Part 1: Building the Base
Obstacle course races such as the Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, and Tough Mudder are getting more and more popular with the general population. As a personal trainer, weightlifting coach, and track and field coach, it is my opinion that the 5K versions of these races are exactly the kind of fitness most of us need for everyday activities: upper and lower body strength, core strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness. More importantly, these races are fun and help maintain that sense of play that is so important for all of us. If you can train for and complete a 5k obstacle course race, you have the kind of fitness that is going to keep you going strong for a long time. For my clients who don’t play a sport or have a specific fitness goal, I encourage them to consider one of these races as a fun and reasonable goal to train for. I recently completed the Tough Mudder, an 11 mile, 25 obstacle, challenge with a group of friends as a training challenge.

The question that a lot of people have when it comes to training for these races is, exactly how does one do it?

There are a lot of ideas floating about on the world wide web as to how to train for one of these races and I’ve seen a lot of plans. Many of which are overly complicated, too deficient in volume, too abundant in intensity, and mostly complete nonsense. Many of the theories about training for these races fall in line with the philosophy that tired, sore, and possibly injured is the most effective. The truth is, however, it is far more effective when you train in a way that improves your abilities without being chronically tired, sore, or injured and most importantly, is specific to your goal. High-intensity, non-specific conditioning may feel like good exercise, but it is not any way to train for something specific. Training is important, but smart planning and recovery is more important.

Burpees do not help you climb down an underground tunnel

There are some very basic training principles that are common to all people and its not because some brilliant training guru came up with them. Its because these principles are not about training, they are about how the human body reacts to stress and stimulus. An understanding of basic physiology will tell you far more about how to train intelligently than all the training books in the world. Ultimately, a good training plan is far simpler than we tend to think it needs to be. That doesn’t mean its easy, but its not complicated either. If you have the time and motivation to train efficiently, there is very little you can’t accomplish. I’m not saying you can beat world records or make it to the NFL training camp, but for the average person, a lot of things may seem out of reach that really aren’t.

Based on these principles, I use the following rules when laying out a training plan.

  1. Segment your training so that you improve the qualities that take the longest to improve first. Rehabilitation, Accumulation, Transmutation and Realization are the segments I utilize in my planning.
  2. When training for the event itself, train specifically.
  3. Be willing to adjust the training as you go to accommodate individual differences.


The first phase of segmented training is Rehabilitation. Not everyone needs this phase, but this if you haven’t trained in while, are recovering from any injuries or noticeable imbalances, or are simply transitioning from another sport, activity, or competitive season. We also refer to this as the “Fix what’s broke” segment. Depending on your fitness levels and your goals, this could take as little as four weeks and as many as twelve or more.

Just get strong. When done properly, the bench press is a full body exercise that can stabilize the shoulder girdle and strengthen the upper back

After Rehabilitation comes Accumulation. This is usually the longest block and is when you train the qualities that take the longest to improve and establish a solid foundation. These qualities are simple to identify for an obstacle course race: strength and aerobic base. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, for most beginners, doing pretty much anything will result in them being stronger and more conditioned. However, there is no reason to waste time being nonspecific. If you are weak, you need to focus specifically on getting stronger, particularly your ability to move your own bodyweight. Pushups, pullups, dips, squats, and lunges are a good idea. Strength training all your joints through a full range of motion will improve your strength, flexibility, postural endurance, balance, and coordination. Train for strength now and leave the obstacle specific conditioning for later.

And when we talk about aerobic base, we need it to be specific for the activity for which we are training. An obstacle course race requires one to run. So, you need to get out and run. Balancing your running and recovery with strength training and recovery can be a bit of a challenge, but as long as you are willing to adjust your distances and intensity as you go, you should be able to sustain both during this base training phase.

As far as the running was concerned, I was the weakest link

Our training group for the Tough Mudder was made up of a lot of different fitness levels and abilities. Although some of us ran together prior to the group training sessions, most of us were training on our own during the Accumulation phase to improve the qualities that we needed as individuals to do well with this challenge. Since running was my largest deficit, I put strength training on the back burner and ran as much as possible. My typical training is largely focused on barbells, so my strength training for this event included a lot more body weight work.

So the prescription so far is pretty simple:

  1. Establish a running base to cover the distance you need to run. You are going to have a hard time covering the required distance AND completing the obstacles if your body cannot sustain the efforts on distance alone.
  2. Improve your strength to the point that you can push yourself vertically and horizontally through space using your arms and legs. The degree to which you need to do this depends on the specific demands of your race.

In Part II, we will specifically take a look at how to transform our base into obstacle course race specific strength and endurance

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Sara Fleming

Sara Fleming

Sara Fleming is an ISSA Certified Fitness and Youth Fitness Trainer, USA Weightlifting Coach, and USA Track and Field Coach who provides group and personal training in Raleigh, North Carolina . Sara has a masters degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Georgetown University spent ten years working as a medical researcher before transitioning to working in the strength and fitness field. Sara authored a certification course on group training and serves on the faculty for the ISSA's College of Exercise Science. Sara is a founding member and instructor for Practical Strength for Trainers, a seminar geared towards giving trainers an opportunity for hands on, interactive mentoring on both coaching and programming. Sara has competed as a masters weightlifter and also as a Highlander and Highland Games competitor.
Sara Fleming

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