How to prepare for a Mud Run or obstacle course

There’s a new class of races out there and more and more ‘brands’ popping up every year. They are in fact j as much fun as they look and might just be a great way to get back to racing. Since people usually start in small waves rather than as one great big group so really obstacle races might be the perfect post COVID race. I’m guessing that’s to avoid bottlenecks at the obstacles. Even if you’re not a racer we all want to feel prepared and ideally do well enough not to embarrass ourselves too badly at least. For my mud run I singed up while unsupervised and THEN started googling to figure out what to do to prepare for the next day. This is exactly the sort of post I would have love to have found then. So hopefully someone finds this advice helpful in that situation. 

What is a mud run

Probably more correctly called an obstacle race, these sorts of races incorporate physical challenges other than just running in mud. These are things like going over walls, under barriers and over logs. Many of the obstacles all be relatively simple but a few are usually more intricate. Think of the sorts of challenges you would expect to see in military training based on your TV watching experience. The terrain also can include some challenges like deep mud to wade through, aspects of trail running or even urban challenges.

There is a lot of expense and logistics behind a race like this so they are usually staged by companies that specialize in this. While not an exhaustive list these are companies like Mud Hero, Spartan, Ninja Warrior, Tough Mudder and the list goes on. In their current form they started in the late 80’s and evolved into what we know today. Because of the complexity of the events expect that they will cost a little more than your average road or trail race. However, many of these companies do donate a portion of your fee to a charity of their choice.

How hard are they?

To an extent not that hard… but there’s a catch. Believe it or not there is actually a world competitive stage for mud runs. But just having the elites on the course makes it really hard to pay the bills. So usually the course is open at a certain time to those folks and a more rigorous set of rules applies. When it’s open to the general public (often for non timed races) it gets a lot more chill. There are often multiple heights for the walls and helpers there to make it over the hardest ones. Sometimes other racers might help you too. Very often you are invited to go around any obstacle you want to. Keep in mind they need to be structured as such that they are not likely to be sued, so they’re not super hard or dangerous. So some of the obstacles are pretty easy for your average out of shape person to do and some require assistance for even the most fit.

Let me paint you a picture of how mine have gone and what I noticed while I was there. There is quite a number where you are expected to go under things like a tarp or series of logs. There is enough space in there for people of most body types. For me I could crawl but someone was there to tell me to go on my tummy. I could handle the middle wall in every case and did some of the large size but the lowest one was about chest high. most of the adults out there could have leaned over the lowest one an pulled themselves over with little difficulty. I was able to do all of them unassisted except the half pipe with a rope where I needed the young gentleman’s hand to pull me to the top. But wading through calf and thigh deep thick mud isn’t totally easy either.

Usually people do it in groups but you can and I did it on my own. Truthfully most people do just walk to each obstacle which is most of the course. I was the pretty much the only person running on the course from what I saw. However I did it on an afternoon with a heat warning. I do think that pretty much anyone that wants to do one can participate but it’s never a bad idea to check with your doctor if you have underlying medical issues. 

How to train

As a runner (or similar) you’ve probably got the legs to get you from one obstacle to the next. However everyone know athletes who participate in ‘leg sports’ can have really under developed upper bodies. While an obstacle race doesn’t require a phenomenal amount of arm strength it does take some. Working on your shoulder muscles is also a really good idea. You might add some planks to your training or even old school pushups in the weeks leading up to your race. A great way to get this training in without actually doing a bunch of pushups and planks is to do about 10 sun salutations a day with a really good focus on form.

You will find that core strength is really helpful in an obstacle race (and life) as well. Core strength probably isn’t as important as some upper body strength for these races but if you don’t have some expect to have sore abs the day after. I’ve got better than average core strength, though it’s not that remarkable either and mine were very sore the next day. So you’re probably wondering how fit you need to be to do an obstacle course well enough. I would say as long as you can very comfortably walk the distance in the weather conditions of the day and do about 10 sit ups and pushups from the toes pretty easily you’ll be more than fine. If you can do that you should be able to handle most of the course.

However if you are in it to win it I think your first step really should be to complete one obstacle race and see what your into with no expectations. If that’s the case you’ll really need to mix up your training. Running and working on speed is one thing but so is backing off to muster some energy for an upcoming obstacle. In this case you also want to be doing a full body lifting routine as in leg strength, upper body and core will all be needed for the edge. But so too is flexibility and agility. To that end I would suggest things like yoga and taking someone’s advice that is more experienced than me. Also you might want to try parkour because it’s pretty neat and it couldn’t hurt right?!?

What to wear

It’s a really good idea to check the event’s website for tips as well but in general it’s a good idea to go for tight over loose. The event held around here is usually in the heat of the summer and inland away from the coast. That means it’s often stinking hot! Like almost 100 degrees hot with no wind in the beating sun. I wore a sports bra and tight short shorts which was a really good choice. A t-shirt was not a great choice. You might think that is because it might get caught on the obstacles but that didn’t seem like a huge issue. First of all it’s not very breathable and once it gets wet it gets heavy. Once it get’s heavy it starts to stretch. That process just happens over and over again. Lots of people finished the course with shirt dresses that they were constantly pulling up. If it’s cool enough very tight tights would be a great choice. Many of the mud holes have things like twigs and roots in them and you might end up a little scratched up going through them. One of my friends even got a pretty icky cut but I think it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll wind up with a serious gash in the process. If you were wearing loose pants or flared pants then getting them caught on things would be a pretty likely outcome in the mud. So I would recommend going as tight as you find comfortable and keep in mind every fabric stretches a bit at least once wet.

In a perfect world you’ll have a favorite pair of running shoes that aren’t just good enough to run in anymore. These are the perfect kicks for a mud run! When you’re thinking a pair is ready to move on you might want to keep them around for a race just like this. Then when you’re done toss them in the provided bin, thank them and walk away.

What to pack

These races usually have a shower station set up at the end but that water will be very cold! Still I think before you get in the car you’ll have to take a quick dip. Because of the condition you come out in the race organizers usually have a bin where you can get rid of any unwanted clothes. They especially recommend throwing out your sneakers and I agree. I actually signed up for the one I did during a break from painstakingly cleaning my light interior car. If you took my advice and wore something tight then it should be no problem to slip your after clothes back on once the race is done. I opted for a casual dress and that was perfect because I could slip off my wet shorts in the parking lot before driving home without having to wait for a change room. Obviously you’ll want to have spare shoes but there are a few other things you might not have though of.

One thing is sunscreen and after sun care. Yes put on SPF and use a very high number but realistically you won’t have it on for very long. Especially if you’re doing a long race or you’re prone to burning there’s a good chance you’ll be getting sunburn on race day. Bring towels and garbage bags to protect your car on the way home and you get properly cleaned up. Maybe both if you just spent a day shampooing your upholstery. Also bring an extra trash bag or two for your muddy messy clothes. You will not be able to stand in the cold water long enough to get all the crusty bits off your face or out of your hair. With that in mind a pack of wet ones or even a hat for the journey home can be a great idea.

perfect post race treat, dill pickle pizza. Note the very light and very clean car seat!

Even though these obstacle races can be more than a little intimidating but most people can handle it. There might be some physical strengths that you want to work on but getting a handle on all the moving parts for a race like this can be the most important part. Obstacle races really could be the perfect fun first challenge in getting back to racing after such a long break. Have you ever done a race like this? Did it seem intimidating before you tried it? What’s your best tip on how to prepare? Leave it in the comments below!

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