We’re well into the season of mud, and there’s nothing like a gloriously dirt-splattered obstacle course race to get the endorphins flowing.
Even fitness influencers like Shaun Stafford are getting in on the act, swapping gleaming gyms and sun drenched beaches for monkey bars, muddy scrambles under barbed wire and sand-bag carries across ditches.
OCR has even invaded cities, so ahead of the Spartan Race happening within London’s premier rugby stadium of Twickenham, we bring you Shaun Stafford’s top hacks for running a successful obstacle course race, as well as a RSNG primer workout that you can do in the gym to build some functional strength and fitness…
1. Lace Up When it comes to obstacle course races, the clue is in the name – you will be climbing, jumping and carrying your way over and through obstacles, but these races also include sections of running, deviously designed to soften you up for the challenges ahead.
‘Most people get so caught up in the fun obstacles that they forget about the running in between them!’ says Stafford. ‘You want to make sure that you have the distance in your legs… Also, it is definitely worth investing some time exploring the ‘Hill Program’ on your treadmill: very few (if any) Spartan Races are flat so get specific with your training and make sure you train for the conditions you will get on the day.’
Practice some standing broad jumps, lateral hops and plyometric bounds as part of your preparation
2. Prepare To Pounce Running is all well and good, but you move very differently when trying to climb a cargo net, or leap a burning straw bale. ‘There are times on the Spartan course where you’ll need to be more dynamic! This might involve jumping over tree roots, bounding side to side through bushes, or even taking a good old run and jump over some of the small streams and rivers.’
‘Make sure your knees and ankles can take the impact and can perform when you need them too: practice some standing broad jumps, lateral hops and plyometric bounds as part of your preparation… start low and build up as you get more confident and as race day gets closer, get a bit more adventurous to mimic race conditions.’
Be aware of your centre of gravity, don’t try to jump too far, and avoid putting ‘shearing’ forces through your ankles under because these movements can end in injury if you’re not paying attention.
3. Swap Out The Bench Press Stafford has discovered the hard way that his usual gym diet of bench presses and shoulder lifts are sub-optimal for OCR. ‘There are some exercises that you can do in the gym that will translate really well onto the Spartan course and there are others that won’t… From my experience, doing a lot of pushing and pressing moves in your training will predominantly be wasted on a course where your ability to hang tough is more important,’ he says.
‘Make sure you focus on grip, arm and back strength and try and build up to being able to hold and lift your own bodyweight: if you have access to monkey bars (if your gym doesn’t perhaps try the local park) give these a go and try and hone your technique… I like going sideways whereas others like to go head-on, so make sure you find your sweet spot with technique and then practise!’
4. Squad Rules You can be a One Man Army out on an OCR but a key component of these events is teamwork – it’s totally fair to turn around and give a fellow competitor a hand up over the high wall. Team up and your time will benefit.
‘Why not get used to working in the team environment by planning a group session or two at the gym, or take your Spartan squad out for some practice runs together?’
‘Seeing everyone work hard in the team setting will help you get the most out of the day and highlight where you might need some help, but more importantly, where you might need to dig a little deeper and help someone else out, so you all have the best time when it comes to race day and get around in one piece.’
Put all of these hacks together with the workout and you will absolutely smash the course
5. Make Burpees Your Friend Fail to get over an obstacle and many races will slap a forfeit onto your suffering self. In Spartan racing these are burpees… ‘This is probably the worst exercise known to man but something you might want to practice in-case the worst happens and you slip from the monkey bars or can’t land your spear at the final stretch… Getting your body used to hitting the floor and then getting airborne (as only a burpee can do) will only help you navigate the course and prepare you for the brutality of Spartan!’
Put all of these tips together, and take a few runs around the OCR circuit below, and you can count yourself prepared, says Stafford: ‘You’ll absolutely smash the course and can hold your head up high at the finish line and wear your medal with pride.’
RSNG’s Obstacle Course Strength Smashing Workout
How To Do This Workout This gym-based AMRAP (as many reps as possible) circuit will work your whole body while lifting your lactate threshold to allow you to do more, faster.
Start with a thorough 10-15 minute warm up to get your blood moving and prepare your body. If you’re new to these kinds of workouts check with your doctor first.
You’ll need to maintain perfect form at all times (ask a qualified Personal Trainer to check your form). If you can’t maintain perfect form then either drop the weight or slow things down. Do all of the moves back to back (if that’s too hard to start with, have a 30 second rest in between moves, but reduce that to 20 secs, then 10 secs, then nothing).
1. Sandbag Step-Up Reps: 40 seconds Hold a weighted gym sandbag over your shoulders and step up onto a low box. Step down again and repeat, keeping your shoulders back and torso upright. Try alternating the sandbag between each shoulder to create an uneven load. This move will prepare your legs for marching up steep slopes carrying a real sandbag.
2. Pull-Ups Reps: 40 seconds Start from the bottom, elbows slightly bent and pull up so your head clears the bar. Lower without locking out your elbows. If you need to, drop to the floor and reset to squeeze more reps out. You’ll need to hang tough in an OCR, on ropes and monkey bars, so pull-ups train you to lift your own bodyweight.
3. Kettlebell Swing Reps: 40 seconds Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, holding the kettlebell in two hands. Squat down then stand up, swinging the kettlebell up to just below shoulder height (not above). This is a hip extension exercise so focus on getting the drive from your hips - don’t lean backwards. This dynamic move helps with OCR challenges such as tyre flips, which tax your posterior chain and core.
4. Bear Crawl Reps: 40 seconds Get on all fours and ‘walk’ forwards using your left hand and right foot (then alternate) Don’t touch your knees to the ground – forwards then reserve the movement to go backwards. Try to keep your hips low. Crawling under things is a feature of many OCRs and this move will strengthen your core in this position.
5. Cable Woodchop Reps: 40 seconds Use a moderate weight, set the cable to the high setting and attach a baseball bat handle attachment. Holding the handle in both hands, pull it down and across your body, pivoting on the ball of your back foot and bending your knees. Pause at the bottom and rotate back lowering the weight under control. Real-world obstacles and the movements you use to scale them often involve rotation through your core – just like this move.
6. Bastard Burpees Reps: 40 seconds Drop and do one press up, then dynamically get back to your feet. Go immediately into a vertical jump, raising your arms above your head. Drop and do another press up, lowering your chest to the ground. This is an even more evil version of the popular OCR forfeit for not getting over an obstacle, so if you do have to do a punishment set, then you’ll smash it in record time!
WHAT NEXT? For more on how to use functional strength training to get stronger, check out the exclusive RSNG interview with Men’s Health cover star Tom Kemp.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time. If you are unsure of any of these exercises you should consult with a Personal Trainer before attempting them.
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