The Rise and Fall… and Rise of Obstacle

Over the past five years the sport of obstacle racing has gone from birth, to unrivaled growth, to a steady decline in participation. That is to say, obstacle racing has seen rapid change each and every year it’s been in existence. There was a 30% decline last year in numbers, and it looks to be pretty flat this year. Here in the Pacific Northwest we aren’t particularly overloaded with race options, and some of the little guys that started out as a one-race event are now gone due to expenses associated with the amount of capital it takes to put on a race. Many participants are one-and-done, then onto the next new thing.

That’s not a rosy picture of the industry, but it’s a trend that affects anyone promoting a sparkly new event. The truth is, there are still three million people a year doing obstacle races and while they have consolidated into mega-corporations, are still prevalent all over the country.  There will be waves over the next few years as the sport hits milestones or receives special attention, such as the documentary “Rise of the Sufferfests,” or a nod by the IOC for inclusion into the Olympics (won’t hold my breath there).

For every person that was just out trying a race and will not be coming back, there’s another guy or gal that just got hooked on the sport and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Part of the reason for the success of obstacle racing is that the CrossFit crowd now has an actual race they can compete in, and runners bored of progressing from 5K to marathon get side-tracked into a new and exciting event with mud and obstacles.

Those that will continue doing obstacle races over the next few years are the folks that are finally getting up the nerve to try it, along with those that are competing against their fellow racers, as well as themselves. If you are looking to prepare for your first event or improve on your 20th, here are a few training tips to carry you onward through the muddy murkiness.

First, you may not want to hear it, but obstacle racing is mostly about running and you’ll need to be in decent shape. If you’re doing a 6-mile race, you should probably be able to run 6 miles to make it a more enjoyable experience. That said, there’s no shame in walking between obstacles, either.

Second, a little upper body strength is great, but too much and you’ll be carrying around a bunch of extra muscle that you don’t need. Most obstacles on a course rely on hip, core, and grip strength. If you have those three elements, you’re 90% of the way to the finish line.  Most runners have the hip and core strength, so spending your time working on grip strength can go a long way to getting you through a successful race. A few things to help with this are kettlebell carries, bucket carries, pull-ups, bar hangs, and rock climbing.

Third, races were made to be fun. Whether you’re uber competitive or you’re just doing it for fun, don’t lose sight of why you’re rolling around in the mud. Unless you’ve got flames overhead as you crawl through barbed wire during a Navy Seal exercise, keep in mind why you’re out there. Some of the most fun I’ve had has been during obstacle races. I feel like a kid again when I’m sprinting for the next cargo net, climbing up and over, then jumping into a mud pit. It’s pretty cool.

A workout I like to do while getting ready for an obstacle race of any distance incorporates almost everything you’re going to need to excel.  Follow this, and do as many sets as necessary:

10-15min Warm Up and Cool Down


800m at VO2max pace

2 exercises that simulate obstacles, i.e. 25m bear crawl, 20 push-ups

400m at VO2max pace

20 burpees, 10 pull-ups




20 squats, 25m kettlebell carry with weight

400m steep uphill

25m bear crawl, 10 pull-ups




1min plank, 10 burpees

400m steep uphill

2 wall up-n-overs, 10 burpees




20 push-ups, 25m bucket carry


10 pull-ups, 25m kettlebell carry, 20 scissor hops

This is a great functional fitness workout that strengthens everything whether you’re planning to do an obstacle race or not. It’s also flexible. You can tweak it to your own special needs, or your next race. Feel free to do uphill rather than flat intervals if you need to work on hills, or add in weights if you need more strength. It specifically works on obstacle racing by pushing you into oxygen debt and teaching you to relax and recover while you’re busy doing an exercise.

So before you write off obstacles altogether, you have to try it out. If you already have and you’re hooked, don’t worry, it’s not going anywhere. Because of the nature of obstacle races, there’s always something to work on and get better at. It’s an ever-changing landscape of races, obstacles, and venues. Consider setting a personal goal and going after it.