Anyone can run a race badly. Anyone can skip obstacles and do less than 30 burpees. Anyone can care more about pre- and post-races selfies than the race itself. And, if you fall into these categories, I’ll be honest with you—this article really is not for you. Don’t misread me, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being more about the medals than the motivation. But, I wrote this article for racers who give each race their very best, even if it means dragging themselves across the finish line. If this is you, or you want it to be you, read on.
Watching the Spartan athletes on NBC, you may think they are just born talented. And, in some respect you are right. But, you are also wrong. Great athletes are a combination of genetics and training. You can’t change your genetics, but you sure can change your training. To do well in OCR races, like any other you’ll have to train smart. But what does “training smart” mean? It means you can’t simply show up to a race and hope you’ll do well. It means you can’t just practice tire flipping or bucket carries and hope that your race time will improve. Training smart means you need to deconstruct obstacle course races into their two key components and train for each part individually.
So what are the two components of obstacle course racing? When I first signed up for a Spartan Race five years ago, the first thing that came to mind were the obstacles. And the obstacles were acutely in my mind when I failed the spear throw and had to do 30 burpees—which cost me a podium spot. But instead of fanatically focusing on the spear throw, I first focused on the other core part of the race—the running. Why? Because I realized that I could get the most bang for my training buck by focusing on my speed. After all, most OCR races require you run a fair distance. Just look at the numbers.
So at the very least, you’re running 3.1 miles. And, it doesn’t matter if you can flip a tire really fast. If you run a 20-minute mile you’re going to be on the course at a bare minimum of an hour. Increase the course length to 12 miles (e.g., a Tough Mudder or Spartan Beast) and your course time increases to 3½ hours. So, if you don’t focus on your running, you’ll never decrease your overall race time. Of course, obstacles are important—you can’t discount them when you’re running an obstacle course race. I go over how to train specifically for the obstacles in Part 2 of this article.
You may still be wondering why I first focus on running when I coach athletes for obstacle course races. The reason is that you can significantly improve your running time, whereas you can only minimally improve the time it takes you to complete the obstacles. For example, you may be able to improve your rig time by 10 seconds if you practice the rig every day for a month. But, if you practice your running every day for a month you’re going to improve your overall mile time by at least 10 minutes. And, which would you rather have, seconds or minutes? It’s not even a question of where to focus your training when you look at this way! So if you’re an OCR racer who wants to decrease the overall time you’re out on a course, first focus on getting faster. How? Start with these 8 steps.
- Assess your current base running pace
- Select your race
- Calculate your base race time
- Enlist a certified running coach
- Determine your desired pace and race finish time
- Create/follow a measurable training plan
- Keep a running log
Assess your current base running pace. The first thing you need to do to run faster is determining how fast (or slowly!) you are currently running so you have something to measure your progress against. All running watches will tell you your average pace. It’s ideal to use an actual running watch and test yourself out on a course similar to what race your running (e.g., trail running) for realistic pacing. If you do not have a running watch and do not wish to buy one, your next best bet is a stopwatch and a track. Lastly, use a treadmill; but note that treadmills do not provide accurate pacing as their self-momentum makes you run faster than you typically would. (So you really need a good running watch to improve your race pace.) My favorite running watch is the Garmin Forerunner 235, which is affordable, has a great battery life, automatically uploads to Garmin Connect, and does all the normal heart rate, sleep monitoring, and step counting tracking that you’d expect from a running watch.
If you’re already a seasoned runner, you likely have an idea of what your base running pace is. But, it’s still a good idea to confirm it. To get your base running pace, first divide your maximum weekly running mileage in half. Second, run this “halved” mileage—ideally on terrain similar to what you will be running in your selected OCR race. Your running watch will give you your average miles per hour. Use this as your base running pace. It’s not necessary to use the maximum mileage you run to calculate your base running pace. You can, but your halved mileage is sufficient for this assessment.If you’re new to running and don’t know where to start, head to the track for a timed mile. Standard tracks are 400 meters long, so four laps around the track equal one mile. Use your mile time as your base running pace, just keep in mind that the track doesn’t mimic the terrain of OCR races.Write your base running pace down in a running log (see step 8) so you can return to it throughout your training to track your progress. Also, studies have shown that you are more likely to stick to goals that you write down.
Select your race. Determine what race you’re running and how long it will be. If the race provides a range of total mileage (e.g., 12-14 miles), use the longer length. Typically, running training plans are 6 to 8 weeks in length as this is sufficient time to improve your pace while limiting the likelihood of getting injured. If you have less than 6 weeks before a race, you can still improve your time—but you’ll want to enlist a running coach (see step 4) so that you don’t injure yourself in the process.
Calculate your base race time. Multiply your average pace (determined in step 1) with your selected race’s length—this will be your base race time. For example, if your average mile time is 20 minutes and you’re running a Spartan Beast (12-14 miles) you’ll be out on the course for approximately 4 hours and 40 minutes. (Note – this is just your base running time. It does not account for the time it will take you to complete the obstacles.)
Enlist a certified running coach. Once you have your base race time, you’re ready to start focusing on improving it. I highly recommend enlisting a certified running coach if you are serious about getting faster. Why? A certified running coach has specifically studied running. They will provide you with a running plan that should increase the lengths of your runs at steady, safe intervals. They know the components of running, how to assess how many miles each week you should be running, how often to do speed work versus hill training, and how to incorporate other types of runs that will be your Vo2 Max and lactate threshold. (For a great article that explains these two fitness measurements, see Active’s article Lactate Threshold and Vo2 Max Explained. A running coach takes the guesswork out of your run training. And, no, a personal trainer is NOT a running coach! Two organizations I recommend to use to find a running coach are USA Track & Field organization (usatf.org) and the Road Runner Club of America (rrca.org). Not all coaches will be members of all the running organizations, and this is ok. For example, I am a certified USA Track and Field coach, but not an RRCA coach. The fundamentals of run coaching remain the same across most certifications.
Determine your desired pace and race finish time. Your running coach will be able to assess your base running pace, your base race time, the mechanics of your gait, and the race terrain to determine what is a reasonable and safe new pace/race finish time. However, if you do not use a running coach you can still improve your base race time on your own. Runner’s World (runnersworld.com) has some good articles on how to determine training paces and offers online training plans. Determine what you’d like your overall pace and race finish time to be. Again, write these down.
Create/follow a measurable training plan. Whether you or your running coach devises your training plan, make sure you have measurable goals. There is a difference in setting a goal to “Run faster” and “Decrease running pace to a 10-minute mile by XX date.” Unless you’re setting S.M.A.R.T. goals (e.g., Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely), there’s no way to tell if you are improving. Countless articles have been written about how to create SMART goals, including my Goal Setting for Successful Change.
Run. This is the part where you have to put your feet to the muddy trails. You should be training on both hills and flats. To train for hills, you’ll need to find trail runs that have decent elevation changes. This can be tricky depending on your geographic location. If you live in an area that is mostly flat and plan to travel to races that steep elevation gains, your only cost effective option is running on a fully inclined treadmill. If you live in an area with decent hills, skip the treadmill and get outside. Hill repeats are a great way to increase your speed at elevation and the steeper the hill, the better your training will be. To increase your overall speed, you’ll also need to do speed work training on flats. Speed work is often best done around a track, but any measured flat distance will do.
Keep a running log. A running log is essential for tracking your progress. You can purchase premade logs, make your own either in a notebook or using spreadsheets/text files, or use an online running log websites or apps. In your running log, you should keep track of factors such as: the date, the distance, your average pace, the weather and terrain, food and water consumed prior the run, any water/fuel consumed during the run, sleep prior the run, your level of stress (scale 1 to 5), and most importantly—how the run felt (scale 1 to 5). You want to take note of how a run felt in conjunction with all these other factors because our mind is unreliable. You may think back to a particular training run as “horrible,” but when you check your log you’ll be reminded it felt horrible because you were running at your fastest pace and that’s what made it uncomfortable. How a run felt can also be used to pinpoint any water and food pitfalls or let you know that you need to get more sleep before long runs. Bookmark pages where runs went well or you ran your fastest times. You can return to them for positive reinforcement and reminders of your progress through your training progress.
In summary, it all comes down to this: If you follow your plan and put in the miles, you’ll not only run your next race faster, you’ll run it smarter. (And you’ll have truly earned that finisher selfie after you’ve crossed the finish line!)
Once you’re well on your way to achieving your desired race time, you can start incorporating obstacle training. After all, while your speed will get you 90% of the way in an OCR race, you still need the obstacle’s 10% to cross the finish line. I break down the essential components of true obstacle training in Part 2 of this article. Stay tuned!