Obstacle Course Racing: A Beginner's Guide

Posted On Jun 23, 2015 By Spencer Mahoney aka "Spartan Spencer"

Obstacle Course Racing: A Beginner's Guide

It would be hard to imagine that anyone reading this hasn't either heard of Obstacle Course Racing in general, or one of the leading race companies out there. Five years ago, this wouldn't have been the case. OCR (as many refer to it) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with over 4 million participants in 2014. So what is an obstacle course race? Why should I consider running one? What are the differences between the races, and which one is for me?

An obstacle course race is pretty much what it sounds like - a race that involves obstacles. From there, each race company seems to bring their own uniqueness to the table in terms of level of difficulty, obstacles, distance, and type of terrain. Here is a breakdown of some of the major races that you can sign up for in the US this year:

Warrior Dash & Rugged Maniac

  • Distance: 5k
  • Terrain: Mud
  • Obstacles: Climbing, crawling, jumping.

Warrior Dash and Rugged Maniac are both very similar. They are 5k races, have lots of mud, and when you are not racing there is a big party going on in the festival area. There aren't many strength-based obstacles, most of them require getting yourself over walls, climbing ladders and cargo nets, crawling through mud and underground pipes, jumping into water, and jumping over fire. If you have never done an obstacle course race, these are great races to start with.

Tough Mudder

  • Distance: 10-12 Miles
  • Terrain: Mountains, Motocross Tracks, Mud.
  • Obstacles: Freezing water, electric shock, teamwork.

Tough Mudder is actually not considered a race, it is an event. There is no timing, and no winner. Instead, every participant enters a Tough Mudder for the same reason, to finish. This event is really geared towards running with a team, some of the obstacles require teamwork to complete, and many companies go out with all of their employees for a team building experience. The obstacles you can expect to see involve being in and out of mud and water, jumping into a freezing ice water bath, getting shocked by hanging electric wires, carrying logs, barbwire crawl, and monkey bars. You can make this event as challenging as you want it to be, as you can skip obstacles that make you feel uncomfortable, and choose to either run or walk, but at the end of the day it is still going to be 10-12 miles.

Spartan Race

  • Distance: 3-26 Miles
  • Terrain: Mountains, Trails, MLB & NFL Stadiums
  • Obstacles: Strength based, Climbing, Penalty for non-completion.

Spartan Spencer Rope Climb

Spartan Race is currently the top competitive racing series in the US. There is an "elite" wave that runs first thing in the morning where participants compete for prize money, and points that go towards their ranking for the year. There are 5 race distances: Stadium Sprint 3-4 miles, Sprint 4-5 miles, Super 8-10 miles, Beast 13-15 miles, and Ultra Beast 26 miles. The majority of racers are not running in the elite wave, so don't get the impression that this race is only for accomplished athletes. Obstacles you can expect to see involve climbing ropes, throwing a spear at a hay target, monkey bars, carrying buckets full of rocks, carrying sandbags, barbwire crawl, and climbing over walls. The major differences between a Spartan Race and the events already mentioned, is that the obstacles can be much more challenging, and there is a penalty if you skip or are unable to complete each obstacle. The penalty for each failed obstacle is 30 burpees, which evens out the difficulty of the race between those that are running and completing the obstacles, and those that may be walking and fail obstacles.


  • Distance: 8k, 16k+
  • Terrain: Mountains, Trails
  • Obstacles: Strength based, Climbing

BattleFrog is an obstacle race series designed by U.S. Navy Seals, and is the newest of the mentioned race series. Their courses are very similar to Spartan Races in terms of being competitive, having strength based obstacles, and a lot of new, exciting climbing obstacles. The race is 8k, but athletes in the competitive wave run two laps making it 16k, and some venues have the option of running as many laps as possible throughout the day as a part of their BattleFrog Xtreme series.

With all this being said, why should you consider running one of these races? Obstacle course racing has helped inspire, motivate, and change the lives of millions of people. I cannot speak for all of them, but I can talk about the reasons that I believe everyone should give it a try.

Spartan Spencer Jumping

There is something that is comforting about playing in the mud. When you were a child and you encountered a puddle, you would jump in it, not around it. You would play in the sandbox, get grass stains on your jeans, and climb trees. Somewhere down the line society told you that you are getting too old for this. This was the norm for children, but adults are supposed to be grossed out by getting dirty, and make sure to keep their clothes clean. But this is where society got it wrong. The human body wasn't made to sit at a desk all day, only to get 1 hour of exercise on a treadmill. We were made to jump, crawl, run, squat, lift, throw, and climb. From the second you fly off that starting line, all of society's "rules" go out the window. You forget about the world, and you live in the moment. You are challenged for the entire duration that you are out there, but yet the minute you cross the finish line, it's like you wish it wasn't over. Obstacle course races are a way of challenging yourself, they are something to train towards, and something that will keep you motivated in your training on those days that you don't feel like getting off the couch.

Ok, so you're interested. Which race should you try first?

There is really no right or wrong answer here. My first race was a Spartan Race, and everybody should be able to get off the couch and be able to finish a Sprint length Spartan Race. With that being said, there are easier options out there if the whole idea is scaring you. Warrior Dash and Rugged Maniac are both easier in terms of the types of obstacles you will encounter, the terrain, and the distances. Spartan Race Stadium Sprints are also great for a first race, as you won't get wet or muddy, you can run in your regular road running shoes, and you get a taste for what Spartan Race style obstacles are like.

So, what are you waiting for? I hope the thought of trying an obstacle course race is starting to excite you the way I was excited the first time I found out about them online. The first step is signing up. If you have any questions at all, you can send me a message through my page at facebook.com/SpartanSpencer. I'll see you out on a course soon! AROO!

Will you be trying an obstacle course race soon? Let us know which one and how you are feeling about it in the comments below.