By Peter Rees, founder of Mudstacle
There are many programmes that can get you fit and ready for an obstacle course race. Some people focus on CrossFit, some pound treadmills and weights in the gym, some take part in military fitness style boot-camps and some run around the countryside and transform the world into a natural gymnasium. Last weekend I gave something new a go – I had the pleasure of attending a Spartan Race Training Camp. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the day’s proceeding, as Phil did a fine job of writing up last month’s session for Mudstacle here, plus there’s a great report of Sunday’s session on Krissie Kirby’s blog.
In this article I’d like to focus on a few “takeaways” from my experience and how they relate to preparing for Spartan or any other obstacle course race.
First up, as a background, Spartan Race Training sessions are run by a rather inspirational character called Michael Cohen. Since an early age Michael has battled with a range of spinal disabilities but has defied orthopedic surgeons and has made a full recovering through self treatment with bioenergy. That’s a fascinating story for another day but, rest assured, he’s now more able than I’d ever hope to be and has gone on to set up Wild Forest Gym, as well as the Spartan Race Training Camps.
So, without further ado, here are my top 5 takeaways from this weekend’s Spartan Training:
Being “gym fit” doesn’t fully translate to “obstacle course fit”
We can spend our time training in a clinical environment with controlled repetitions and we can really improve our fitness levels but when it comes to the natural and wild environments that often host obstacle course races, our bodies have to learn to adapt.
Over the course of the session on Sunday, Michael reinforced this time and again. To strengthen our grip, he had us dangling from uneven logs rather than uniform metal bars. We did a series of press ups, where every single rep was in a different position – from wide, to narrow, to having one hand out in front of the other. We learnt several crawling techniques that would suit different scenarios – going uphill, downhill and flat. You could tell how each of these kinds of drills increased our diversity of strength and prepared us to adapt more than controlled reps in a gym ever could.
Michael’s words of wisdom: Training isn’t just about pure strength. We teach you to be more adaptable, flexible, co-ordinated, agile, fit, strong, powerful with increased endurance. A complete package. Everything is entwined in order to make someone complete as a person and, in the case of OCR, a better contender or racer. It is not about bulk (muscles) it is about refining the body to work more effectively, efficiently and productively. Never train specialized, always train with an emphasis on multilateral training as this will prepare you for the unknowable aspects of OCR.
It’s important to condition your body and mind to understand and adapt to natural terrain
This is closely linked to the point above, but on a slightly more mental level. It started with a focus on posture and balancing up both sides of the body. We also spent a fair amount of time with bare feet and Michel asked us to feel and connect with the ground, whilst also keeping a close eye on where we were about to tread. At races we spend a lot of our time running on very uneven and unpredictable terrain that could turn an ankle in an instant, being vigilant and planning your footsteps is a valuable skill. Likewise, when we were wading along a river Michael pointed out how we had to adapt to the constantly changing and unseen ground beneath the river bed and to be prepared for the unexpected, like hidden branches beneath the surface.
Michael’s words of wisdom: A lot of what I teach isn’t just about physical exercise and fitness. I teach students about the connections between the physical body, the mind and their energy system. Everything is entwined nothing is separate. Become ambidextrous in day to day tasks and training can help you to adapt to the obstacle and terrain rather than expecting it to adapt to you.
Race fitness is important, but race safety is key
Everything that we’ve mentioned before helps towards you racing safer, but we also spend some time preparing for trips by practicing tumbling falls. Michael also alluded to other techniques that will be covered in other lessons, like spreading your arms when falling flat on the floor – something that would be familiar to martial artists, snowboarders, etc.
Michael’s words of wisdom: Before students come to camp in virtually all cases they have not learnt Race SAFE skills. This includes the elites. We teach functional natural movements and teach people to learn how to move, manipulate and be co-ordinated, agile, flexible, strong, powerful, adaptable, confident and improve their self esteem. We reduce the fear, worry and pain that can inadvertently result in injuries on race day.
There are techniques that can make the classic obstacle achievable
Some of the classic obstacles can be the most challenging – rope climbs, rope crossings and wall climbs are challenges that have often got the better of me. However, as with most things, there’s an easy way and a hard way to get the job done. We spent a lot of time focusing on rope river crossings. We were encouraged to try different techniques and to travel in different directions. At times it actually started to feel quite natural, and it definitely highlighted the importance of practice. We also spent some time honing our jumping techniques, which is a great skill to have for smaller river and ditch crossings..
Michael’s words of wisdom: Practice…practice…practice is the only way to become proficient and develop the obstacle race specific techniques and skills. All the functional natural movements – climb, jump, throw, lift, carry, run, balance and crawl can be practiced at home, in the park or in the woods. It are these principal movement skills that will also develop your strength, power, flexibility, coordination and endurance skills.
Even if you’re running solo, you become part of a wider team as soon as you cross the start line
Although I’ve run a few races as a part of a team, I actually really like running solo. Mostly because I enjoy slotting into and feeling comfortable in my own pace. However, I’ve never felt alone on an obstacle course race, I always feel like I am part of a wider team with everyone else around me. I’ve pushed a lot of bums up slippery banks, have given plenty of leg-ups and, likewise, have received many a helping hand when I’ve needed it the most. One of the most enjoyable and rewarding things about obstacle courses is the sense of camaraderie and that was reinforced by Michael at the Spartan Training Camp. He encouraged us all to rally around and help anyone who struggled with any of the activities.
So, there you have it, I hope that give your a few ideas about how you can better prepare for obstacle course races.