If you enjoy trail running – or road running – and you’re keen to take on a challenge in the new year (gasp! Yes, it’s almost that time of year) – then you’re already in a great position to transition into training for an obstacle course race.

Training for your first obstacle course race

Without realising it, most people at some point in their lives have competed in an obstacle course race. You might’ve only been seven, and it might’ve been against friends on the playground – swinging from monkey bars, hurtling over climbing walls, taking flight with rope swings – but you were tackling obstacles.

If you enjoy trail running and you’re keen to take on a challenge in the new year (gasp! Yes, it’s almost that time of year) – then you’re already in a great position to transition into training for an obstacle course race.

In this article we’ll discuss the differences between trail running and obstacle course racing, what areas of training you’d need to focus on specifically for an obstacle course race, and how to go about that training. 

What's the difference between trail running and OCR?

There are lots of people who may never have heard of obstacle course racing. A quick Google search and you’ll find the OCR community is massive - but it’s one of those things you need to be in it to see it.

Obstacle course racing involves running while overcoming various physical challenges in the form of obstacles. It requires strength, both upper and lower, endurance, and movement (or coordination). It can be both an individual and team sport.

Trail running combines hiking and running – the course would usually be unpaved and include various steep gradients. Just like obstacle course racing, trail running requires strength (lower), endurance, and agility.

If you were to compare the two sports, trail running is more of an endurance sport – it’s about maintaining a level of pace, whereas obstacle course racing is like interval training (alternating intensity).

What type of training is needed for an obstacle course race?

If you’re an avid trail runner, obstacle course racing can be a great progression because you already have some of the skills needed to compete. If you’re a road runner, you might have a slightly harder time, so you’d be better off trying your hand at trail running first.

As a trail runner, you’ll more than likely already have great lower body strength, and be agile from having to navigate uneven terrain. Because of this, your focus, when training for an obstacle course race, needs to be on building your upper body strength.

The first skill to work on is grip strength. Good grip strength will ensure you’re able to hold on to things, like a rope, and hold your own body weight.

Secondly, you need to train push and pull upper body movements. Not only do you need to be able to push and pull, or lift, your own body weight, you’ll also need to be strong enough to help others in your team (if required), as well as lift or move obstacles themselves. With this also comes the need to work on your mobility, especially for crawling under nets or dragging yourself under and through tight spaces. This type of work can be super tiring if you’re unprepared.

While your primary focus needs to be on your upper body strength – don’t forget leg day! Going into OCR, you’ll need to be able to carry heavy things, crawl, jump onto and over obstacles, meaning you have a much greater need for strength and range of movement – how much your legs can bend when you need to tackle compact spaces. Running or jogging is still an important part of the race so continue to work on your endurance as well.

Notes to include: OCR to trail running: build up a level of endurance that might not come with OCR. You’d have the agility, being able to navigate through a trail but you’d want to build up your endurance if doing short OCR.

How to get started training

Now that you know what you need to train, let’s talk about how.

Your training needs to focus on functional movements that will help you get up, down and around obstacles - a combination of pushing and pulling exercises are required.

You need to be doing structured workouts that help you progress your strength and endurance. Those workouts should include pushing and pulling, holding your body weight or something heavy to improve your grip strength.

Think exercises like burpees, chin-ups or pull-ups (with a band if needed), suspension rows, bench dips and press-ups. For legs, there’s nothing like a good squat or lunge. You can do them bodyweight, add additional weight or progress to jumping squats and lunges to help condition your body.

The workouts need to be progressive and you need a way of gauging how you’re improving week on week. Your body will adapt and improve so you need to be able to make the workouts more challenging as you move through a training programme. This can be by increasing the load or difficulty of an exercise (squats – jumping squats) or increasing the number of repetitions you complete from one week to the next. Focus on the areas where you need to improve - for example if you’re strong at pushing, but can’t hold your own body weight, or vice versa.

Don't forget to pack confidence

Liam has done a lot of obstacle course races, and he’s helped train a lot of people for their first race, and, majority of the time, their biggest barrier is confidence – especially when you need to leap through the air and grab on to a rope!

Very few people are born with confidence. You can spend money on training, but you can’t unfortunately buy confidence. It’s something you need to learn to push through and develop, and the only way to do that is practice.

The easiest way to do this is to replicate an obstacle at home, or at the gym, and practice. Also, see if you can convince a friend to do the race with you so you can support each other.

Train with the Ascend Fit community

If you’re looking for expert help, or your friends aren't as adventurous, and you’re looking for a crew to train with, come and join us at Ascend Fit. We run a free class at the end of every month, Obstacle Ready! - a group fitness class focused specifically on training skills for obstacle course racing.

It’s a great introduction to what we do - give us a call on 021 124 9747 to find out more, or you can sign up on our Facebook page.