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How To Train For a Trail Race Event Like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or Warrior Dash

Lars HindsleyBy Lars Hindsley Tue 31 Dec 2013 2:35 AM EST | 3858 Views
(DL) – No question is left unanswered. Here's how to really train, what to wear and the real safety concerns of mud runs and mud races. It's your most comprehensive guide in how to effectively prepare for a long distance obstacle course from someone that's actually participated.

Endurance obstacle course events have become popular. Most add in the element of mud if for no other reason than to create a light hearted fun atmosphere. However Mud Runs such as Warrior Dash are only mud runs and contain no obstacles. If you are asking yourself, "What's the difference between the Tough Mudder (untimed event), Warrior Dash (timed event) or Spartan Race (timed event)?" The answer is very little. They are all obstacle course events with Tough Mudder being the longest on average and largest. But of the many races and runs out there you should be sure you know what type trail race you are entering. Is it a mud run or an obstacle course?

What Kind of Trail Obstacles Will You Encounter?

Rope climbs, mud crawls, short and tall barricades to climb, mud pits to jump, fires to jump over, barbed wire to crawl under (usually in muddy water), crawling through tunnels (tubes), carrying logs, jumping off high ground into water, plunging into ice filled vats, and of course running. Running up sudden steep inclines which become slicker over the event, running down steep inclines, running up sloped walls, running up and down hills. Oh yes, and the Tough Mudder features a forest of hanging electrically charged wires to dash through.

No matter your preference the field of runs and dashes are swelling.  The shorter list under five miles includes: Dirty Dash, Devil Dash, Diva Dash, Down & Dirty Mud Run, Hell run, Hero Rush, Mudathalon, MudMan, Mudness, Baddest Mud Run, Mud Guts and Glory, Original Mud Run, Mud Ninja, Wild Warrior, ROC Race, Miles of Mud, and Strongman Run just to name a few!
Lars Hindsley
Of all the trail race's, few are as long as the Tough Mudder. While the Spartan Dash has extended versions you can select al carte, Tough Mudder is a single field everyone runs together. Only the Iron Warrior Dash and Death Race come in longer but can require the most travel in order to participate. The longer mud runs come in at:

   #1. Death Race - Average distance 40 miles. (Two day event - limited entry)
   #2. Iron Warrior Dash - Average distance 15. (Big brother of the Warrior Dash)
   #3 Tough Mudder - Average distance: 12 miles (Most accessible worldwide)

Type of Participants

There are two types of participants in these physical challenges.

A. The hard core athlete.
B. The Casual first timer or repeat runner enthusiast.

Don't be intimidated, both the casual runner and hard core athlete co-exist without friction in these events. Don't let anyone advise you never to stop. If you need to stop, then stop. No one will taunt or condemn you for slowing down, walking or standing aside as others pass by on a Tough Mudder. In fact you'll find many participants walking along at some point. It's commonplace to pass people that once passed you because they are slowing down to pace themselves. However if you do join in on an event that is timed, be advised you need to train to run, not walk or pause. The Spartan Dash entered into a televised relationship with NBC television in 2013 and now offers at $250,000.00 purse. 

In most events there are as many as 10 staggered start times daily that you pick from. The hard core trail runners go early in some, in others they are the last 'race' of the day.  

The question you may be asking is can the first time Tough Mudder participant do well? Of course. I'm living proof. My first Tough Mudder was completed with a mildly sprained ankle. My training consisted of doing what I already did. I inline skate with various skate groups on 12 mile skates. I play paintball and I hit the gym mildly but consistently. If you take any extra advice from this article, consider a healthy lifestyle over training for kudos. Don't fall for the  image hype of 'team building'.  These events are not built to break you. They sell them as 'designed by special forces', but that's marketing. Special forces train to break you, and build you up to survive. The obstacles in Tough Mudder, Spartan Dash, Warrior Dash and the likes are designed to challenge you at best. They are designed to be fun.

The Secret to Mud Runs and Trail Races

Here is the big secret behind the Tough Mudder and other trail races such as the Warrior Dash. They all speak of how speed is important. That's just not true. Speed is not a factor. Finish by running, jogging, walking or any combination at the pace you want for yourself and you still get your award for finishing. There is no reason to beat yourself up for the best time if you are a casual participant. Remember this advice, The journey is the reward.  Why end it so fast? Enjoy it. Go as fast or slow as your body tells you.  The event is not predicated on speed. Remember that above all things. Of course when you participate in cold weather, a moving body stays warmer.  Just keep it all in perspective. No matter your own arbitrary goal, you are generally working for a t-shirt.

What are the elements of the challenge?
  1. Strength
  2. Stamina
  3. Will
You'll need strength to climb, grapple, pull, and crawl. You'll need stamina to go the distance of running (or walking) the course as-well-as the stamina to complete the length of some of the individual obstacles.

Do You Need To Train For A Tough Mudder or Spartan Dash?

Why even train if I've done it with a sprained ankle? Training is a good idea if you are not already active in multiple sports. It will help you stay free from injuries more than help you finish. If you plan to run the entire course and never pause to walk, training in running is necessary.

What Do You Prepare For?

You can check the event listing, but most often each event doesn't give you a detailed list until the date of the event. Most of course share common obstacles. Here are the things you can do at home to prepare:
  1. Strength – Overall strength is not the key. It's strength based on the obstacles and on any course the key obstacles do repeat. You want to train to lift your body.
    • Pull ups, and reps that focus on you lifting your body from arms only. If you can lift yourself with your arms, your remaining upper body strength is a bonus.
    • Arm strength.This is the most important thing to train for outside of running. Focus on anything that will allow you to lift your body weight from your arm strength. You'll need to pull yourself up many times without assistance of your feet. Remember that grade school playground ladder you called the monkey bars? Imagine one 40" in length over cold water. You'll get those.  Train your arms.
  2. For stamina – Run, bike or skate. Sure it's a run but you don't have to run the event. You can walk at any point. You get a T-shirt or some take-away for completing it. No more. So why kill yourself to train unless you the 'hard core athlete' mentioned prior. Let's face it, that type of individual isn't researching this event.
  3. Will. How do you train your will to succeed? Always think about just making it one more step. Every step you take makes the end that much closer.  When it comes to jumping over fire or running through electrical wires, your body already knows if you can do it. Listen to your body. You have nothing to prove.
How Far Will You Run?

Tough Mudders advertise they are upward to 13 miles. Most come in under 10 miles. The hard core athlete will complete the event in about an hour.  The first time Tough Mudder participant won't run or jog the entire course. They'll take their time with pauses to walk quite often.  The casual first time Tough Mudder will finish in three hours or less.

What's important to know is that any obstacle along the course can be bypassed. Yes, that means if you don't want to jump into a sub zero temperature vat of ice during a cold weather outing, you can just walk around it. Just skip it. If you can't climb well, skip the towers and so forth. Of course it is nice to try and it's great to overcome obstacles. The toughest are generally the monkey bar types that require both strength and stamina.  

What do I Wear?

Teams will often come with matching T-shirts for corporate team building or groups in support of causes, but outside of dressing for the weather, it's a good idea to think in terms of what you can't wear.

You may think clothes without belts are smart, but when clothes get wet and muddy, they want to fall. Find a sports belt that can take the abuse. A baseball belt at $4.95 is a good disposable solution.
Keep some zip lock bags to keep your wallet, phone or camera in. And even then, be very careful because your body will be submerged a few times. From pits, to streams of water you walk through waist deep. High jumps and more will abuse anything in your pockets.

The events do offer lockers for everyone to stow their towels, change of clothing and car keys in. Taking them along is almost insane. I took a non-electronic car key simply because I wore mountain biking shorts with full zip closure pockets.

Shoes are a big question for many. The all terrain shoes are my goto. Many like to wear Vibrams which are shoes with individual toes, because unlike most any other shoe – Vibrams won't come off in the mud. Many, many many shoes are lost in the mud. It's rumored you should train in Vibrams before just buying a pair and running a long distance. I wear Inov-8 Bare Grip 200's as I wanted what I Vibram can give, that is off-trail traction. The rubber cleats are huge but don't cake with mud. I say this from experience. I use them now for paintball in warm weather. The super thin 3 mm sole allows my feet to conform to any surface minimizing risk of ankle twists. They are lightweight, dry fast and can take an insane amount of abuse. The company should pay me for that rant because you know you're going to buy a pair. BTW, they are called 200's because that stands for the weight in grams which is only 7 ounces.
Inov-8 Bare Grip 200
Synthetic socks no higher than the ankle make the most sense for wicking, and friction.  If you are going to take your shirt off, have a solid base tan or have sun block and re-apply even if you have mud all over your body.  Gloves that dry fast are crucial if you attempt to traverse monkey bars or other obstacles that require a tight non-slip grip. Fingerless leather gloves are good for many obstacles but eventually getting them wet becomes a liability. As the day wears on, unless you keep a pair dry in a ziplock bag stowed in your pocket, you better have a very strong grip to sustain the distance and strength needed to cross a long monkey bar obstacle. If you can find a rubber palm and fingered glove that dries very fast, these will be a big help on obstacles that don't like wet surfaces on them.

Safety Issues

Yes, for all the downplay on how hard this event is, an extreme obstacle course event is something to take serious. Almost all the major big name events have had a death occur. The events do consider the risks and put measures into place that are designed to help, but if you want to challenge your body, not every single risk can be eliminated. The same huge cargo nets that are used  for participants to climb up can be a liability.  In one event a participant tripped on one and fell 15 feet to the ground. He is now paralyzed from the injury.

Tough Mudder: Gerrardstown, W. Va. – April 2013  a 28 year old man died jumping into water from a 15' article on the Walk The Plank obstacle. That obstacle still exists but with more divers on the ready with slower rate of entry into the water. I participated in May of 2013 (see me make that same jump in the video below) unaware of the previous death. I did however notice numerous divers and safety appeared well in order as each participant jumped into the water.

Tough Mudder: Brooklyn, Mi. – June 29-30 2013 An estimated 200 participants contracted a gastrointestinal norovirus from muddy water.

Warrior Dash: Kansas City, Ks. – 2011 Two men died from heat related symptoms.

Warrior Dash: Detroit, Mi. – July 2011 A college student became paralyzed after jumping head first into a ground level mud.

Original Mud Run: Fort Worth, Tx. – April 2012 A man died when he was pulled under in the Trinity River. Sudden weather changes played a roll.

Preparation is never a guarantee of safety or health, you can only minimize risk. Life isn't a test drive. You either live it yourself or someone will live it for you. When it comes to your life, be safe you only get one and it isn't a test drive. The moment you take something lightly is when it bites you hard in the ass. Don't assume anything at an event. If a freak shower makes a hill so slick that you could fall and kill yourself on a rock, then don't waste your effort trying. Remember in most cases you can go around obstacles and in the end you get a T-shirt for finishing, not taking risks you didn't need to. You sign a "death waiver" in these events for a reason. They are serious, if you are not careful you'll get hurt or worse  killed.

I took the name DangerMan as a moniker for fun, not because I think danger is cool. I think danger is a warning. The best part of life is surviving it. The same goes for an event that requires you to use your head as much as your body.

So why if I'm talking about safety, did I run a Tough Mudder with a sprained ankle? It was sprained badly enough that I could not run strong or make lateral shifts. Dorsal flexing was painless. So after I read the event did not offer refunds for any reason (now you know why I'm making this point), I decided my body would tell me if I could run or stop at any point. I had the day slotted to participate and my body was prepared otherwise. Consider this a testimony that if you respect the obstacles in general, a Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash or other off-trail type long distance obstacle course is more hype than hard.  

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