Anyone who has been on a playground is familiar with the concept and they’re a lot of fun. But how many of us have turned it into a training tool?

Survival races today like the Tough Mudder or Spartan Race have transformed the way people see road-racing and the way people see fitness-training. There are obstacle courses and assault courses but I’m just going to give basic info on obstacle courses.tough-mudder

Fitness enthusiasts of all levels have reached another level in their physical ability just by using them. TV shows like Survivor, Ninja Warrior, Gladiators, even Disney’s Nickelodeon have introduced children and the average Joe to this form of exertion.


Now ‘average Joes’ are doing more than ever. Ultra marathons are seeing a lot of activity as well. Many are not equipped to handle the influx of racers and so many race organizers are using the lottery system to ensure they can manage groups. More people are participating in non-traditional ‘running’ events than ever before.

Why is this? There are a few factors:

  • Economics. In a down-turn in the economy many people go to running and cut their gym memberships.
  • Women’s Interests: The growing interest in sports for women has opened a lot of opportunities since the days when women were banned from running in races.
  • Participation: More people are participating in events, rather than getting out to compete, as this is community/socially driven.

Obtstacle Course Racing is becoming huge. ESPN worked a deal with the Spartan Race for the next four years. OCR has a great appeal to people looking to find something different than traditional races. Elite athlete Jordan McDougal, Spotter Up writer and Ultra trailrunner, has jumped on over and competed in a few of the OCRs. He’s done well in the Spartan Race (8th place at Wintergreen) and the Bushido 2 Challenge (First Place). He told me he was sore from head to toe after the Spartan.

Training for Obstacle Course Racing or just getting out there and doing something different from running has huge benefits for your attitude and body. How’s this possible? Trace the training history of various armies throughout the world and you’ll find how obstacle courses provided a lot of mental and physical benefits to recruits, conscripts and the enlisted.

wwii-31Armies got the chance to test their physical ability and motor skills through balancing, climbing, crawling, jumping, running, and swimming through these varied courses. Rookies got a chance to learn what tactical movement on the battlefield might be like by leaping over hurdles or crawling under wires.

They gained confidence, were introduced to teamwork, and got conditioned. Not only that, but their attention to detail allowed them to better evaluate and overcome problems. Even running a course on your own requires problem solving ability. Muscles are only going to get you so far.

Figuring a way through each obstacle while attaining your best time won’t happen on the first go. Repetition gives your mind and body the clues on what it needs to do. It adapts and makes the necessary corrections. Even if you make a mistake, you’re becoming more conditioned, you learn and keep growing.

For Survival Fitness, you should become familiar with running through hurdles wet or dry, slick or firm-surfaced, hydrated or thirsty. Your body needs to learn how to shift its weight and maneuver; over, under or around and sometimes through no matter what the texture or type of object it is. Real world applications may be to outrun a dog or a group of people out to kill you, climb a wall, cut through brush and streams, bound over rubble and detour to safety.

There are many great races out there to join and it’s a good way to network with people who may think and train like you.s051889097

My personal belief is that you should also incorporate this type of training into your monthly workout calendar. I do and it keeps my mind fresh, my agility up, and challenges my strength and endurance to put out more. There are so many benefits in doing this kind of training.

If you don’t have access to a military base, school playground or local gym that has some form of obstacle which you can train on, I recommend trying constructions zones. I like it because it’s free and each zone is different from others.

My wife dislikes it when I go out to these places because of the chance for injury but she definitely understands my need for pushing myself and the need for the mind to have things mixed up.

Know your ability level before you begin. The first time I ever did a course I jumped from one log to the next “the Belly Buster” and took a hard blow to the ribs and caused separation.  Just recently my buddy injured his rotator cuff after sliding off the “Stairs”.

I do a lot of trail running but if I ever happen to run in suburbia I try to seek out the construction sites in my area.

The Wal-Mart that went up in our neighborhood was a gold mine for training while it lasted.

1. Stacks of fertilizer bags in burlap bags mirrored staggered stairs and were great for leaping over. The shifting surface meant that I had to learn how to balance and shift my running speeds.

2. Jersey barriers positioned shoulder width apart were good for hopping over as well as doing  deep push-ups and dips from.

3. Scaffolding was used for doing pull-ups, swinging monkey climbs, ab-exercises and leap-offs.

4. Enormous, upturned, concrete sewage pipes were great for jumping in, over and out of.

Construction rubble and freeway overpass

stock-photo-96722-orange-construction-traffic-barrelsOn my way to a highway bypass I discovered a detour which led me to train tracks, rubble and ditches.

1. A mountain of rubble is great for hopping, running, leaping and learning balance.

2. Train tracks with scree between the ties and rails; good texture for running along. Lateral hopping over the rails and ties are challenging on the legs.

3. I discovered a long row of orange traffic barrels with yellow tape strung between them. Because the tape was sagging about 2.5 feet from the ground I used it for lateral plyometric leaping as I zig-zagged around each barrel.

4. Where they terraformed the main portion of the bypass, I did lots of hill-repeats. Stacks of rebar, concrete walls and various shapes made for excellent sprinting and bounding.

5. The rain eroded some of the hillside on the bypass and formed two 5 foot wide streams of water. I would run quickly down the hillside and leap over each stream, landing flat-footed, rolling and then taking off to repeat once more. white-rubble-texture-suitable-as-background-32272113

The changing terrain at some sites made for new ways of training. I’ve run those areas when it was raining, muddy, muggy, cold, snowing and icy. If you want to do something like an obstacle course, I recommend training with friends. If you get injured, someone should be there to render first aid. Yeah, I know, it’s stupid but why should others monopolize ownership of stupidity? Please know your level of fitness before you begin. Even those who are pros can get injured. Have fun, bring friends but train as if you’re life depended on it.

P.S. Check out Jordan’s article about his Spartan event. He did very well for his first time out there. I think you’ll find it to be a very good article.