Obstacle Race Magazine – An autopsy of an obstacle

Obstacle Race Magazine Interview with Michael Cohen
Obstacle Race Magazine

An autopsy of an obstacle

by Michael Cohen

Issue 2
April 2014

It is one thing being able to get over an obstacle and its another thing to do it an optimised way with speed and power. Obstacle Race Magazine asked our in house obstacle race training expert Michael Cohen at Wild Forest Gym how you can optimise an obstacle that is staring you in the face.

The first stage to understanding the obstacle, is to look at the movement & manipulation skills involved in completing the obstacle effectively.


It all starts with the transition from running to getting on/up/into an obstacle. Basically we are talking about the approach. So here is the scenario. You are running up to an 8ft wall. Which leg are you going to launch off? Which hand are you going to grab with?

Most untrained athletes have a dominant hand or foot. It is this dominant foot that they will launch off and similarly grab with. It feels natural in one way but is it? In fact it is unnatural, as you would normally have adjusted your stride to enable your leg/hand to be the dominant one.

Why does it matter?

  1. Making changes to your stride in your approach starts to interfere with the natural flow.
  2. You end up thinking rather than flowing.
  3. You increase the risk of injury, as your body is no longer moving naturally.
  4. You can’t optimise the obstacle because you have lost that instinctual awareness of knowing, and instead you go into the head i.e. you switch on the brain.
  5. Thinking causes accidents, because the likelihood is that you have taken your eyes off the terrain.
  6. If you rely on your dominant side of your body, then you will burn out that side quicker than if you shared it equally with the other side of the body.

Going with the flow

The natural stride is about flow and movement. The more we adapt or interfere with it the more it costs us in focus, energy resources and affects our flow as we transition on. More importantly sometimes we can’t choose which hand or foot to use, because of the shape of the obstacle, or the demands and needs of that element of the terrain. So when it comes to jumping, we need to be able to adapt in the most natural way to the size, shape, position, location, material and terrain. This means we need to be ambidextrous.

Obstacle Race Magazine - An autopsy of an obstacle

Being ambidextrous

Being ambidextrous is about reducing the margin between your dominant side of the body to your less dominant side i.e. left-handed or left-footed. Being one-sided dominant means that you have your strengths and weakness, which means overall you are quite an unbalanced person. Particularly, when you breakdown all the different tasks that you rely on your dominant side.

However, an athlete whom is trained to be ambidextrous has the ability to adapt to the obstacle, so when they approach the wall, they will launch off the supporting leg predetermined by their natural stride rather than the dominant leg. Then they push into the wall with their non-supporting leg, and then they reach up to grab the top of the wall. Because of their ambidextrous training they have equal grip strength, as well as deltoid, lats and arm strength to ‘muscle up’ or ‘side leg swing’ up onto the wall.

Multilateral Training

In order to mount the top of the wall what is required is core strength. But it is core strength with a difference from what you gain from sit-up and crunch exercises. What we are talking about is multilateral strength in the core abs and oblique areas. This means training this region to be worked in random ways (see http://bit.ly/wfgmultilateral) rather than specialised training such as crunches.

So here is your jump so far

You have been running along the trail. You turn the bend and you are confronted with the 8ft wall. You start to think about the best way to approach and jump it. Your in your head. Time has slowed down. You adjust your stride to launch off your dominant stronger leg. You try to push into the wall with the non-supporting leg, praying that you don’t slide down. Then you have to grab for your life the top of the wall.  Phew! Next you find all the brute strength to pull yourself up and just get that leg over the top. Now you put everything into your arms just to be able to sit on top. Sound familiar? How efficient and effective is it?

Who would have thought there is so much involved in jumping an obstacle. But this is what happens when you start dissecting an obstacle in order for you to learn how to optimise a wall climb.

Transitioning over

The transition over the top of the jump is the key stage. Once again we are back to the subject of transition, one of the least understood, yet vital aspects to an obstacle. The transition over the jump is the continuum from the jump up to the jump down that needs to be smooth and have flow. Plus it needs to be done in a safe manner bearing in mind your head is nearly 11ft off the ground at this point.

There is a number of different techniques from swinging your legs over and relying on your arm strength to take you over the top. Or riding over the top by swivelling on your stomach using your leading hand on the other side of the wall to support your body from falling into the wall leading. This is finished with the jump down.

The landing

The key to not twisting your ankle or damaging your knee is the landing. The landing is all about your suspension in your legs. They need to be your shock absorbers to stop you from injuring. Landings are part of our Race SAFE skills (http://bit.ly/wfgaracesafe) that are taught as the primary techniques before teaching our athletes to jump. We rate Race SAFE as being more important than Race FIT in order to be Race READY. Simply it doesn’t matter how fast or strong you are, if you do not have Race SAFE skills, then the risk of injury has just gone through the sky. The other important aspect to landing is being able be aware of the environment around you as well as other contenders and racers. This way you can adapt to what is about to happen next, which is likely to be a transition again into running.

Autopsy Report

What we have identified is anyone potentially can physically climb over a wall, even if they use rely on brute force. The key is to be Race SAFE in order to reduce the risk of injury. If you have more ambition than just being a finisher, and your goal is a PB or to up your ranking or even go for the podium, then you need to consider how more effectively, efficiently can you tackle your obstacles if you were to improve your technical skills.

Please comment or ask a question below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s