Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Over the past decade or so, the prominence, variety, and popularity of obstacle races, mud runs, Spartan Races, and the like, have grown exponentially. Each combine elements of adventure racing, trail running, and military challenges at various levels of distance, duration, and difficulty. While some racers pursue obstacle races with competitive determination and intense focus, many others crave the intrinsic rewards of overcoming unique physical challenges with friends, followed by a celebration of post-race festivities and libations.

Regardless of your motive, in order to participate in an obstacle race preparation must be addressed (we often see those who have not prepared, as well as those who have, here in our own office for physical therapy a week or two post race). The first is race/run selection. The following criteria are important to address in making your decision: distance/length, elevation change, muddiness, obstacle difficulty/quantity, whether or not you desire electric shocks, ice baths, and other unpleasant exposures, party vs. competition, cost, location, sex-specific or co-ed, and overall physical/mental demand. Be mindful of the race date and time you’ll have to train, as well as your current physical condition.  All of this will factor into your training plan.

The next step in preparation after you’ve committed yourself to a particular race is the creation of a training plan. Not only do you need to address and build your endurance for the running portions, you must also enhance your strength, stability, mental fortitude, balance, and obstacle-specific fitness.


Regardless of whether your participating in a 5 kilometer Warrior Dash, a 9 mile Tough Mudder, or a 24 hour Spartan Death Race, you need to increase cardiovascular fitness; this should be relative to the chosen race length and dynamics. While running the 5k Turkey Trot in your home town takes you 24 minutes – add 10 obstacles to the mix and you’re looking at an hour or more of heart-pumping action.  Since obstacle races incorporate short intervals of running between dynamic challenges, your training program should integrate similar characteristics. Try to include 2-3 running-specific workouts into each training week, including hill climbs and intervals of high intensity sprints. One long run per week may be beneficial to increase overall cardiovascular endurance and stamina.


Race obstacles typically involve propelling your bodyweight over, under, around, and through walls, barbed wire, water at various depths, rope webs, etc…not your everyday encounters. General strength training should therefore include exercises that promote functional, dynamic stability as well as gains in explosive power and force. Bodyweight exercises are excellent for creating a foundation of strength and stability, such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats, planks, squats, lunges, and bridges. All of these exercises can be modified or progressed in difficulty as they become easier to perform. Athletic and explosive exercises such as jump squats, jump lunges, burpees, box jumps, kettlebell swings, quick feet, and mountain climbers can optimize agility, balance, and power.

Obstacle-specific training:

Try to research the specific obstacles you will need to perform in your race of choice. In addition to those mentioned earlier in this post, you may encounter monkey bars, rope climbs, military crawls, sandbag carries, spear throws, tire pulls, and deep water walks. You may want to pursue opportunities to replicate or perform similar movements at your local gym, swimming pool/pond/lake, playground, back yard, or creatively using items in your storage shed or garage. Body positioning and ergonomics are of utmost importance with pushing, carrying, and pulling activities in order to prevent back or shoulder injuries. Do your research – consult a trained athletic professional and check out videos, web sites, and books to learn methods and tips for unfamiliar, strenuous obstacles, such as rope climbs and spear throws. Proper form and efficient technique will save you strain and precious energy.

The following is an example of a running-specific workout that incorporates some bodyweight exercises. If your level of fitness precedes or exceeds the demands of this workout, you can appropriately adjust duration/length of intervals, length of rest breaks, and repetitions performed.

Dynamic warm-up: butt kicks, leg swings (forward/back, side/side), heel raises, walking lunges

Jog 400 meters at moderate pace

15 burpees

Run 400 meters (100m moderate/100m sprint/100 m moderate/100m sprint)

15 push-ups

Run 400 meters at moderate pace

15 jump squats

Run 400 meters (100m moderate/100m sprint/100 m moderate/100m sprint)

15 single leg lateral hops (to each side)

Run 400 meters at moderate pace

15 push-ups

Jog 400 meters

15 bridges

15 double straight leg lower lift

15 quadruped alternating arm/leg extension

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga


The following is an example of a strength/obstacle-specific workout. Again, you can adjust weights used and repetitions/sets performed according to your current fitness level.


Dynamic warm-up: As above, with the addition of arm circles forward and back

Mountain climbers x 20

Pull ups x 10 (utilize assisted machine if needed)

4-way lunge (forward, side, back, curtsy)

Kettlebell swings x 20

Box jumps x 10

Hanging leg raises x 15

Jumping lunge/scissor kicks x 15

Single leg deadlift x 10

Plank x 1 minute

Side plank (lower and lift) x 10 4-way lunge (forward, side, back, curtsy)


Repeat circuit 2-4 times (minus the warm-up)


As the exercises get easier, progress as appropriate, be sure to never sacrifice the quality of movement and proper stabilization of your core in order to protect your back and precious joints. Please seek professional guidance if you are unsure of proper technique.

Unfortunately, any training program and athletic endeavor puts our bodies at risk for aches, pains, and injuries. Training too hard and too fast, improper technique, muscle imbalances or instabilities, inadequate warm-up/cool-down, and joint strain are a sampling of risk factors and exposures that could leave you sidelined and in need for professional intervention.

Should you sustain a soft tissue injury, such as a tendon strain, ligament sprain, or muscle pull/tear, your first response should be RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. These immediate first aid measures will help to relieve pain, reduce swelling, and protect the injured tissue.
REST is vital to promote healing and prevent further injury. Most soft tissue injuries take at least 4 to 6 weeks to heal. ICE should be used to decrease pain and reduce blood flow, thus limit swelling. Wrap a bag of crushed ice or frozen bag of peas in a thin towel or pillowcase and apply to injured area for 15-20 minutes at a time. Leaving ice on for longer periods puts your skin at risk for frostbite. COMPRESSION aids in limiting swelling and offers protection as a visual reminder of injury. Use an ACE bandage to wrap the injured body part, being cautious to avoid wrapping too tight. If you feel throbbing, be sure to re-wrap with less tension. ELEVATION is also important to reduce swelling. It is most effective when the injured area is raised above the level of the heart.

After 24 to 48 hours of RICE, many soft tissue injuries will begin to heal. You may want to consider scheduling an appointment with a licensed physical therapist. He/She can perform an evaluation into the mechanism of injury, possible need for further medical or radiological intervention, and appropriate therapeutic treatment to alleviate pain, promote healing, prevent adhesive scar tissue formation, strengthen muscles, and improve joint mobility to prevent future injury.

All of us at DEE Physical Therapy wish you fun and success with whatever race and training program you choose! Being mindful of proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and positive meditations during your quest for obstacle dominance will surely elevate your experience and performance. Go for it!

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Brynga