Training for Tough Mudder and other obstacle challenges: Stretching Out
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer
on February 25, 2013 at 11:00 AM, updated February 28, 2013 at 8:55 AM
CLEVELAND, OHIO — Two years ago, exercise for Jennifer Bosworth consisted mostly of running and riding horses. Now it includes preparing for obstacle events.
Bosworth and her husband, Brian, got hooked on the sport after completing a Tough Mudder event with friends from work. They now consider the 12-mile journey through mud, fire, barbed wire and ice an annual tradition.
“We just got roped in,” said Bosworth, 36, a resident of Columbia Station. “We went in thinking there was no way we were going to be the weak links. Now, it’s our niche.”
The Bosworths aren’t alone. On the contrary, they’re two among millions of people who now take part in obstacle events, also known as mud runs or adventure races, every year.
Once the domain of thrill-seekers, events like Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and GoRuck Challenge are today almost mainstream affairs, attracting thousands of people to a single event in search of an experience out of the ordinary, a challenge even more daunting than running marathons.
Ohio alone is host to more than a dozen such events, and most tend to sell out. Never mind the $100 entrance fees or the grueling, sometimes brutal, nature of the obstacles. People of all ages are standing in line for the privilege of being bruised, cut, drenched and frozen.
“People are breaking all kinds of barriers, and it’s really awesome to see,” said Debi Balmert, a local fitness trainer and specialist in obstacle events.
What people aren’t doing, in many cases, is training properly. Unaware of what to expect or how to gear up for something so unscripted, many participants plunge forward blindly. And while most end up crossing the finish line, most could also benefit from even a little more time spent getting their bodies and heads in the right state.
Think of it as your first test. You’ve signed up for a race and now you’ve got to train for it.
“If you’re going to do it, you’re far ahead if you’ve already experienced something similar,” said Balmert. “It shocks me, some of the people who show up,” she said referring to the out-of-shape and just plain petrified. “I’ve seen some people and wondered how they’re going to make it.”
The trick is to not be one of those people. You need not be an Olympic athlete to fare well at obstacle events, but you do need to prepare your body and mind to be put through a wringer.
While it’s true you won’t know exactly which obstacles lie in wait, you can bet that at least one will scare you to death and others will expose your greatest weaknesses. You also can count on getting soaked, banged up, scraped and covered in mud.
“It’s harder than most people think,” Balmert said. “It’s a real shock to the system.”
Can you go the distance?
The first thing to get ready for, experienced participants say, is the raw distance. If you can’t jog the basic length of the event, you’re going to be in trouble.
Andy Thom, a Pennsylvania-based personal trainer affiliated with Tough Mudder, said the safe minimum for a 12-mile Tough Mudder event is eight miles at a leisurely, comfortable pace. If you can do that, your odds of finishing are better than average.
But don’t just run around your neighborhood on pleasant, sunny days. To mimic the potentially adverse conditions on the day of the event, go outside when it’s rainy, cold or snowy and head for the hills and muddy trails.
“Put yourself in uncomfortable situations,” Thom advised.
Cardiovascular training will get you so only far, however. To succeed on the actual obstacles, you have to work on them, and develop the skills they require.
Lifting weights won’t cut it. Upper-body strength is certainly crucial, but presses, curls and flies won’t be part of the race.
No, you’ll be crawling, climbing, hanging and balancing. Therefore you want to spend the bulk of your prep time doing fundamental exercises such as chin-ups, push-ups, squats and crunches. Anything that uses gravity and your own body as the primary sources of resistance.
You also want some experience on the actual equipment you’re bound to encounter. That means testing yourself on monkey bars, balance beams, tires and rings.
To acclimate yourself to heights, you’re also wise to climb a rock wall or jump into a pool off a tall diving board. Almost every Tough Mudder includes a leap off a cliff into a pond.
“You want to do things you haven’t touched since elementary school,” said Troy Bratz, an avid CrossFit athlete and regular participant in GoRuck Challenges, military-style events where the emphasis is on cooperation rather than individual ability.
“That’s what’s always coming up in these races.”
Smart participants also will take a page from triathlon training and accustom themselves to shifting from one activity to another. Nothing but practice will prepare you for the jolt you get going back and forth between running and completing challenges.
“Throwing obstacles in your way, it’s nothing like normal running,” Balmert said. “The obstacles throw your whole breathing out of whack. You have to be able to get back in your groove.”
A mental exercise as well
Just as important is to approach the event with the right frame of mind. Show up at a Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or GoRuck Challenge with anything less than total resolve to succeed and you will surely fail.
Also be prepared to confront your fears. You can pretty much rule out snakes and spiders, a la TV’s “Fear Factor,” but you must be ready for obstacles involving heights, tight spaces, balancing, fire and deep water.
At the same, you don’t want to psych yourself out. Terror and disbelief in yourself are enemies greater than any obstacle.
“You’ve got to tell yourself you can do this,” urged Thom, who also takes part in survival races and World’s Toughest Mudder events. “So much of it is mental.”
Equally helpful is the ability to see the bright side of things. Physical training is all well and good, but when slogging through mud, electrified wires and pools of ice water, your best friend is probably a positive attitude and the ability to laugh through pain.
“The whole time, you’re thinking, ‘I cannot believe I signed up for this willingly,’ ” said Bosworth, a two-time Tough Mudder finisher now training for her third event in April.
“But there’s no way you’re going to get through it if you’re concentrating on the misery.”
One thing you don’t want to rely on is the “Tough Mudder Quiz,” a humorous online test gauging your fitness for Tough Mudder events with questions about beer, mustaches and favorite presidents. According to that, I’m a “Certified Bad-Ass,” a label I know from a workout with Balmert to be totally inaccurate.
Prep course builds confidence
Balmert’s yard in LaGrange is a sight to behold. In lieu of lawn chairs and a swing-set, she has a miniature obstacle course complete with a cargo-net wall, a giant spool of shipping rope, incline/decline monkey bars, truck tires and a log over a pond. Here, she put me through a grueling grinder in advance of the Ohio Tough Mudder in April.
Some of the challenges weren’t challenging at all. Running around her property and clambering over her pile of logs, for instance, were easy. I also managed to flip her 300-pound truck tire several times and to scale the cargo-net wall slowly but surely.
The monkey bars and log walk presented the real obstacles. On my first attempt across the frozen pond, I slipped, landing hard on my hip and coming to rest in icy water. My second try, however, was successful, presumably because I’d already experienced the worst the obstacle had to offer.
I fared even better on the monkey bars. Haunted by memories of failure in grade school gym class, I was convinced I’d never make it to the top, let alone back down. Yet I conquered my childhood demons and crossed the entire thing twice in a row. In an instant, my greatest fear heading into the Tough Mudder dissolved. I sensed the truth behind the adage that you can do anything once you set your mind to it.
This is the feeling every obstacle racer should have, the one I have today: informed confidence. I’ve got plenty to do between now and April, but by testing myself at the gym and with Balmert, I’ve shown myself that I can succeed.
And that’s a valuable thing. To quote perhaps the greatest (albeit fictional) obstacle racer ever, G.I. Joe: With obstacle events, “knowing is half the battle.”
Tips from a pro
Tough Mudder trainer Andy Thom wants you to cross the finish line. Here are some of the strategies he uses to complete the toughest and most dauntingly named Tough Mudder obstacles.
• Funky Monkey (monkey bars): Take one rung at a time and place both hands on each rung. Keep your arms slightly bent.
• Hangin’ Tough (rings): Try putting an arm through the rings, up to your armpit.
• Twinkle Toes (balance beam): Keep moving, don’t look down, and focus on the end.
• Arctic Enema (tub of ice water): Accept that you will freeze and get it over with.
• Berlin Walls (sheer, 12-foot walls): Try getting a running start and bound up; Otherwise, find a partner to give you a lift, and return the favor.
• Everest (sheer quarter-pipe): Sprint up as far as you can, grab someone’s hand, then help the person behind you.
• Walk the Plank (plunge): Don’t over-think it. Just jump.
• Electroshock Therapy (live wires): Get ready to be stung. How much it hurts depends on how much juice is in the batteries.
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