Whilst at a race recently I was with someone watching competitors take on Nuclear Race’s “Spinning Monkeys”; some were failing, and some were going strong. She exclaimed; “How can they not do this??”, needless to say, her OCR experience was thin, having recently taken on her first not-very-technical race.
I explained that these racers were more fun-runners taking on the event late in the day, and we were nearing the end of the 12km, 191-obstacle laden course. It’s hard. People are exhausted. They are cold and wet and have been going for hours with little nutrition. For so many people to be completing is actually very impressive, especially when most of them are here just for fun.
The message is, OCR is hard. The front of the pack make it look easy but as with anything, when something looks easy, it ain’t.
It made me realize, the training we put ourselves through, how many disciplines we have to if not master, then at least become accomplished in, is it any surprise that Obstacle Course Racers are the best athletes in the world?
We all know what the biggest component of an OCR is, and that’s running. But what distance? 5km flat out sprint, a half marathon, an Ultra…Or a crazy “as many miles as you can fit in in 8/12/24 hours”.
An obstacle course racer trains for all of these distances. She runs on mountains, on trails, gaining as much elevation as possible. He sprints, working his legs to go as fast as they can. And we’re not talking straight up road running. If you’re not off road then add something else in, throw in burpees, carry a wreck bag (you might as well get used to it now). But if they are on the roads, expect them to be fast. Jon Albon (OCR World Champion 2014, 15, 16, & 17) runs a 2:30:30 Marathon (Bergen) and that’s with 1,151m of elevation, clocking in an average distance of 115km of training runs per week.
It may sound strange that this is next on my list, but an Obstacle Course Racer has to have the endurance to keep going. Whatever the distance it will take its toll on the body, but don’t be surprised to see racers taking on lapped, timed events such as the 24-Hour Enduro OCR World Championships. 11km laps filled with 30 obstacles per lap, as many as you can in 24 hours. You can be the best at obstacles, or the fastest runner, but if you don’t have the endurance, you will not be able to complete a race, especially one as brutal as this.
The racers you see taking on this event are the same ones who will be taking on the 3km short course, the 15km Classic, and the team event at the Worlds in October taking place in the UK this year. What I’m saying here is, they are not spending all year training for one event, they train for multi disciplines, and they are Good.
There’s also the added bonus of conditions. In the UK we see a lot of cold, wet races. When you’re running for hours in the wet, your body needs to be able to fight off cramp and keep hypothermia at bay. But it’s not just physical endurance, it’s mental too. Many a strong competitor would DNF if he didn’t have the mental endurance to keep going. Whilst with many people this is innate, it also needs to be trained. You go through hardship to endure hardship. The more you do, the better you become.
Every aspect of an OCR is designed to sap your strength and drain you. You may be awesome at running, even running up a mountain, but what happens when you throw a 1.2km 50lb Wreck Bag carry up and down a ski slope? What happens to your legs, how do you get the strength back to keep fighting against your competitors, keep running, and soon take on a technical obstacle?
Obstacle Course Racers need strength, just look at Hunter McIntyre, know for the catchphrase “Biceps win races”. He’s not far off. Carries play a huge part in races, and are often perfectly placed to wear you down just at the wrong time. You need to be prepared to not only complete the carry, but be able to continue once it’s done. There’s a reason why elite racers incorporate Olympic lifting into their training regimes. But as with everything else, you need to balance it. The difficulty of training to be an elite OCR athlete is getting the balance of skills just right.
4. Grip Strength & Climbing
There seems to be a similar type that you see winning races, and that is the lean, small, wiry, and strong body. The running gets them lean, the strength training builds muscle, and there’s one skill that this body type really helps master.
Whilst pure strength will get you through many obstacles, muscles can also weigh you down. An OCR Athlete has to find the right balance to get through the strength and endurance of a race, but light enough to efficiently work the technical obstacles. Put simply, weight to strength ratio is important: this is how much of an exercise you can perform in comparison to your body weight. For example, the ratio of how much you can dead-lift compared to how much you weigh.
One of the key skills and Obstacle Course Racer needs is grip strength. Without Grip strength they will not complete the many technical obstacles and will be sacrificing their band. But why did I just go on about weightlifting and WTS when I want to talk about grip strength? Well, it’s all related.
Climbing is a key training tool that many OCR athletes use. It helps with both grip, and strength, plus it’s fun. In order to be an accomplished climber it helps to be strong but light, thus weight to strength ratio. Hefting as much as you can and building a huge body is great, but it won’t help win races.
There are different schools of thought on completing technical obstacles: using brute strength to get through, or “technique”. Personally, I follow the school of technique. Yes you will never complete “Stairway to Heaven” without excellent upper body and grip strength, but there are many obstacles that you cannot just bull your way through, and even if you do, you’ll tear yourself up for the rest of the race.
In recent years OCR specific training centers have opened up, allowing people to train specifically on certain obstacles or concepts, and many of these trickier obstacles require the kind of agility you’d see in a 14 year old Russian Gymnast. More than once we’ve seen a marathon runner storm into OCR thinking they’ll rip it up, only to be left far behind on the obstacles. Yes we could all climb a rope and do the monkey bars at school but 1. We ain’t at school any more, and 2. OCR’s have long since evolved from these two being their biggest challenges.
Racers are expected to have the skills to be able to take on unknown obstacles- a fail and a retry loses precious time- so you need to know not only how your body works, but the technique to tackle an obstacle that you may not have seen before.
So, just to recap. In order to have a chance of competing at an Obstacle Course Race you need to have the legs of Mo Farah, the spirit of Rocky, the strength of The Mountain, and the agility of Olga Korbut… and people wonder why OCR Athletes are the best in the world?
They are accomplished in so many skills. They can’t rely just on running, just on strength, or agility.
We all think the saying is “a Jack of all trades, is a master of none” but we often forget the finishing line: “but oftentimes better than a master of one.”