky monkeyThe Obstacle: Traverse this set of monkey bars on steroids. The first half of the rungs incline upwards while the second half incline downwards.

If you thought the playground monkeybars were difficult as a kid, try adding an incline and decline to the mix. Once the rungs get slippery from all the wet, muddy hands, the traverse becomes exponentially more difficult. Try wiping your hands on the wooden structure before attempting this obstacle, and move quickly, using your legs for momentum. In the World’s Toughest Mudder 2013, the center bar was removed to make an extra difficult transition between the incline and decline sections.


7. Tractor Tire Climb (Men’s Health Urbanathlon)

urbanathlon_tiresThe Obstacle: Climb over a large, vertical tractor tire.

Flipping these bad boys is entirely out of the question. These tires are too large to get a good grip from the top, so you’re stuck wrapping your arms around the sides (grabbing whatever section of tread still remains) and shimmying your way to the top of these monsters. In the middle of a race, it takes a surprisingly large amount of effort (if you don’t wimp out and take the smaller ones on the side). One of our favorites!


6. Rope Climb (Spartan Race)

rope climbThe Obstacle: Climb a knotted rope and ring a bell at the height of two cargo containers.

The rope climb is a classic military-style obstacle that tests grip, arm, back, and leg strength. Technique helps greatly, as most new racers rely too much on their upper body to do the work. Take things slow and deliberate and you’ll be at the top in no time… just don’t look down!

Looking to train for the rope climb? Check out 5 Skills to Practice (and how they apply to OCR for a training video on proper technique.


5. Log “Hurdles” (Spartan Race)

log overThe Obstacle: Get up and over a series of large, horizontal logs suspended at eye-level or above.

We hope you still have a little hop in your step by the time you reach these (or have a few friends nearby) because you’re going to need it. Jump as high as you can and attempt to pull yourself over this obstacle. Going up is the hard part… from that point, let gravity take over. Sometimes they only allow the first waves of elite racers to try these obstacles, since tough challenges like these tend to cause major backups.


4. Everest (Tough Mudder)

everest The Obstacle: Run up the side of a slick halfpipe and muscle your way to the top of this monster obstacle.

Many people think this obstacle is about pulling yourself up once you get a grip, but Everest is entirely about a good running start, traction, and a well timed jump. If you get those right, it’s simple and you can do it yourself. If you get these steps wrong, expect to crash against the side of the structure and enjoy a ego-bruising slide to the bottom. Other racers generally stick around to help, but it usually involves a struggle of grabbing an arm, leg, and trying not to let the person slip from your fingertips. World’s Toughest Mudder 2011 was particularly difficult when they covered the entire surface with oil.


T2. Tarzan Swing (Spartan Race)

tarzan swingThe Obstacle: Climb a ladder up to a series of short vertical ropes (so short, you are only able to use your hands) with a large knot at the ends. Swing from rope to rope and ring a bell at the end or suffer a length swim to shore.

We are still waiting to find out whether this obstacle was a one-time trial or a premonition of things to come. Though the tarzan swing itself was fairly short, the exhaustion from the preceding swim/ladder climb and the respectable height off the water make this a brutal task.


T2. Hangin’ Tough (Tough Mudder)

hangin toughThe Obstacle: Swing from one side of the obstacle to the other using a series of gymnastic-style rings. Slip and you fall into the cold water.

Hangin’ Tough certainly lives up to its name… and is one of the most highly failed obstacles in any series. The obstacle requires solid grip strength (especially when the rings are wet), great back and arm strength, as well as some technique. If your arms are long enough and you feel your grip failing, try hooking an elbow through one of the rings for some extra security.


1. Tyrolean Traverse* (Spartan Race)

tyrolean traverseThe Obstacle: A taut rope stretches from one side of a body of water to another. Without touching the water, ring a bell a certain distance from the shore, or make your way entirely across.

The extremely difficult Tyrolean Traverse has become so notorious that, in the longer spartan races (generally Super-distance and greater), elite racers must complete the entire obstacle to qualify for a finishing prize/rank. Before the rule was in place, top racers would drop into the water early because it was faster to swim than complete the grueling obstacle.

*Tough Mudder has a similar obstacle called the Dong Dangler. In TM, the cables are covered in smooth plastic, making the traverse easier than its Spartan counterpart.

What do you think of this list? Would you have put these in the same order? Would you add an obstacle to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

About Michael Sandercock

Mike is the Founder of Obstacle Racers, and has been an obstacle course racing fanatic since his first race in 2010. Mike is a multisport athlete who thrives on competition and challenge, competing in over 20 races each year including some of the world's toughest obstacle races. He has competed in the World's Toughest Mudder in 2011 and 2012, the Spartan Ultra Beast, the Ultimate SUCK, and the Death Race. He enjoys endurance running, but thrives in obstacle course races due to a focus on improving as an all-around athlete. He prides himself on finishing in the top 1% of races he runs.

4 comments

  1. This year I finally mastered the Funky Monkey and Hangin’ Tough (Tough Mudder). It’s all about technique.
    The obstacle I fear the most is the spear throw at Spartan Race. I know I’m pretty much guaranteed to be doing 30 burpees as a penalty for missing it. This past year I stuck it dead center, only to have it fall out.
    The one obstacle I’d really like to try is the Tyrolean Traverse. Looks cool!

    Great Post!

    • any insight on how to get through those monkey bars? Its the one thing I can’t do – yet :)

      • Jen, the easiest way to train for monkey bars is to find a local playground with monkey bars. Practice alternating two-arm and one-arm hangs as long as possible. Follow a few sets of those with practice traversing the monkey bars (with your now-tired arms). If you belong to a gym, assisted pull-ups and machine pull-downs are always beneficial.

  2. All of these obstacles offer a great challenge, but if you are looking for the most challenging obstacles in OCR, you need to check out Shale HIll Adventure! The Tarzan swing at Shale hill is over 60′ long, the monkey bars are over 90′ long, spaced wide, the bars spin and the final 45′ is going uphill at a 45 degree angle! The “Great Wall” is a 130 foot long obstacle with 6 traverse walls connected with balance beams and overhand beams!! Firemans tower where you have to climb up the pole! This is just a short list of the over 40 obstacles that this fixed location course has to offer! Thanks for reading!

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