(Originally written for Mud & Obstacle Magazine.)
New to obstacle racing? There’s a good chance you’ll fall into one of the many traps that often sabotage beginners. But why learn from your mistakes if you don’t have to make them in the first place? Here’s some of the most common mistakes beginners make, along with expert advice on how to avoid them from members of the Atlas Race Pro Team.
1: TAPING SHOES
Before any mud race, you’ll see some runners wrapping duct tape around their shoes in an attempt to keep them from falling off, or to keep mud out, or maybe just to look badass. If you want proof that this is a mistake, take notice of all the ripped-off tape that is littering the course in the second-half of the race.
“[Taping] is a mistake on a course with water because it will allow water to get in but not drain,” says Atlas Pro runner Chad Trammell. “Since you’re never going to keep the water out completely, it’s better to make sure that it drains well when it does get in.”
Atlas Pro runner John Ricardi views taping shoes as an attempt by people to exert a measure of control over the unknown — an obstacle course. “Basically, just find a good, lightweight shoe with aggressive tred,” says Ricardi. “I don’t think you need to tape them. I never have.”
2: BAD COSTUMES
Wearing a costume in an obstacle race isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, Atlas Pro racer Rose Wetzel Sinnett crushed last year’s Malibu Spartan Sprint while wearing a Wonder Woman costume. “I find when you wear a costume, people get into it,” says Wetzel Sinnett. “It gets me to race faster because I pick up all this energy from people cheering.”
But if you’re going to wear a costume, she says, make sure it’s appropriate for an obstacle course. A cape is great in a road race, but not on an obstacle course where it will get snagged. A mask can inhibit your breathing and sight. That cool wig on your head? It will be lost in the mud come the barbed wire crawl. And that gorilla suit you want to wear will make you feel like you’re in a sauna come Mile 2.
3: STARTING TOO FAST
At the start line of any obstacle race, adrenaline is overflowing. Music is blaring, people are yelling, and when the race starts you are going to charge that course like a beast . . . and then feel ready to puke a mile later.
Starting too fast has sabotaged many an obstacle racer. “At a lot of [running] races, many people start out too fast,” says Atlas Pro racer Max King. “It’s even worse on an obstacle course because of the physicality.” He says obstacles can sabotage the energy of even the most experienced road racer if they don’t slow their pace down.
Trammell says courses can be so difficult that even a 60 percent running effort early on can eventually become too difficult. “During a race that will take an hour,” says Trammell, “I’ll even repeat to myself for the first half of the race: ‘The race doesn’t even start until the 30-minute mark.’”
4: NO SUPPORT SYSTEM
When she’s not slaying obstacle courses, Wetzel Sinnett is a personal trainer, a role in which she stresses to her clients the importance of having a support system — like-minded people to train with or hold you accountable. The importance of that support, she says, extends to obstacle racing, where having a team to motivate you and hold you accountable can mean the difference between scoring a medal and a DNF.
Ricardi says even experienced racers can benefit from being part of a team. He says not only can having teammates keep you from quitting at low points, it takes your mind off yourself and puts your focus on helping others. “When you think of others,” says Ricardi, “it’s a more productive state of mind to be in.”
5: NOT FUELING PROPERLY
Some races are short and packed with aid stations. But for those that are longer or require you to support yourself, you better be prepared to carry your own food and water.
When determining your needs in an obstacle race, King suggests looking at the amount of time you may spend racing instead of the number of miles on the course. If you’re racing for an hour, you’re going to need food. Longer than that, he says, and you’ll need something every 20 or 30 minutes.
Wetzel Sinnett suggests testing how your nutrition plan works with your body prior to the race. “The most important thing is to test out what you’re going to need before the race during workouts,” she says. “Test to see what your body needs and what it can digest easily.”
Trammell says it’s also important to test how you carry your fuel. “If you do decide to carry something, make sure that it can make it through the obstacles,” he says. “I reached for my Gatorade bottle in my fuel belt when I really needed it at an obstacle race to find it had fallen off the belt at some previous obstacle.”
6: NOT RUNNING YOUR OWN RACE
You’re a third of the way through your race when another runner turns on the jets and speeds ahead of you. Your heart tells you to run him down. But your head says you’ll be gassed too soon if you do that. What do you do?
Ricardi says you need to run your own race. If your strength is obstacles, rather than gassing yourself trying to keep up with a runner, bide your time. Chances are you might pass him when he gets hung up on the next obstacle. “You don’t need to know what everybody else is good at,” says Ricardi. “Know yourself, know your strengths, and execute to your strengths.”
Trammell says the variety of physical demands in obstacle racing makes the need for sticking to your game plan more important. “You really need to run the first three-quarters of the race with your ‘head,’ running your own race and keeping your heart rate under control,” says Trammell. “Then let loose and really race and compete for the last quarter of the race.”
7: FEARING AN OBSTACLE
Talk to someone who is about to do an obstacle race, and you’ll almost always hear something along the lines of: “I can’t wait for it. But the one obstacle I’m really nervous about is . . .”
Having an obstacle or two that keeps you up at night is perfectly natural. But not preparing for it is a recipe for failure. “Avoiding it is probably the worst idea,” says King. “Practice at it as much as you can so you get comfortable with it.”
Ricardi says you can often find a technique to help you on specific obstacles, such as a rope climb where you can learn to use your legs. Wetzel Sinnett says the internet has lots of tips and videos you can learn from. And, remember, if you have trouble with an obstacle, you’re not alone. Wetzel Sinnett has struggled with spear throw obstacles. So, last Christmas, she got two hay bales and a spear for practice.
8: NEGLECTING UPPER BODY ENDURANCE
You might think of endurance in terms of how far you can run. But those runner’s legs aren’t going to help you when an obstacle course has turned your arms into quivering noodles and you’re left with the grip strength of your 90-year-old grandma.
The toll obstacles take on your upper body strength is an aspect often overlooked by racers, especially those with a running background. “It can be hard to get runners to strength train,” says Wetzel Sinnett. Start with pushups and pull-ups. If you can’t do pull-ups, she says, do negative pull-ups. Ricardi says you can also wrap a physical therapy band around a bar and loop your knee in to do assisted pull-ups. He’s also a big fan of dips. “These are all things you can do outside of the weight room,” he says. “You don’t need a ton of weights.”
9: GASSING OUT ON HILLS
Obstacle course designers have a nasty habit of seeking out the toughest terrain for their races. And when those courses feature hills and mountains, the terrain becomes the toughest obstacle.
Trammell suggests running hills as preparation, alternating between short sprints and long hill runs. If you have no hills nearby, a treadmill with a steep grade is a decent substitute.
When climbing hills, Ricardi looks for rocks and level ground that allows his foot to land flat, easing the stress on his lower legs. And, he says, the best way to run a hill is to take it easy. Rather than gassing out running the first half of the hill, save your energy for the top. “Most people attack the hill, then they’re dying,” says Ricardi. “I always attack the crest.”
10: NOT RESTING DURING THE RACE
Obstacle racing is almost never a sprint . . . even if the race has “Sprint” in its name. Whether your race is 3 miles or 30, its aim is to sap your energy and your will. You need to know how to recover after tough spots so both body and mind can continue to battle.
Wetzel Sinnett suggests doing a body check periodically during your race. How is your form? Is your jaw relaxed? How is your heart rate? Take a few seconds to slow your pace and take some deep breaths.
Ricardi says if you don’t overexert yourself when you don’t have to, you’ll be prepared in moments that are physically challenging. Take the opportunity to recover your energy on downhills. And, he says, mentally disassociate yourself from the pain. “I believe in the power of the mind,” says Ricardi. “There’s something to be said for just being thankful for where you are, thinking ‘I get to do this,’ not ‘this sucks.’”