The 13 Universal Obstacle Types You Can Expect At Every Mud Race

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.

They are…


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.


Trial by fire might just be my favorite obstacle, because it just feels really cool to complete.

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).

  • Dehydration
  • Overheating
  • Muscle tears
  • Sprains
  • 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:

  1. Sign up for a race that is within your ability range
  2. Make sure to prepare for the race and get a lot of sleep in the days before
  3. Don’t race if you have any injuries or open cuts
  4. Keep your mouth/nose closed when sliding/falling into muddy water
  5. Drink a lot of water, especially if it is hot outside
  6. If you look at an obstacle and get a gut feeling that you won’t be able to do it safely, skip it
  7. Never jump into water head first
  8. Always watch the people in front of you to see how they do an obstacle before attempting it yourself
  9. Don’t rush! Make sure you’re moving slowly enough that you aren’t overlooking safety
  10. 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.

What to Expect From Your First Obstacle Course Race – Answers to 6 Common Questions

I recently completed my first ever obstacle course race: a Rugged Maniac 5K. Before going in, I had no idea what to expect. I’d never run any reasonable distance, never done an obstacle course race, and never even done a competitive athletic event before. Needless to say, a bunch of questions were swirling around in my head:

  • I’ve heard some obstacle course races (like Spartan Race) can be super intense. Are they all like that, or are there some that are more beginner friendly?
  • As a non-runner, will I be able to complete a 5K?
  • What happens if I can’t finish an obstacle?
  • As a short person, is this a hopeless endeavor? Will I physically be able to reach anything?
  • Is it going to be worth all the money (and the travel time) I spent to register?

If you’re interested in participating in an obstacle course race but are new to the sport and have some of the same questions, you’re not alone! We’ve all been there. It’s hard to know what to expect, and that can sometimes be a bit nerve-racking. So today, I’m going to try to answer these questions and share some general thoughts on the experience.

1. I’ve heard some obstacle course races (like Spartan Race) can be super intense. Are they all like that, or are there some that are more beginner friendly?

There are a huge variety of obstacle course races out there and no two races are a like. Some are super intense–as long as a half-marathon or more, with dozens of obstacles–and run for many hours. There are also some moderate difficulty races–in the range of a 10K–and quite a few 5K races.

If you’re a beginner, I recommend dipping your toes in with a 5K to start, so that you can get familiar with the concept of obstacle course racing and have fun without killing yourself.

It is important to know, though, that even though I recommend the 5K as a starter, some 5K races can be competitive and not suitable for beginners.

For example, Bonefrog‘s Sprint race (approximately 5K) has extremely tough obstacles, as the race was designed as a Navy SEAL style challenge. A beginner wouldn’t be able to complete most of them. If you’re looking for an easier 5K, Rugged Maniac is a great place to start, as most of their obstacles are relatively accessible to beginners. If you’re in Canada or Australia, the 5K Foam Fest is another good beginner option.

Spartan‘s Sprint distance, the Tough Mudder 5K and Savage Race Blitz are potentially doable, but would be significantly harder than Rugged Maniac.

[Spartan Race is potentially the most famous of the obstacle course races around today, but it’s not necessarily the best fit for a beginner! Try and work your way up to this one!]

Another thing to be wary of is start time. Most races typically have certain start times (heats) that are more competitive than others, and there are usually some options that are geared more toward beginners. For example, in the Spartan races, if you compete in the open heats, you don’t have to take a penalty for skipping obstacles, like you would if you are competing in your age group. Often, competitive time slots will be at the beginning of the day, and the less competitive ones will be at the end.

So if you’re signing up for a race and want to make sure it’s beginner friendly:

  • Start with a 5K
  • Choose a race with obstacles that look reasonable
  • Look up the event’s time slot standards and make sure you’re in a less competitive time heat

2. As a non-runner, will I be able to complete a 5K?

Yes! Pretty much anyone who’s in decent shape is capable of finishing a 5K. By finish here, I don’t mean run the entire way full steam, but just finish, however works best for you!

It is totally ok, if you are feeling wiped, to walk part of the way (or even most/all of it)! People won’t be judging you and you almost certainly won’t be the only one doing it!

Take as long as you need to finish, walk as much as you want, and just have fun!

3. What happens if I can’t finish an obstacle?

This typically depends on the race you’re competing in. If you sign up for an intense and highly competitive race, you may be disqualified from the race for failing to complete an obstacle or have a penalty added to your time. In the competitive heats of the Spartan race, you may be required to complete penalty exercises (burpees) as well. This is a good thing to go ahead and check ahead of time to make you’re not signing up for an event with an extreme penalty that’s going to ruin your fun.

One of the reasons Rugged Maniac is so great for beginners is that most of the heats are un-timed by default, and there’s no penalty for failing to complete an obstacle. You just walk around it and keep going, which makes it really approachable.

The good news is, whatever race you choose, as long as you’re in a non-competitive division or time slot of the race, people will help you! One of the big things I learned from competing is that everyone is rooting for each other! If you’re struggling on an obstacle, someone is almost certainly going to try and cheer you on or offer some help. It’s a really supportive community, so don’t be scared!

[Don’t expect to have to struggle alone in obstacle course races! At the beginner level’s it’s a very friendly sport! You’ll probably get help from strangers if you’re struggling, but at the very least you’ll have them cheer you on.]

4. As a short person, is this a hopeless endeavor? Will I physically be able to reach anything?

I’m going to be real on this one. Being short is limitation on your likelihood of obstacle course success (at least as a beginner). Lots of obstacles have things spread really far apart or are set really high up, requiring you to jump super high to complete them. As a short person, sometimes you’ll just get to an obstacle that–due to the setup–is pretty much impossible.

The good news, though, is that most of them are not like that! The vast majority of obstacles are doable by people of any height.

At the Rugged Maniac race I competed in, there were two obstacles (out of 25!) that I could not complete purely due to height reasons. The first was a ladder, with rungs spaced about four feet apart. They were so spread out that there was no way for me to safely get my leg up high enough to climb. The second was a warped wall (as made famous by American Ninja Warrior), which was just too high for me to get up.

[Most races have a ladder something like this! If the rungs are spaced far enough apart, being short will make it impossible to complete safely.]

Everything else was doable height wise for me. Not all obstacle courses will have the same distribution of height-restrictive obstacles so this is another good thing to check before you sign up! Most races will post pictures of some of their obstacles on their sites so you have a sense of what you’re getting into.

The good news, though, is that if you run into any you simply can’t do, it will all be okay! You’ll just skip the obstacle, potentially take a time penalty, and move on! And people will completely understand and root for you to succeed!

5. Is my body going to be wrecked by this event?

The answer to this probably depends on your fitness level. If you don’t regularly even walk a 5K, then you’ll probably be really beat up by the end of the race and everything will hurt for the next few days.

If you normally engage in activity, though, and you’re not just going straight from the couch to the obstacle course, you’ll probably be fine! You can expect potentially a bit of torn hand skin from pulling on a bunch of ropes, plus some bruises from banging into pieces of wood. And if you accidentally get caught on some barbed wire (do try to be careful to avoid this if you can), you could end up with a small cut. The rest of your body should likely be okay, though, and you’ll recover pretty fast.

[Most obstacle course races will probably have at least one barbed wire obstacle where you need to crawl on the ground! This is an easy place to get injured if you’re not being careful, so be aware that this will be coming up and try to stay low and away from the barbed wire. If you make it through this, you’ll probably make it out of the whole thing without too much injury!]

6. Is it going to be worth all the money (and the travel time) I spent to register?

Absolutely! Competing in an obstacle course race is one of the most fun things I’ve done in the past couple of years. I’ve already signed up for quite a few more next year and I’ll probably add even more to the list. If you’re on the fence, just go for it! You’ll have a blast.

If you’re looking to get more out of your time and money, though, and you’re reasonably fit, it might be worth going beyond the 5K and signing up for closer to a 10K! That way you’ll spend a lot more time actually competing and maybe feel like you got more out of it.

Final Thoughts (and Recommendations)

Obstacle course races are just as fun as they look! It’s like the perfect playground for adults, and once you try one, you might never want to stop.

[You, smiling as you finish your first obstacle course race 🙂 ]

I had a few worries going into my first race, as you probably do as well, but everything turned out totally fine. As long as you choose your race carefully and make sure you’re not competing in the most competitive group, you’ll probably have a blast!

Choosing the right race can be one of the hardest parts for a beginner, so I wanted to share a few websites that might help you find a great first race (and maybe some future ones as well):

  • Mud Run Guide’s “Magical One-Click Race Finder
  • A summary of some of the more popular race types
  • Runner’s World tips on prepping for your first race
  • Another prep guide (with workouts included!) — Note that you don’t have to go all out like these guides talk about, and you can complete your first race with little to no training if you want to!

I also recommend that, if possible, for your first race you find a buddy (or several) to go with you. If you end up finding the event harder than you originally thought, your team will be there to pick you up and cheer you on! Plus it makes the time in between obstacles more fun if you have someone to chat with as you’re going.

However, a team is not necessary at all, and if you can’t convince anyone to join you, that is totally okay! In most races you’ll find plenty of people racing alone, and they’ll often offer help and maybe even keep you company.

The most important thing is that you don’t let any of these worries, uncertainties, and concerns stop you from racing. Just know that it’s going to be okay, sign up for a race, and show up on time! You almost certainly won’t regret it.