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.