5 things crucial to my Obstacle Course Race success
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
10.5km, 30 obstacles: 3rd place. At age 45 and in my 5th full individual Obstacle Course Race, it was a result I was pretty pleased with. I definitely called upon my 20+ years of experience in Personal Training and Fitness Programming to get the most from the time spent training. Here are 5 of the things, that on reflection I found most critical for successfully training for something as diverse and challenging as an Obstacle Course Race.
1. Getting good at running without running too much.
If you want a fast time there is no point being brilliant at the obstacles but mediocre at moving across the earth. The quicker you can cover 5-10km the better. Generally if you can run well over such distances you are fairly light, which means not having to haul as much weight (i.e. your own body) up or over the various climbing type of obstacles, which is clearly advantageous. The best way to get good at running is of course to practice running, however beyond a point (which varies from person to person) there is an increased risk of injury the more kilometres you run. I've worked out for me that point is about 18-20 kilometres per week. The function in and around my left hip isn't perfect which can cause problems in that area and my knee's also get sore if I overdo the running.
The challenge is finding other ways of increasing cardiovascular fitness and endurance without the impact of running. Riding a stationary bike twice per week worked for me. This consisted of a steady moderate intensity 45 minute session and a 15 minute high intensity workout. Beside the absence of impact, the other advantage of the stationary bike is you can control the intensity and measure things easily and directly as all the information you need (including heart rate) is right there on the screen in front of you.
Another method I used to get more cardiovascular conditioning was 15 minute circuit style sessions which involved a combination of resistance exercises, calisthenics (like burpees, skipping & start jumps) and carrying a heavy rock! 2. Getting reasonably specific with the training but not too specific. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to mimic the movements and the exact nature of the event, and you do need to get specific with your training to a degree. Some aspects of the event are more important to practice and get proficient at than others. As already explained you've got to run well and thus have to run, yet I rode a bike twice a week and you can't ride your way around an obstacle course! Despite this lack of specificity with cycling it definitely contributed toward a good result. I'd done a bit of homework before on how best to crawl (under barbed wire) and realised I didn't need to get better at that, likewise with climbing up/down/across cargo nets. Carrying a sand bag on my upper back was also something I trained the year before but didn't bother with this time around, although I did some regular 60 metre runs with a 20kg rock held in front.
Grip is important- you've got to be able to carry an ammunition box by your side, climb up and across ropes, get across some monkey bars and on this occasion swing your way through a challenging set of roman rings. I didn't train with any ropes or rings though (partly because I didn't have access to any). Instead I created or researched ways of doing various grip and chin/pull up variations using the chin up bar at the local outdoor gym and did a couple of different grip strength exercises with dumbbells.
You need general upper body strength for getting over walls and the dreaded penalty burpees (which come into play if you fail to complete an obstacle), while general leg strength is an asset for jumping across/up/onto things, running up hills and those energy sapping burpees which take it out of the thighs as well.
So the fundamental exercises which are best for sports conditioning and changing the body are very relevant. This includes; push ups, chin ups, variations of squats and lunges. Too much fiddling around trying to replicate the movements and obstacles can get in the way of simply getting fitter, faster and stronger. 3. Varying the intensity of training & not training much at race intensity or pace I either trained long or hard but not both. Actually that's a pretty useful guideline for any training plan.
My long sessions in fact weren't very long I would have done 2-3 of approximate race duration (68 minutes) in the months leading up. These though were done with a low-moderate heart rate. To give you an idea of that intensity- 1 of those longer sessions was a 13km run with a friend at a pace we held conversations at.
For most of the actual Obstacle Course Race I was at a greater pace and exertion which meant I was breathing pretty hard. That sort of higher intensity was a level I did reach in training, but only in shorter sessions (15-20 minutes).
On race day there is no concern given to being able to recover and train within the next couple of days so you just go hard. Where as in training being able to effectively do several sessions per week really does matter as you get fitter from the cummulative sum of all the sessions done over weeks and months. So you need to train at an intensity and volume which makes that possible. It's not simply a case of training as hard, or long as you can. If you trained that way, you'd not only likely invite injury and illness but struggle to repeat it regularly because of both the resulting physical fatigue and the difficulty in getting motivated enough often enough. Getting that training intesnity and pace right becomes even more critical once in your 40's. 4. Having 2 days off per week This is in spite of doing 7 sessions in a week. That meant 2 sessions a day twice per week. Common sense might suggest that it'd be better to have a night's sleep to recover between each session and simply do 1 workout each and every day. However there are several reasons why I favour condensing things on 2 days/week in order to have those days off.
Firstly, 3 of those 7 sessions while high in intensity were only 15-20 minutes long. What's more most of those short sessions featured complete or active recovery or rest. So, they don't take an awful lot of recovering from.
I also like the idea of loading up with training then having 2 nights, plus a full day, without any activity so you can get lots of uninterrupted adaptation time.
The 3rd reason I like this approach is from a mental or motivational perspective. I enjoyed knowing there was a day off approaching, just as much as I enjoyed diving back into the challenge of training after a day off. It was nice to not have to think about fitting in a workout on a couple of days, yet conversely it is was relatively easy to find the time and drive for a 15-20 minute workout in the afternoon on a day I was doubling up after a morning session. That may seem irrational or counter-intuitive but I found I was already in a 'workout mindset' on those days.
5. Having lots of variety but in a very consistent, structured way.
Every session was planned, it wasn't as if I just turned up and did something different because I felt like it, but there was lots of variety within a training week. This included different levels of intensity, different length of sessions (15-60+ min) and length of efforts (20 sec-4 min). Plus lots of different movements like jumping, lifting, carrying, climbing, stretching, sprinting, jogging, trotting etc.
Of the 7 sessions in a week, only the weight training sessions were repeated i.e. twice per week, but there is lots of different exercises within a weights session so they never feel boring or repetitive to me.
I also do 4-6 week phases, so most of the sessions changed when I shifted to a different phase. Thus in the back of my mind I know there was something different and stimulating coming, it felt like there was always something fresh to look forward too.
All the change and variety was structured, progressive and pretty carefully considered. Most importantly it kept me stimulated and interested.
My approach to training certainly features hard work and getting uncomfortable, there is no getting around that. I believe however, that if you want results you need to be smart about how much, how hard and how often you train and exactly what you do.
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