Deconstructing OCR Training Part 2: The Obstacles

In Part 1 of this article I deconstructed obstacle course races (OCR) into two key components: running and obstacles. Part 1 focused exclusively on the running component of OCR races. Now, it’s time to focus on the obstacles.

To complete obstacles efficiently (and to do fewer burpees or penalties!), you need to train specifically for and on obstacles.

If you’ve signed up for an OCR race, you’ve likely gone to some kind of OCR boot camp, OCR workout, or OCR Spartan Workout Tour event. And, at first, these boot camps, workouts, and tour events make sense. You’re training for an OCR race and this class or workshop has the word “OCR” in it. But, don’t be fooled. OCR races are the fastest growing sport in the entire nation. Everyone and their mother is trying to jump on the OCR bandwagon now (including the Olympics!).  So before you sign up for just any old OCR workout, you need to be smart and find out exactly what you’ll be getting.

Typically what is missing from generic OCR workouts are the obstacles. Bucket carries, tire flips, and drags don’t really count. You need to question whether or not you could go to home depot and create the same workout that you’re about to attend. If the answer is yes, you’ll likely get a good work out—but you’re not going to get true obstacle training. So, in conjunction with your run training, you’re going to need to find and do some real obstacle training. But, as I mentioned—many workouts just put the word “OCR” in front of them to draw you in. So what should you do?

The first step in obstacle training is finding a facility that has actual obstacles. Actual obstacles include 4, 8, 9 ft walls, monkey bars, a multi-rig, rings, Olympus (or something similar), herc hoist, rope climbs, balance beams, and something to simulate barbed wire crawls—and then also your bucket carries, drags, spear throws, and tire flips. Before you sign up for an OCR workout or training, make sure to call ahead and find out exactly what you’ll be getting. Otherwise, a trip to Home Depot may be cheaper and a better use of your time.  The reason is that the whole point of obstacle training is to train on obstacles. So realistically, if you could replicate an “OCR workout” in your backyard, you might as well! (Better warn the neighbors first, though!) The Mud Run Guide has an OCR gym finder where you can search by your state for nearby OCR gyms.  Use it, and find your next OCR playground.

Once you’ve found a facility to train in, it’s time to get ready. Bring the gear you plan on running your race in. Wear the same shoes, shorts, shirts, etc to get an accurate representation of what it will feel like during a race. This is also a great opportunity to revise your race get-up, as you may find that those baggy pants will get caught on the barbed wire, or the compression shorts you thought would help you run faster actually cut off your circulation.

As with your run training, obstacle training requires repetition on obstacles similar to what you’ll find in a race. There’s no other way around it. If you don’t have access to a OCR gym, your next best bet is a really good playground. Many playgrounds have multiple monkey bar configurations, traverse or climbing walls, or other things you can scale in lieu of walls. (Be forewarned—if using playground equipment, you should go early in the morning before parents kids arrive and you start getting dirty looks from parents whose kid wants a turn on the equipment you’re hogging.) However, finding a facility where you can train on obstacles is only half the battle.

The second step to training smart, when it comes to obstacles, is finding a really good, qualified, coach. Before you let someone teach you how to dismount off of a 8 ft or 9 ft wall, you want to make sure he or she is qualified to do so. There are a number of certifications coaches can take to learn how to train you for an OCR race. If you’re running a Spartan race, look specifically for SGX-certified coaches. You want at least a level 1 SGX coach, ideally a Level 2. You also want someone who is a Spartan Obstacle Specialist (SOS). These certifications indicate that the coach teaching the training is serious about the OCR sport, and has put in the personal time to be able to coach you safely and effectively. Spartan Race does a really great job of making its SGX-certified coaches easy to find through its website. If you’re looking at a training offered by a coach who’s not certified in anything obstacle related—run, don’t walk—away. You’re wasting your money and potentially setting yourself up for serious injury.

However, it’s not enough just for a coach to be certified. Certified means that the coach took a course, studied and passed a test. No small feat for sure, but the training all happened behind a desk or computer. What YOU really need is someone who’s trained out on the course. Think of it as the difference between taking the written driver’s ed test and the actual driving test. Two important pieces, but only one actually determines how well you drive a car! Therefore, in addition to being certified, you also want to make sure that the coach is active in the OCR community.


Active in the OCR community means that they are experienced, competitive athletes who know what it takes to run a race for placement. It’s a bonus if the coach has stepped onto the podium! While podium spots aren’t the end-all be-all marker of a good coach, they do help weed out coaches who are using the term “elite OCR racer” as a marketing scheme. Remember—anyone can run in the elite category by paying a little extra money. And, similarly, anyone can run a 6-hour race in the open category.

If you are serious about getting better at OCR races, you need a coach who knows what it takes to compete and do well. Why? Because in order for a coach to do consistently well in their races, they themselves must adhere to a good training regime. And since you’re paying this person to teach you how to get better at overcoming the obstacles, you need to be able to learn from their experiences and their training. Which means, they must be better than you already are. One final way to suss out a coach’s credentials is to check out their Athlinks or ChronoTrack account to see which races they’ve run and how they did in them. If there is no account, or the account shows few races or races where the coach took longer than you to complete a race, he or she is likely not a serious athlete. And why would you train with someone who’s not serious about a sport you’re trying to get better in?

As with your run training, you should train on obstacles at least 6 weeks before a race. Don’t try to cram obstacle training into one day or a weekend. Overtraining on obstacles in a short amount of time is a sure fire way to fatigue or more seriously damage your muscles. Yes, you’ll have to do all the obstacles in one sitting at a race—but if you’ve been training you’ll have the muscle and mental strength to push through. Hitting a one-day training camp where you practice the multi-rig, the rope, various sized walls, spear throws, rings, traverses, tire flips, drags, etc., etc., means that you’re not going to be practicing all of those obstacles in your best of form. And since as you practice you build muscle memory, if you’re fatigued you’re more likely to build bad muscle memory.

Instead of practicing everything all at once, I recommend grouping like obstacles together (walls with ramps or the multi-rig with rings). A multi-class approach may take longer, but it will ensure that you don’t over use your muscles during training and guard against injury. (Because we all know how well our grip works when we are tired!) If you’re struggling with a particular obstacle, the coach giving the training should be able to provide tips and tricks on how to complete it. If you’re still having trouble even after a coach has provided guidance, you may just need to practice, practice, practice until something clicks. For many, the rope climb is an excellent example of an obstacle that requires repetitive practice.

Repetitive practice really is the ultimate tip and trick when it comes to the obstacles. So find out what obstacles are likely to be in the races you’re doing, then devise a plan to practice them before the race. As I’m fond of saying, you need to “train for the race, not at the race.” Put in the time before the race, and you’ll be rewarded with fewer burpees and less time out on the course.

One last thing: after you’ve overcome your obstacles or hit your OCR personal record, I’d love to hear about your success! Shoot me an email at [email protected] or leave a comment below and brag about yourself—because you’ve earned it!

About Mike King

Mike King, CPT, SGX, is a seasoned athlete who competes in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) circuit, as well as road and trail races. Mike has numerous podium finishes in OCR races such as Spartan Race, the former Battle Frog, Rugged Maniac, Savage Race, as well as the Spartan World Championships, the OCR World Championships, and World’s Toughest Mudder. In 2016, Mike ranked 2nd in the national BattleFrog points series. While a master’s category athlete, Mike can often be found challenging those half his age, embracing the statement that “age is just a number.” His passion for the OCR sport led him to leave his Silicon Valley job to open up King’s Camps and Fitness, the Bay Area’s first and premier OCR training gym. He’s coached hundreds of men, women, and youth in their pursuit to #OvercomeTheirObstacles.

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Deconstructing OCR Training Part 1: The Running

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