I’ve done a few obstacle courses over the years. When I was a kid, I loved them, they never seemed like anything other than great fun. That hasn’t changed as I’ve got older. It is something that may seem daunting to a lot of people, but I think you will surprise yourself as to what you can manage to do, and come out of it with a sense of achievement, and a smile on your face after.
The first time I did an obstacle course event, a friend and I talked each other into going along because it seemed like it might be fun. I don’t think either of us was sure about it, but between us, we went along, and we finished it. I set off in plenty of time, but should have been earlier, as the queue to get into the car park was huge, and there is only one small single laned road going in there. By the time I’d checked my bags in, and put my trail shoes on, and got the line, the tail end of the field was leaving. So, I ran from the very back.
Much of the terrain on this one was over uneven ground, like fire trails (gravel tracks) and clumpy grass in fields. The big thing is to make sure you don’t roll your ankle or trip up and run head-first into the floor. This was only a short course but featured crawl nets, walls, climbing nets, very long slip and slide (a tarpaulin with water running down it), lots of mud, and muddy water, ice bath, and electrically charged string to run through. It was great fun – although saying it out loud it seems a little mad. Trust me, it was a great day.
I did virtually no training for this – and it showed in my lack of fitness when running around the trails between obstacles. There are plenty of people there for the challenge, or just to have a lot of fun, and walk those bits. I think it’s great to see people out there enjoying themselves and getting a bit of exercise into the bargain. I like to push myself, but I do not take it so seriously that it isn’t fun.
I also used to attend an obstacle course training boot camp with a friend, where ex-army instructors teach you various techniques to attack obstacles, as well as doing a few circuits as training for general fitness. I found the biggest things to be able to practice where overhead ladders, and the technique for traversing across the rings – because grip strength isn’t something you’d normally develop sat at a desk at work. The extra bit of fitness came in handy too.
That season my friend and I did 4 obstacle courses, some with things like big wooden reels for industrial-sized cabling that you have to climb over, cold lakes to swim across, lots more mud pits, lifting a weight with a rope (Hercules hoist) javelin throw, balancing, cargo nets up and over buses. Climbing under cars, then through them, then sliding over their bonnets to get past them. Lots of fun, and each course a little different, with more fun and interesting challenges. A lot of people there with varying abilities, fantastic fun – the point is that there are elite athletes here along with people in fancy dress all there for their own challenge, whatever that might be.
I then didn’t do any obstacle courses for a few years, as I was running instead. I got the opportunity to stand in for a friend on a 21km obstacle course. The catch was that I had done no training. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are already reasonably fit. To be clear, I’d done a marathon earlier that year and was recovering from an injury I sustained before it. That means that I had put on about 5kgs, and hadn’t run for 6 weeks or so at the time of doing the obstacle course. I won’t say I did particularly well because I certainly wasn’t fast. I didn’t come last in my age group, and I did finish it, but it wasn’t pretty. I was a bit sore for a few days after it but expected that. Even though I don’t recommend doing this, it just showed me what I can do, given the circumstances. I think that if you give obstacle courses a try you will surprise yourself.
These courses are great for working out every part of your body – places you didn’t know you had muscles, you will find. If this is the first obstacle course that you’re considering, I’d recommend you do some basic bodyweight exercises to strengthen yourself up generally. A good place to start is with bodyweight training – strengthen up your functional fitness, meaning the fitness that allows you to do things (in contrast to just lifting weights to get big biceps). You will go a long way with that sort of training, most things like rope climbing, crawling, scrambling are functional fitness, there are only a few exercises where weights may be of benefit – stone carry, and the suspended weight lift. Both of those have techniques that make them a lot easier, and weight training may help to get you better at this.
Here are a few suggestions for exercises:
Running, jogging, walking, whatever you need to do to get between obstacle on the day. Ideally, you will run – to train for this do an out and back, so run for 5 minutes, turn around, and run back. Try and do with at up to 80% of your fastest speed (you will almost certainly slow down)
You can also mix in some hill sprints, which are running up a hill as fast as you can for 400m, then jogging comfortably back down. Do these in sets of five with a rest of two minutes between each set of five. Two sets, three if you can.
Some courses require you to do these if you fail to complete an obstacle, at each obstacle before moving to the next. They’re great done fast with little to no rest afterward before moving to another exercise.
To do a burpee, squat down, put your hand on the floor, jump your feet out so you’re in a plank position, press up, jump your feet back to the squat position, and drive upwards into a jump, clap your hands at the top of the jump. Repeat as many times as you can do – try to challenge yourself.
There is a variation to this – Thai burpees – these will give you more power running. When you jump at the end, instead of a straight jump, do a tuck jump. You can also do the burpees without the press-up, or you can do a “more efficient” version where instead of going into a squat, you drop down into a plank position directly, then lower to the ground, then lift the upper part of your body, then spring your legs up, straight and jump. That is what is done in CrossFit. See what works for you. I like the Thai Burpee the best, but it isn’t going to be easy, so do what you can do to get through a few sets of 10.
To develop grip strength, and strength in your back for swinging between rings and rungs of an overhead ladder, you need to do hanging exercises. These could be something as simple as hanging with your hands shoulder-width apart from an overhead or pull-up bar, then transferring your weight from one hand to the other. The easy version is that you just take more weight with each arm, but do not let go of the bar. As you get stronger, you can hang by one hand, then the other, but make sure you slightly swing your weight toward that hand as you do so. This will mimic the previously mentioned obstacles. The longer you can hang and keep doing this, the better.
You can also do pull-ups, to help get you over obstacles like the top of cargo nets, up ropes, and up and over walls. Hands a little wider than should width apart, and pull up until ideally, your chin is near the bar. If that’ too hard, you can jump from the ground, or if you have a chair, go from your chin near the bar and lower yourself slowly down until your arms are straight.
These are good for leg strength and power. Jump up, and land with one foot forward the other backward and lower the final part into a lunge position (legs at 90 degrees at the knee in front and behind you). Explode upward, and jump, then swap legs. Repeat for 10 or 20 times, or 10 repetitions, and 2 sets with one of the other exercises done in between as “active rest”.
These are done by starting on all fours, feet, knees, and hands placed on the floor. Then lift your knees a small distance off the floor – so that your lower leg is parallel with the ground. Then walk your opposite arm and leg forward at the same time. Then the other opposite arm and leg, keeping your back relatively flat. If you want a harder exercise, find a steep hill and do it up the hill. Mix if up, and go up forwards or backward and the same coming back down. Great for crawling obstacles, and surprisingly hard to do.
If this is too hard, raise your butt higher up, so that your legs are straighter – your butt way up in the air, then perform the same movements. As you get better, try to get yourself toward the position originally described.
These are great for pushing up from obstacles and give your core some strength. Starting from a plank position, legs out behind you straight, and hands should width apart, straight and placed below your shoulders. Bend one arm, until your elbow touches the floor – elbows behind the hands, forearms straight out in front of you. Then the same with the other arm. Then push from the hands to straighten the arm into its original position, like a hydraulic arm, then the other. If that is too easy, add a press-up at the end.
Make sure you keep your core tight, and your back straight – don’t let it sag.
From a full plank – hands below shoulders, legs straight, toes on the floor. Bring one knee in as high as you can, as if trying to put your foot up at chest height (but with your legs under your body). Return your foot to the floor, then quickly do the same with the other foot. Do this alternately for as many as you can comfortably do.