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Why You Should Sign Up for an Obstacle Course Race

Chris Fanning

An obstacle race is one big, fun day at the playground that brings out all kinds of exercisers. So make this the year you finally sign up for one. The reason your Instagram feed has more than its typical share of posts showing people covered in mud, scaling walls, or carrying sandbags uphill: It’s obstacle course race (OCR) season. If those smiley photos have taught you anything, it’s that many of these racers are just like you. Of the four million who take part in OCRs each year, the majority—60 percent— are female, an Active.com survey revealed. And most aren’t superfit. They’re first-timers (66 percent of people who sign up for Warrior Dash events are newbies, say the race directors). “There’s such a variety of events, with different distances and obstacles, that pretty much anyone can participate in one,” says Margaret Schlachter, the editor in chief of MudRunGuide.com and the author of Obstacle Race Training. (It's true, Women Dominate the Running World, Racing Way More Than Men.) Find out how thrilling and beginner-friendly these races can be, and get the lowdown on how to properly prep for your first.

That mountain you’re imagining is actually a molehill
Not all races have obstacles straight out of Fear Factor; some are much tamer, in order to get more takers into the game. You don’t even have to be a runner to participate. “OCRs are rewarding for people with a variety of fitness strengths, because they involve a little of everything,” says Pete Williams, an OCR athlete and the author of Obstacle Fit. There are challenges you’ll be really good at (boot campers tend to excel at carrying sandbags and crossing monkey bars, while everyday joggers catch breaks on the stretches between obstacles) and things that you may not be so good at (ahem, wall climb?), but that’s how everyone comes at it. If you’re worried about one obstacle in particular, just skip it. “Tell yourself that you’ll conquer it next time,” Schlachter says.

The training alone is worth it
Most races include some combo of climbing, crawling, hoisting heavy stuff, wading through muck, and leaping over pits, but the obstacles are changed up for each event. You use your body in so many ways to prepare that you can’t not get into great shape, and trying some of the OCR-specific training drills is part of the fun. For example, a do-it-yourself training session may look like this: “Head to a park, run a half mile offroad, then do 20 burpees. Get up, run to a playground, and cross the monkey bars. Bear crawl through mulch, climb up and over picnic tables, do push-ups off benches, then run another mile,” Williams says. Let your environment guide you, and be impulsive, he urges. Schlachter says, “The natural environment and primal movement patterns take you back to your roots.” There’s a playful and surprising element that other workouts lack. (Check out 3 Exercises to Help Train for a Mud Run.)

It’s a confidence game-changer
“I’ve heard racers say, ‘If I can jump over fire, I can ask my boss for that raise,’” Schlachter says. Yes, exercise in general can boost self-esteem, according to a study in the Journal of Health Psychology. But what’s unique about OCRs is that on top of helping you check off physical goals, they present you with mental chalenges. “The experience of facing a scary obstacle and acting to move past it can help you learn how to shift from a thinking mind-set to a doing mind-set in other areas of life,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and the author of Smart Thinking.

The team spirit is truly one of a kind
Unlike the every-woman-for-herself atmosphere of your typical fitness class, you can expect participants to band together and ask for help when the going gets muddy. OCR events are rife with opportunities to lend a hand—or get a boost up yourself—whether you’re doing them solo or as part of a group. “This experience is unique to these kinds of events,” Schlachter notes. Once you’ve talked someone into jumping into a waterpit, the effect can be eyeopening: You’ll see that most people are in it for the fun and camaraderie. You may have just found your fitness tribe. (In fact, team spirit was how this runner Conquered a Navy SEAL Training Course.)

Know Before You Go
Start with a 5K: A 5K is doable but tough, even if you usually run more than three miles, says OCR athlete Pete Williams. You’ll find a lot of options at active.com, but two series we love are Shape’s Diva Dash and Warrior Dash. “Warrior Dash’s obstacles are meant for all levels; some courses have a fun mud slide, others have helpful steps up walls. Plus, the after party is great,” says Margaret Schlachter, the author of Obstacle Race Training. When you’re ready for the next level, try a Spartan Race. It has more strength-based obstacles like rope climbs, heavy carries, and burpees. (Here's a Beginner's Guide to Running a 5K.)

Scope out the course: To get a sense of what you’ll encounter, go to your race’s site beforehand; some, like the Warrior Dash, even have training apps ($8; Android; free, iOS). Still, be prepared for surprises.

Make sure it’s legit: “All well-known national races are properly organized and have high safety standards,” Schlachter says. Vet smaller, local ones at mudrunguide.com, which has peer reviews of races around the world, to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into.

What to Pack: Here's what to bring so you can celebrate comfortably:

  • A full change of clothes but not your favorite outfit—the showers are often less than luxe, so you may still be a little dirty
  • Clean socks and shoes or sandals
  • A towel
  • Two garbage bags, one for dirty clothing and one for shoes
  • Baby wipes or facial wipes, like Yes to Coconut Cleansing Wipes ($6; yestocarrots.com)
  • Cash, for the merch tent and food vendors
  • A water bottle and a snack that has a protein-carb combo for recovery, like a Strong & Kind bar ($36 for 24; kindsnacks.com)

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