Last summer, I surprised a few family members by asking if they wanted to form a team to do a mud run. I’m not known as adventurous—or as someone who likes to get dirty—but mud races were becoming so popular among runners (and non-runners alike) that I was ready to step out of my comfort zone and try something new. To my delight, the race was lots of fun and definitely something I’d do again in the future.
Mud runs have exploded in popularity over the past decade. Today, you have no shortage of mud-related "obstacle" races from which to choose. Each race is different, so it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into before you sign up. A few popular "dirty" obstacle races include:
- Savage Race : 4-6 miles. This race boasts more obstacles per mile than other mud runs.
- Spartan Race: anywhere from 3-12+ miles depending on which kind of Spartan Race you do, so make sure you’re signing up for the right one!
- Tough Mudder: 10-12 miles with extreme obstacles such as jumping into freezing cold water or electric shock. The obstacles in this race are above and beyond the difficulty level of any other.
Many of these races have certain common obstacles, such as:
- Crawling under a cargo net on your belly through mud or muddy water
- Swinging across monkey bars
- Rope pull up a muddy hill
- Scaling over 12-foot walls (or higher)
- Walking across a narrow beam with just a rope or net to hold onto
- Sliding down a muddy hill into waist deep water
- Crawling across a cargo net 15 feet in the air
- Swimming or wading through water as deep as your neck
- Crawling under barbed wire
- Crawling through or under pitch-black obstacles such as tubes
- Jumping over fire pits
Every race location sets up its obstacles at different intervals. Sometimes you’ll encounter obstacles that are spaced evenly apart, say every half to full mile away from the next. Sometimes you'll encounter several obstacles in a row, or run over a mile without encountering any obstacle at all. Typically, how often you'll encounter an obstacle depends on the local terrain where the race is held—often out in the country, in fields, and even encompassing park areas that have dirt trails.
I've heard a lot of people say that they "aren't worried" about the distance of the race they plan to do because it'll be broken up by obstacles. That is somewhat true, but the obstacles themselves are often no walk in the park either. You will be moving, running, climbing, pulling, wading, swimming, crawling—and essentially exerting yourself—for the duration of the race. However, some races become crowded and people have to "bottleneck" into an obstacle, which may provide a few moments—or several minutes—of rest while you wait to encounter an obstacle. But that isn't a given.
It's also important to consider the time of year your race will be held and what the weather might be. Many of these races take place in early spring, late fall and even winter—which can be a bad, uncomfortable and even unsafe condition when you combine water elements and mud with cold temperatures. Others take part under beating sunlight with little to no cover during the hottest and most humid seasons and even at the height of temperatures for the day. Definitely consider these factors when signing up for a race and choosing your start time (when applicable).
How to Train and Prepare for a Mud Run
Mud runs are a fun way to challenge yourself and get a great workout at the same time. But how do you train for an event like this? Although events like Tough Mudder are strenuous and require much more advanced training due to their distance alone, the typical mud run of a few miles is something that the average person can complete, often with minimal preparation. (Of course completing a mud race is very different from competing in it. The more you train and the fitter you are, the faster your race time will be and the more comfortable and fun the experience will be overall.)
- First and foremost, consider the distance. All obstacles aside, can you run and/or walk the distance of the race safely at your fitness level? Ensure that you train for the distance of the race. This should be your No. 1 priority. If it's a 5K distance, plan for at least 5-8 weeks of training. But running aside, I can tell you from experience that the race will take you longer than you think.
You might be able to run 3 miles in 30 minutes under normal conditions, but that doesn’t include the obstacles, which take time to complete. You also won’t be able to run as fast when you’re covered in wet, mud-soaked clothes, which are also heavy and make running much more challenging. It took me over an hour to finish my 3-mile race, and I can easily run 3 miles (and have completed several full marathons). So my advice would be this: Get yourself comfortable running distances longer than the race distance calls for. If running 3 miles leaves you tired, think about how you’re going to feel when they throw challenging obstacles in on top of that. If you can run 4 or 5 miles comfortably, then you should have enough energy left to complete one of these 3-mile races successfully.
- Train on a variety of terrains. Also keep in mind that many of these races are done through grassy fields (including knee and waist deep grasses) and on uneven terrain, so it helps to do some training in these conditions. Running in grass is much different than running on a sidewalk or paved road. Include some trail and grass running in your training plan so that you're prepared to encounter it on race day with more balance and stability, which will reduce your risk of injury.
- Prepare for obstacles with functional training. The biggest question I hear about these races is, "How do I train for those obstacles?" The website for your mud race should give you some indication of which obstacles to expect, but nothing can prepare you for what they're really like. The element of surprise can be both exciting and a little scary. First and foremost, unless you are trying to compete to place or win the race, you don't have to do any or all of the obstacles. They are totally optional, so trust your gut and skip any obstacle that isn't right for you on race day. For example, my dad has bad ankles and can’t jump from high places. When we did those obstacles, he opted out and just continued on with the rest of the team when we finished.
Most of us don’t have easy access to monster truck tires, 30-foot cargo nets, and giant muddy hills to climb up and down. Just because you can’t train in exactly the same conditions you’ll be experiencing on race day, doesn’t mean you can’t train to have enough strength to complete them. The best way to be prepared is to simply work on a well-rounded fitness program. In addition to your running training, a well-rounded, full-body strength training program can give you what you need to complete many of the typical obstacles.
Think about what you’ll be doing: climbing ropes and swinging across monkey bars (upper body strength), crawling across cargo nets (upper and lower body strength) and pulling yourself through muddy water (upper body, lower body and core). Typical strength exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, planks and rows will help prepare you for these events. Working on overall body strength and balance will set you up to complete your race successfully. Try 2-3 strength-training days per week.
Like I said before, the average mud run (between 3 and 6 miles) is something most people, with some training, can complete. Events like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are extremely challenging and aren't something to attempt unless you're healthy, cleared for this event by your physician, and have put in a significant amount of advanced training. Don’t sign up for Tough Mudder just because it “sounds fun" unless you're fit and strong enough to run a half marathon (or able to train for that distance in the time you have available). As a runner, I'd say a half marathon is an easier task than this particular race, so if 13.1 miles sounds daunting, a Tough Mudder may not be right for you. Pushing yourself further than your body is ready to go (without adequate training) can lead to injury and a miserable experience. You wouldn’t go from running a 5K to a marathon all at once, so you want to be sure you’re in great shape to tackle the demands of one of these longer events. My advice? If a mud run sounds fun to you, try a shorter one first. Train using the guidelines listed above. And work diligently on increasing your running endurance before attempting the longer, more arduous mud races.
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