Welcome back to another post on obstacle course racing! This week, we’re talking about the bread and butter of this sport: the obstacles.
If you’ve never been to an obstacle course race before, you probably don’t know what to expect. How many obstacles are there on a typical obstacle course? Are the obstacles at Spartan Race the same as Tough Mudder or (insert your race of choice)? Are all of the obstacles going to look the same? Will I have to lift anything heavy? How much will I have to climb? What kind of training do I need to do to prepare for my first obstacle course race? Are these races safe? Some of the obstacles look pretty crazy.
The goal of this post is to help answer some of these questions.
1. How many obstacles are there on a typical obstacle course?
For the purposes of this post, let’s just consider 5K races, a typical distance for those just starting to try out the sport.
The number of obstacles in a 5K race can vary quite dramatically depending on the organizer of the event. I’ve listed the standard number of obstacles at the ~5K distance for each of the most well known US races below, ordered from lowest to highest number:
Tough Mudder 5K – 13 Obstacles
Terrain Race – 15+ Obstacles
Savage Blitz – 15-20 Obstacles
Spartan Sprint – 20 Obstacles
Bonefrog Challenge – 20+ Obstacles
Rugged Maniac – 25 Obstacles
The number of obstacles in a Rugged Maniac 5K is almost twice that of the Tough Mudder, though most races fall within a relatively standard 15-20 obstacle range. If you’re looking for a race more heavy on the running, Tough Mudder might be a winner, but if you want mostly obstacles with very little space in between, then Rugged Maniac might be your best pick. For something in between, one of the other races would be a great choice! Though of course, they’ll all be a great time!
2. Are all of the obstacles going to look the same? Will I have to lift anything heavy? How much will I have to climb? What kind of training do I need to do to prepare for my first obstacle course race?
I’m going to try and answer all of these at once, with a short guide.
No two obstacle course races are the same! Not even two races put on by the same company, as many of them utilize the local terrain wherever the race is held in order to shape the course.
The general obstacle design can vary quite significantly between races. For example, Bonefrog is a much more intense set of obstacles involving a lot of strength, designed around Navy SEAL training, than the Rugged Maniac, which tries to be more beginner friendly with lots of waterslides and simpler obstacles.
However, there are some common trends. Although the difficulty and frequency of each obstacle type may vary (and some races may have none of a few of the types), there seem to be a set group of obstacles that are popular across all of the races.
Through some research (both on and off the course), I’ve found 13 obstacle types that tend to be universal across the different obstacle course race brands.
The easiest obstacle in most races, this is usually placed very early on the course. For this obstacle, all you have to do is run through a muddy pit. The worst that will happen here is you’ll slip in the mud and fall into it, getting dirty (confession: this happened to me on my first race). After you make it through this one, you’ll probably stop thinking about all the mud, since you’ll already be coated.
The trenches are super similar to the mud pit, except they’re a lot smaller and there are typically a few of them in a row. You’ll need to hop down into one pit, then climb out, and repeat. Also a very simple obstacle that pretty much anyone can do.
The Army crawl tends to be a favorite, with some obstacle courses using variations of this one more than once. In an Army crawl obstacle, you typically need to get on your hands and knees–or, in more intense versions, all the say onto your stomach–and crawl under a bunch of barbed wire. This one doesn’t require any training, but you should be aware that:
- You need to stay low so that you don’t get caught on any barbed wire. I recommend long sleeves just in case.
- If you get really bad pain from kneeling, this one will be very unpleasant for you and likely is worth a skip.
- The smaller you are, the easier this will be.
Obstacle course race designers love cargo nets. In the Rugged Maniac I ran, I probably saw at least four of them. One of the most popular cargo-net-based obstacle is what I’m calling the cargo climb. In this obstacle, you need to climb up a really long cargo net, flip yourself over some flat top section, and then climb down a cargo net again on the other side.
The important thing to be aware of is that the cargo nets for this type of obstacle are often huge. On the scale of several stories high. If you hate heights, you will hate this obstacle. You’re not clipped into any safety, you’re probably a bit tired, and your feet can slip through the netting if you’re not careful, which is a recipe for panic if you already don’t like being up high. Feel free to skip if this one freaks you out!
The good news, is you’re not alone. At the Rugged Maniac I competed in, almost everyone was a bit scared of this obstacle. That meant, though, that we were all cheering each other on! A bunch of random guys kept yelling things like “You’re doing great! Almost there! Amazing job!” as I was climbing down, saying I was scared. It felt like a really supportive environment to conquer some fears.
Like the last few, this one also doesn’t require any particular skills/training.
The giant ladder is pretty similar to the cargo climb. You go up a relatively high ladder, climb over some central point, and then climb back down an identical ladder on the other side.
This obstacle is typically pretty tall, but definitely shorter than the cargo climb, so it’s a little less freaky if you hate heights.
However, one big thing to note here is that this obstacle is height-restricted. If you’re short (like me) you may be physically unable to complete it, as most race designers like to place the rungs of the ladders very far apart, to the point where it is impossible to safely maneuver up them as a small person. If you’re not particularly short, you’ll probably be fine.
Like the last few, this one also doesn’t require any particular skills/training.
This obstacle combines the cargo climb/giant ladder with a fun water slide. You’ll typically climb up a decent height, either on a cargo net or a giant ladder, then get to the top, where there will be some sort of platform. Then, you’ll jump down a big waterslide and splash into a pool of muddy water.
This one’s super fun, and in my experience feels a bit less scary than the cargo climb or the giant ladder. Definitely worth trying, even if you’re a little scared of heights.
Claustrophobia is one of my favorite obstacles, but if you don’t like being in tight spaces, you’ll probably hate it. In this obstacle, race designers will put you in some sort of small space and force you to move a certain distance in that position. It may be dark, but it’s not always going to be.
Some examples of what this obstacle might look like include:
- Crawling through a small pipe
- Dropping down into a covered tunnel and crawling/shimmying through
- Dropping into a muddy pool of water covered by some sort of metal grate that only leaves a few inches of breathing room
This obstacle is usually physically quite easy, but can be mentally stressful if you don’t like that feeling of small spaces.
At some point in the race–and in some races, a few times–most obstacle courses will require you to move something heavy. You might need to carry a log on your shoulder, lift some heavy buckets, pull a weighted sled, pull on a rope to lift some heavy object, etc. The exact object you’ll be needing to move varies quite significantly, but the concept is the same (move a heavy object some distance, using purely strength).
This is the first obstacle in the list that may require some sort of training/preparation. In order to successfully complete this, you will probably need some sort of strength training experience. If you’ve never lifted anything remotely heavy before, this one’s not going to go well!
To prepare for this, just do some general upper body strength training and you’ll be all set.
A classic children’s playground toy, the monkey bars are almost certain to show up on your obstacle course. They won’t necessarily always be the standard ones you saw as a kid, though. Sometimes, they’ll be set up at an angle, where you need to climb up as you go. Sometimes there will be another obstacle mixed in, like a spinning wheel in the middle you need to grab onto to transition between sets of monkey bars. The main thing to know is that they’re usually reasonably long and quite difficult.
Most men tend to naturally have enough upper body strength to be successful on this, even without much training at all, but that’s not true of women. If you’re a woman and you haven’t trained much upper body, you’ll need to to be successful at this obstacle.
Spartan provides a guide for some workouts and exercises you can try to help prepare.
The rings are pretty similar to the monkey bars, except they are not solid, and swing when you grab on to them. You’ve maybe hung onto a single set of rings before (like gymnasts do), but probably aren’t familiar with what it’s like to swing between sets (hint: it’s not easy).
Just like the monkey bars, you’ll need to train to be able to do these successfully.
I recommend just going with the monkey bar training, and taking some additional time to familiarize yourself with the ring swing motion, via something like this video.
The vertical wall is usually a little bit taller than a person but not giant. You are expected to be able to reach the top of the wall by extending your arms up and jumping.
To complete this obstacle, all you need to do is run up to the wall, jump and grab the top, then use your body to climb up and over, then drop down the other side.
This is a pretty weird movement that might benefit from a little bit of practice/instruction. To get a sense of the motion, you can check out this tutorial.
The warped wall is similar to the vertical wall, except it’s curved and a little bit taller.
The warped wall was made famous by American Ninja Warrior, and now can be found in some form on pretty much every obstacle course.
To complete it, you need to run up the curve of the wall, lean back, and jump up, before pulling yourself over. It could be pretty difficult if you’re short, so that’s something to be aware of.
Additionally, since the movement is a pretty unfamiliar one, it’s worth watching some videos (and maybe even going to a ninja warrior practice center to try one out) before attempting to complete this obstacle in competition.
In this obstacle, there are typically several rows of logs that are lit on fire. They are spaced several feet apart, and you are expected to jump over them one after another like small hurdles.
It may sound dangerous, and injuries are definitely possible, but you’ll typically make it out unscathed. The fires are usually pretty small (and therefore easy to jump over), you are typically quite damp when completing the jump, and they have fire safety staff on hand watching the whole time.
So there you have it! The 13 most common obstacle types you’ll find at mud races. Hopefully that gives you some sense of what to prepare and train for!
3. Are these races safe? Some of the obstacles look pretty crazy.
To wrap up, let’s consider race safety. Some of the obstacles we looked at seemed pretty intense. There are some serious heights, plus jumping over fire! Some races even include electric shocks!
With those kind of obstacles, “dangerous” might be the first word that comes to mind.
Thankfully, serious injuries are pretty rare. According to one article describing a study of 45,000 obstacle race participants, only about 1% of participants are injured per race, with most injuries being minor. However, this was in a race that had some less intense obstacles.
Although they are rare, they do happen, and you should be aware of the different types of possible injuries (see here for more details).
- Muscle tears
- Broken bones
- Infections (don’t race if you have any open cuts, and try to keep the mud out of yo
- Drowning (very rare, but not impossible)
- Paralysis (typically only happens if diving headfirst into a pool of water where you do not know the depth — never do this!)
- Injuries specific to certain obstacles (splinters, barbed wire cuts, electric shocks, hypothermia, etc)
To make sure you stay safe, always do the following:
- Sign up for a race that is within your ability range
- Make sure to prepare for the race and get a lot of sleep in the days before
- Don’t race if you have any injuries or open cuts
- Keep your mouth/nose closed when sliding/falling into muddy water
- Drink a lot of water, especially if it is hot outside
- If you look at an obstacle and get a gut feeling that you won’t be able to do it safely, skip it
- Never jump into water head first
- Always watch the people in front of you to see how they do an obstacle before attempting it yourself
- Don’t rush! Make sure you’re moving slowly enough that you aren’t overlooking safety
- Don’t go into an obstacle that’s crowded. Wait for it to clear up.
As long as you follow these guidelines, you’ll probably be just fine! Don’t let fear of injury stop you from trying it out, but do have a healthy appreciation for danger and your personal lmits. Safety is more important than winning the race.