How to Train for an Obstacle Race and Not Die

by Domenic Angelino

A Guide for Lifters

Are you a beast with the weights but suck at cardio? Sign up for an obstacle race anyway! Here’s how to prepare for one and not suck.


Obstacle Races and People Who Hate Cardio

Obstacle races are both fun and intimidating. Whichever one you choose – Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, etc. – will require you to be both strong and aerobically fit. But most people skew their training towards either cardio or lifting, making it hard to meet all of the demands.

“I’m strong but don’t do a ton of cardio.” No worries. Improving your aerobic fitness seems like a big commitment, but you can make the process easier, faster, and more effective. You can even do it without making your training program complicated.

First, you need to establish a game plan that’ll up your aerobic fitness. If you’re already pretty strong, just maintain that strength in the gym and focus on cardio. Here are the steps to help you through it.

1. Improve VO2 Max Through Increased Capillarization

You can improve aerobic fitness through several mechanisms. Ultimately, those mechanisms will influence something called your VO2 max. This is basically the maximal amount of oxygen you can take in and use.

Oxygen is important for performance. The more oxygen your muscles can use during aerobic activity, the more ATP (the energy currency of the body) you can produce. More ATP means you can maintain an activity for a longer time period.

One way to improve VO2 max is through increasing capillarization. Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels in your body. They’re the ones responsible for transporting oxygen-rich blood to working muscle tissues. So increasing their number will directly improve your VO2 max and aerobic fitness.

In a recent 2022 meta-analysis, researchers explored the way different types of cardio influence muscle capillarization for individuals of different training statuses (1). They found that increases in capillarization don’t normally occur for aerobically well-trained people. Increased capillarization tends to occur if you’re not aerobically well-trained.

However, the amount of capillarization occurring depends on the type of cardio you do. Moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio improves capillarization moderately, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) improves capillarization greatly.

In a practical sense, this just means:

  • As long as you’re training at a moderate intensity or higher, you’ll eventually reach your potential of total capillarization in aerobically trained muscles.
  • You can optimize the rate of increased capillarization early on before you eventually level off.
  • Once your total capillarization is pretty leveled off, you can focus on inducing other important adaptations that’ll improve your obstacle race performance.

Considering the above, the overall conditioning process for an obstacle race will be a bit faster if you start with high-intensity interval training. So, have fun with it and pick any form of HIIT programming you find enjoyable. As long as your cardio bouts are performed at greater than 85% of your max heart rate (220 minus your age), you’ll reap the benefits.

If you’re under the age of 60, you can expect to see the greatest increase in capillarization over the first 8-12 weeks of regular HIIT. So, stick with it for 8-12 weeks. If you’re 60-plus, you should expect similar results in around 16-20 weeks.

2. Improve Your Steady-State Running Distance

After you’ve significantly improved your VO2 max, the next step is to familiarize your body with running the actual race distance. This is the phase where you should gradually build up to running the length of the race.

These races vary. That means the right programming will depend on this distance and your cardiovascular starting point. Regardless of the race you pick, the idea is to focus on increasing your running distance.

To make it through the race without performing too poorly, aim to run further than the actual race distance during training. This is important. Your performance on race day differs from your performance during training. Plus, you’ll be doing more than just running during the actual race, so the aerobic demands placed on your body will be much higher.

Continue building up your distance until you can comfortably run at least 133% to 150% of the distance of the race during training. If you’re short on time or just want to get through the race, aim for 133%. If you have plenty of extra time and want to perform better, aim for 150%.

3. Replicate The Demands

The final phase of your preparation is to do a few practice runs that replicate the demands of the race. The amount and type of obstacles will differ depending on the specific race you signed up for.

There are two ways you can go about structuring your practice runs. If you don’t have access to a nearby track or an assortment of training equipment (like dumbbells, medicine ball, etc.), then:

  • Plan to run 110% of the race distance.
  • Divide the total distance by the number of obstacles in the actual race.
  • Stop and perform 20 burpees at each of those distance intervals while running the practice race.

If you have access to a nearby track and an assortment of portable training equipment, then:

  • Plan to run 110% of the race distance.
  • Divide the total distance by the number of obstacles in the actual race.
  • Identify an exercise that most closely replicates the demands of one of the race’s obstacles at each of those intervals (for the tire flip, do a dumbbell clean and press).
  • Stop and perform 20 reps of each exercise at each of those distance intervals.

Try to get in at least 2-4 practice runs prior to the race. If you have enough time, more is generally better, but having at least 2-4 under your belt prior to going into the race will make a huge difference in your day-of performance.

4. Do The Thing!

As race day approaches, make sure you’re adequately rested. Fatigue accumulated from training will mask your performance. Spend the final two weeks before the race in a low-frequency and low-intensity active rest mode. Consider just walking for a few miles 2-3 times a week. Having a period of low-intensity active rest prior to the race allows you to reduce fatigue while mitigating the risk of minor detraining.

Or you could also do one final “practice run” around 4-5 days prior to your race, but only do it if you feel a low amount of fatigue at that point. If not, it’s fine to skip it.

When race day comes, do your best. Your first one will be challenging, but it’ll tell you what to do differently on the next one. If you ever feel down about how you placed, remember that your training was still incredibly valuable for your body. The type of training you did to prepare will strongly support improved cardiovascular health, which is never a bad thing.

Reference

Reference

  1. Liu Y et al. Effects of Exercise Training Intensity and Duration on Skeletal Muscle Capillarization in Healthy Subjects: A Meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Oct 1;54(10):1714-1728. PubMed.
6 Likes

The spartan races are a killer. Ran 2. Both beat me down. Warrior dash was nothing. The terrain race was challenging but didn’t beat me down. But we all are different.

1 Like

I’ve run two Spartan Beasts (14miles) in the mountains and going for regular runs didn’t cut it. Especially while doing obstacles. So I just settled for walking a lot of it.

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Done a bunch of these at the 5K level and they really hit you with terrain. Flat runs don’t come close to replicating the true demands…. Training runs should be hills—lots of them, and steep ones if possible. Lots of uneven terrain. Spartans are farmer’s-carry-heavy too…so practice all manner of those. If you’re in the gym, grab a single, heavy dumbbell or sandbag and walk on the treadmill at as steep an incline as it will go. If you’re reasonably fit, you can probably finish, but if you want to be competitive you need to dial it in, push your training, and be ready to suffer.

2 Likes

Organized warrior dash for the office for years (to get my entry fee paid haha.) 3 miles 10 obstacles so not extreme, more of a fun day in the mud. Kept on with normal weight training, added in ~2 mile runs and jump rope, did great (as a middle aged guy.) Jump rope prepped the ankles and footwork pretty well for the trail type running of the race. Grip is important. Coulda done more crawling training as third of obstacles were that, but was fine.