Top Exercises to Train for Obstacle Races

These high-intensity moves can help you make it through the mud pit or over the wall.

During races like the Spartan Race, participants have to conquer obstacles like fire pits, half pipes, and mud pits with barbed wire. Training with high-intensity interval exercises for these races is a must. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user cogdogblog.

Obstacle races, such as Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, have become increasingly popular of late. Each event challenges participants with its crazy obstacles, from surviving “electroshock therapy” to crawling through a muddy pit of barbed wire. 

Personal trainer and Revolve DC cycling instructor Grant Hill ran a Tough Mudder last year, and, lucky for us, he survived to offer some tips on training for an obstacle race. Check out his recommendations for exercises to master before diving headfirst into the mud pit.

“The best way to prep for [the race] is by doing high-intensity interval training,” says Hill. Kick typical bodyweight exercises like pushups up a notch by doing burpees instead. HIIT bodyweight exercises will get your heart pumping, something you can definitely expect to happen throughout the race. 

You’ll need proper arm strength to be able to hoist yourself up those walls. Contrary to popular belief, anyone can do a pullup, even if it’s just a few. Use the pullup bar or assisted pullup machine at your gym. If neither are available, tricep dips are a great way to build up chest and tricep strength. 

Box Jumps
To conquer obstacles such as the wall climb or the quarter pipe, you’ll need to build momentum with jumping exercises. Box jumps are taxing, but they’ll help your vertical height, according to Brett Stewart’s book Ultimate Obstacle Race Training: Crush the World’s Toughest Courses. Practice by standing about a foot away from a box or bench that’s two to three feet tall. Swing your arms and squat slightly, then jump as high as you can onto the center of the box.

There will be a lot of “getting low” on whatever obstacle race you sign up for, so doing squats is absolutely necessary, says Hill. Jumping squats are a great way to challenge yourself when air squats are too easy. Also a good idea: To prepare for instances in which you might have to throw things, do the squat and toss. Squat down to pick up a heavy medicine ball and then toss it forward as you stand up. Run toward the ball and repeat.

Hills and Sprints
Something Hill wasn’t prepared for during the ten-mile race was the number of hills. Get to know the course and determine whether there will be hills. If so, be sure to do a hills workout once a week. (Consult our Hills Workout and tips for how love running them.) 

Bear Crawls
We hate to recommend an exercise that local personal trainers admit to hating themselves, but it’s for your own good. If you want to get through the mud pit, bear or army crawls are necessary. Both exercises are “pretty darn good full-body and core” workouts, writes Stewart. 

Mental Exercises
As with any race, your mental preparation is just as, if not more so, important when training for an obstacle race. To avoid “hitting the wall,” Stewart recommends repeating, “You can do it” over and over throughout the race, or even writing it somewhere on your body. Whatever mantra you choose, keep it simple: “Your brain will be a little busy and the simpler, the better,” Stewart says.