A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training

I don’t care how much you can deadlift, how much you can do a get-up with, or how many circuits or swing ladders you do. If you do not make time to get out there and run or hike, you will always struggle to be competitive in the sport of obstacle course racing (OCR).

Being good at OCR boils down to three main things:

  1. Time on your feet running or hiking—to build your aerobic capacity
  2. Grip strength—your anaerobic capacity
  3. Athleticism and obstacle skills—to dominate the obstacles

I will let you in a secret: where most trainers fall short in delivering OCR-relevant results to their clients is in true cardiovascular development. Many tend to label swing ladders and circuits as “cardio.” Unfortunately, this style of training does not provide full aerobic cardiovascular development for an endurance sport like OCR.

Let’s take a detailed look at what does and doesn’t work when it comes to obstacle course race training—so you and your students can be prepared for success come event day (and I’ll share a one-month plan with you, as well).

A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training
Putting my crawling and cardio to work on event day.

Where Ladders, Circuits, and HIIT Fall Short

While circuit training may get you out of breath, increase your heart rate, and be fantastic for general health, it does not make all the necessary physiological adaptations to your body needed to excel in OCR. Classic endurance training of running and hiking will make these necessary adaptations to our bodies. Endurance training increases overall blood supply via increased muscle capillarization, improves buffering capacity, and prolongs time to exhaustion thus improving an athlete’s aerobic capacity.1,2,3

But wait—the research says HIIT improves aerobic capacity, plus increases your VO2 max and lactate threshold.1,3 Yes, it does—to a certain point. While I have found numerous research articles that support the benefits of HIIT, the one glaring difference for me is that endurance training reduces total peripheral blood flow resistance.4 Meaning, endurance training will allow blood to flow throughout the body much easier.

This is in contrast to resistance training, which elicits an exaggerated blood pressure response. Part of this response can be explained by the fact that resistance exercise usually involves muscle mass that develops considerable amounts of force. High level forces are created when doing circuits and this leads to substantial increases in total peripheral resistance.4 This means that blood flow is localized to the muscle groups performing the high-level forces and is reduced to the rest of the body. This is one reason we should be doing “fast and loose” between sets.

The other piece to this equation is that with a decrease in peripheral resistance, we can cool our body more efficiently when running for longer periods of time. This will prolong our time to exhaustion.

There are also significant metabolic adaptations that occur in skeletal muscle in response to endurance training. Both the size and number of mitochondria increase substantially, as does the activity of oxidative enzymes. Not to mention, running and hiking are specific to the sport of OCR and you need to get that time on your feet. You also have to run to improve your biomechanics (running economy) and your bioenergetics.

With all that being said, I am not disregarding strength training intervals. They are incredible training methods and a foundation of what I believe in for general physical preparedness. They work great for races in the 5K and under range. They are one piece of the OCR training puzzle, just not the whole enchilada. My suggestion(s) below will still incorporate interval training, but involve more running-focused interval training.

What Type of OCRs Are Out There?

To be competitive in the OCR world, you need to be prepared to handle a variety of race lengths:

  • In the three- to five-mile range, you have Spartan Sprint, Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder 5K, Tough Mudder Half, and Bonefrog Sprint.
  • In the eight- to ten-mile range, you have Bonefrog Challenge and Spartan Super.
  • In the ten-to-twelve range, sits Tough Mudder.
  • Spartan Beast is at the twelve- to fourteen-mile range.
  • There are also 26-mile OCRs like the Spartan Ultra-Beast.

Think of it all this way: having a monster truck engine, won’t help you much in a NASCAR race. OCR is a NASCAR race with a few monster truck moments along the way.

The great thing about training in the StrongFirst methodology is that we already take care of a large part of our grip strength and metabolic conditioning with our normal training programs. As for athleticism, that can get taken care of with some simple additions to your warm-up and when you get into the sport specifics of OCR.

With OCR, the distance of the event will dictate the relative contribution of aerobic and anaerobic performances. My advice is to develop those qualities that are not your strongest. For strength athletes, spend time running and on your feet. For people who already run a lot, work on your strength. For everybody across the board, movement fundamentals, grip strength, and obstacle skills can always be improved.

A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training
Monkey bars are a common obstacle you need the skill to handle.

Movement Fundamentals

This includes any soft tissue work you like to do, correctives you may need, and general foundational movements like squatting, lunging, planking, rolling, etc. Really anything you consider important. I am an FMS guy with a strong emphasis on an athletic dynamic warm-up using much of the Spartan Obstacle Specialist warm-up protocols.

Running / Hiking

This is all about accumulating time on your feet and building your aerobic capacity, and the actual training will vary depending on who you are coaching and the distance you are training for as previously mentioned.

Here are some of the running-based training protocols I recommend from general to sport specific:

  • Slow running: To build your aerobic base. Improving capillary and mitochondrial density.
  • Hiking: To increase time on your feet on the type of terrain you will race on.
  • Hill repeats: Improve overall work capacity and you will probably see lots of hills in OCR.
  • Long Slow Distance (LSD): To continue building your aerobic base, time on your feet, capillarization, and mitochondrial density. Start building on your mileage.
  • Track Work: Any sprints (ex: 100s, 400s, 800s) to improve running economy and anaerobic work capacity.
  • Shuttle runs: To hit on acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction, not to mention improving anaerobic and aerobic work capacity.
  • Stadium stairs: Great alternative or in addition to hill repeats. Great for leg drive and plus it is sport specific if you do stadium obstacle races.
  • Carries: Kettlebells, sandbags, logs, rocks, bucket of rocks, etc. Besides all the strength and work capacity benefits, it is sport specific to OCR. Start carrying objects on flat ground, up and down hills, or up and down stadium stairs. Mix it up with farmers carries and over the shoulder. Single object or double. You never know what you will get in a race.

Improving Grip Strength

This is absolutely a game-changer in OCR. We climb ropes, hang on muddy monkey bars, swing ring to ring, climb walls, farmer carry logs, and much more. Again, by training according to StrongFirst, we already do a majority of the needed strength work that automatically improves grip strength.

Here are some of the strength-based training protocols I recommend for grip strength, grip endurance, and general overall strength:

  • Hanging: Hang from a bar for time (I recommend your build up to a minimum of two minutes unbroken)
  • Pulls: Pull-ups, chin-ups, body rows of any variation. Strong pulls are a must.
  • Kettlebell ballistics: One- and two-hand swings, cleans, and snatches. Besides being a great exercise, these work grip endurance, balance, proprioception, and general athleticism. Plus, the fact that kettlebells can be used unilaterally, which is forgotten by much of the fitness world.
  • Get-ups: As Gray Cook said, “Perfect example of training primitive movement patterns.” Maintain your mobility and continue to build strength at the same time.
  • Deadlifts: For raw strength. Use just an overhand grip for added grip strength. Also practice lowering the weight slowly. This eccentric-type muscle action will help when running downhill.
  • Single-leg Deadlift: You need to train unilaterally. Every step you take is a unilateral movement, and SLDL fits the bill nicely.
  • Rope Work: Climb with and without using your feet. Hand over hand pulling of an object. Climbing up a wall with a rope. Rope to rope monkey bars.
  • Kettlebell Squat and Press: Because you must balance out all the pulling and this is a great combo to tax the CNS.
A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training
Grip strength is essential for OCR success.

Athleticism

Athleticism is demonstrating the characteristics of an athlete. An athlete is someone “who is gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.”

I consider OCR athletes to be one of the most well-rounded groups of athletes out there. In every race, they: bend, crawl, carry, climb, hang, jump, lift, lunge, swing, pull, push, run, breathe, sprint, squat, balance, stretch and twist. In order to succeed, these athletes must be prepared to do these things on a regular basis.

Start adding these training protocols in to your programming and you will see great improvement in overall athleticism:

  • Crawling: The Spartan A, B, C’s are a great addition to any warm-up. These include ape (forward and laterally), bear (leopard, beast or whatever other name you may call it), and crab (feet first, head first and laterally). I also recommend low crawls, army crawls, and Spiderman crawls. Crawling under barbed wire can become difficult if you lack mobility and a solid crawling pattern.
  • Sprint mechanics: We were meant to stand upright and to move. Start working that contralateral pattern a bit more. Add in things like simple skips, power skips, skips for distance, falling starts, and get-up-and-goes. These all train your natural running pattern. If you improve your running mechanics and you will improve your running economy.
  • Change of Direction: Drills where you accelerate, decelerate, and make athletic change of directions. Shuttle runs are huge here because most people who run regularly only go straight ahead.
  • Plyometrics: More than just box jumps. I include broad jumps, burpee broad jumps, lateral jumps, skater hops, and more. Besides the obvious power building, the eccentric landing piece is an important factor people neglect. You must land softly and absorb all those forces. In a race, you end up jumping down from many obstacles. Some are pretty high and you may be landing on uneven ground.
  • Agility ladder: Footwork is the forgotten modality these days for adults. Being light on your feet is crucial when running on uneven terrain. Plus, it helps build calf resilience, proprioception, and speed.
  • Burpees: When done correctly are a great bodyweight athlete builder. Besides being a penalty for failing an obstacle in many events, you may actually fall down in a race. You should be used to hitting the ground and popping back up like it’s no big thing.

Bodyweight general recommendations to improve relative strength and stamina:

  • Pulls: Pull-ups, chin-ups, body rows. Suspension training is a great body weight tool to aid in OCR programing.
  • Planks: Including all variations. You must be able to stabilize.
  • Push-ups: Because you should be able to do them.
  • Step-ups: Because there are a lot of hills or sides of a mountain you will most likely climb.
  • Lunges: If all else fails while training for an OCR, lunge and lunge and lunge some more.
  • Burpees: “Because a thirty-burpee penalty can’t ruin your day,” Joe DiStefano, Director of Spartan Sport

Obstacle Skills

These are your sport specific considerations. The best way to train for these is to research the common obstacles you will face in a given race and try to mimic them. The standard skills I focus on are any kind of rope climbing, monkey bar practice, ring to ring practice, wall climbing of any height, and the Spartan Spear Throw.

  • Rope climbing: straight up and up vertical and incline walls.
  • Rope pulling: pulling objects using a rope.
  • Monkey bars: classic playground type to uneven bars as well as incline and decline type setups.
  • Wall climbing: many varying heights, over, under, inverted and even up fifteen-foot half pipes.
  • Multi-rigs: you could see hanging rings, ropes, balls and bars.
  • Barb wire crawl: get low and go.
  • Dragging objects
  • Spear throw: the number one failed obstacle in a Spartan Race.
  • Cargo nets: military style, A-frame and other variations.
  • Carries: farmers, sandbags, buckets, drags and much more.
A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training
Chief SFB Karen Smith trains carries.

Obstacle Course Race Training StrongFirst-Style

You need to accumulate time on your feet, improve grip strength, and build general athleticism to be competitive in the world of OCR. We are StrongFirst, and in my humble opinion, we have strength training and basic metabolic conditioning down compared to the average Joe. But if we want to be competitive in OCR, we need to get sport specific.

I truly believe if you are strong first, everything else gets easier. But while circuits, metabolic conditioning, and true strength training are great—and are, of course, included in my programs—they are not the main focus when developing a competitive OCR athlete.

You must fully develop your endurance “engine”—your heart, lungs and blood flow. The full development of your aerobic system is what will get you to the finish line faster.

For an idea of what a month’s worth of training looks like according to the guidelines I’ve outlined, click here to download a PDF.

References:
1. Murach KA, Bagley JR, Pfeiffer CJ. “Is Long Duration Aerobic Exercise Necessary for Anaerobic Athletes?Strength and Conditioning Journal 35:2 44-46, 2013.
2. Schoenfeld B, Dawes J. “High-Intensity Interval Training: Applications for General Fitness Training.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 31:6 44-46, 2009.
3. Turner AN, “Training the Aerobic Capacity of Distance Runners: A Break from Tradition.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 333:2 39-42, 2011.
4. Surgeon General Report, Ch. 3: Physiologic Responses and Long-Term Adaptations to Exercise.
Todd Cambio
SFG II
Besides being a StrongFirst Kettlebell Users Course Instructor, Todd is a Master Instructor for Spartan Race, a Spartan Running Specialist, a Spartan Obstacle Specialist, a dad, a football coach, a foodie, a beekeeper, a presenter, an author, a beer aficionado, and known as "The RED Gorilla.”

What sums up Todd best is that he is a coach's coach. He enjoys passing knowledge down and helping anyone ready to improve their fitness or their coaching abilities. He is a strength and conditioning coach specializing in sports performance training, hard style kettlebells, and obstacle course/mud run racing.

He believes in training the whole body from your fingertips to your toes to optimize athleticism. Todd has over twenty years of coaching experience and utilizes modalities such as body weight, kettlebells, barbells, MONSTA tires, sledgehammers, sandbags, suspension training, speed and agility drills, and even strongman equipment.
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7 thoughts on “A StrongFirst Approach to Obstacle Course Race Training

  • Todd,
    Great summary of OCR training requirements. Thank you.
    The last Super I did, I did indeed fail the spear throw; and it was the one thing I had trained the most on, and had it dialed in (or so I thought…)

  • Not sure exactly what you are asking. Not all energy systems use oxygen. Anaerobic respiration is when the body produces energy for exercise without oxygen. … It is also used for fast, powerful bursts of energy, for which the aerobic system is insufficient. There are two systems within Anaerobic metabolism, which are the ATP-PC (alactic) system and the lactic acid system. I will say for endurance, as in utilizing your aerobic system, the Maffetone system is solid and will help prolong your proverbial tank as well as help you recover faster.

    • I didn’t mean a proverbial tank but a situation where your only source of oxygen is a literal tank of compressed air. As I understand it a person who is extremely muscular and strong will a higher metabolic rate, whether at rest or exerting themselves, and part of the metabolic demand will be for oxygen. So will becoming significantly bigger and stronger mean you suck the air tank dry faster? Further, I was asking if the structural and metabolic changes that aerobic and glycolytic training respectively make in the body would further alter the oxygen requirements, again altering how long a specific tank of air would last. I assume in most cases physical training will make the air last longer by making the body generally more capable and efficient, but I was particularly concerned about safety if some training methods could unexpectedly shorten how long air tanks could be expected to last. Sorry I didn’t make that clear.

  • This is slightly off-topic but what effect does training different energy systems have on oxygen consumption? This is not relevent most of the time as you are in the atmosphere where there is no shortage of air. But for scuba divers and firefighters who are dependent on bottled air, how much of a difference would it make? Obviously these individuals need strength but does greater alactic strength use up air faster if those muscles are always hungry, even at rest or submaximal effort? For endurance would the tank last longer if they did Maffetone aerobic training compared to HIIT glycolytic puke circuits?

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