Tips for your First Obstacle Course Race
Let me start off by saying two things:
I am not a professional athlete, elite OCR (obstacle course race) competitor, or a certified OCR coach of any kind. All tips are based on my own experience with numerous races in different locations!
You absolutely can run (or walk) in an OCR even if you aren’t fit or an athlete of any kind. I competed in my first Spartan Race when I was 240 pounds and walked between all obstacles, doing my burpees when I wasn’t able to carry my own weight in a lot of the upper body events.
Like I said above, I’m not a professional or even a seasoned OCR racer. But I remember spending hours before my first race searching for blog posts and tips from NON-professional or elite racers and found very little information for beginners who want to compete to finish, not to place on the podium. As far as my experience goes, I have completed a Spartan Sprint, Super, and Tough Mudder Half, and I intend to complete my first Spartan Trifecta (Sprint, Super, and Beast in a calendar year) in 2019. Despite having a burpee penalty for failing an obstacle, I very strongly prefer Spartan Races over Tough Mudder, especially for beginners, but I’ll save that for another blog :)
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope some information can be helpful when preparing for your first race!
Proper Footwear & Attire:
I really want to encourage you to look into shoes with strong traction. I wore Nike tennis shoes for my first race and while I didn’t lose them (yes, people lose shoes when they have to fight through the suction of knee-deep mud), they were slick and and lacked traction when carrying sandbags or buckets of rocks. My favorite pair I’ve worn were the Reebok All Terrain Super, but they unfortunately have a very short lifespan (i.e. two races) for the price ($100-150).
Clothing, as you probably have read in nearly every race guide, should not be made of cotton. Compression clothing is best so that you don’t end up with mud caked in any available crevice on your body. I also personally prefer to wear long sleeved tops and at least capri-length pants because there’s a LOT of crawling and my elbows and knees appreciate it.
Dri-fit socks are also helpful, and finger-less gloves are nice for obstacles like the bucket carry and any hoisting, but make sure they are an expendable pair that you wouldn’t mind losing or ripping during the race.
I wear glasses, and even if I had contacts I would not recommend wearing them to a race. I use an old, spare pair that I wouldn’t be completely upset if broken or lost, but I know many people wear contacts without issues as well. I personally wouldn’t take the risk of getting something lodged into my eyes or underneath a contact, but glasses don’t prevent you from getting mud in your eyes either so it’s up to you.
Bring a change of clothes with you to the venue. Most will have showers (don’t expect warm water) and a gender specific changing tent where you can at least get out of your muddy clothes. You’ll want to bring a full outfit to change into, including undergarments, socks, and shoes (or sandals/slippers). Bring a towel as well!
Food & Nutrition:
The day before: You might hear people saying they do some kind of “carb load” the night before a race, which essentially fills your tank with some reserve energy that you will tap into during the race. Think starchy and less fibrous foods (you don’t get porta potties during the race!) like breads, cereals, pasta. Whatever you choose to eat the day before, make sure it’s not anything new or suspicious!
The morning of: Get a good breakfast that isn’t too greasy, fibrous, or filling. You want to make sure you’re satisfied, but not stuffed or at risk of needing to use the restroom when you’re swimming through a pool of muddy water. My go-to is an açaí bowl with a side of bread or toast, but as I said before - go with what you know and are comfortable with. What do you typically eat before a grueling workout?
During the race: You won’t get many snacks during the race, but many participants pack some items into a waistpack or stuff things into their clothes for when they need a little burst of fuel during a race. Gu energy gels, gummies, or even small packs of cookies will give you a nice burst of quick carbs to get you through. Another thing I recommend carrying with you is some mustard packets, salt tabs, or pickle juice packets if you can find them! Take them when you feel like your muscles are starting to fatigue or like a cramp is coming on - they really do help, and trust me, you won’t be the only one carrying them around.
In the weeks or months leading up to your first race, I highly recommend working on your upper and lower body strength. You are probably able to cover the distance of the race by walking, running, or a combination of both, so your training should be focused on building muscle and endurance. You can find lists of obstacles online and look up workouts to prepare you for each, so then you at least won’t go into your first race unprepared, even if you can’t complete the obstacle on race day.
Warm Up & Stretching:
The moments before you start the race can be hectic and nerve-racking, but it’s crucial to warm up your body before you cross the starting line. When you’re waiting in the corral or even waiting to enter the corral you should do things like jumping jacks, high knees, butt-kickers, and some dynamic stretches (active stretches that involve constant movement) to really loosen up your calves, hips, and arms.
Parking & Pre-Race Conditions:
Parking conditions can vary greatly depending on the venue. Some races are located near ski resorts and offer shuttle buses from paved or gravel lots to the starting line while other venues have you park in fields that can be just as muddy as some stretches of the race route itself. The weather was particularly bad on the day of my Spartan Super, which also took place at a venue with parking on a grassy field, so many cars had to get pushed through the mud or out of sunken spots in the field.
Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to the venue and turn in your bag at gear check (or leave with a friend/family member who isn’t racing). You should also be prepared to wait 20-40+ minutes waiting to enter the parking area and get to the entrance from your car, so don’t let parking delays cause you to miss your start time!
Have cash on hand - ATM fees are ridiculous at the venues, and most amenities like gear check are cash only.
Don’t be that asshole who teases or vocalizes their negative opinions at a race. In my experience, the crowds at Spartan Races have always been positive and supportive; people generally have positive attitudes and are very willing to help you out.
Elite and competitive heats can be different, but the open heats that are non-competitive are filled with people who are very patient and incredibly supportive. I remember my legs buckling up climbing up the A-Frame and I kept apologizing to the people behind me for my slow pace and offered to let them pass me, and not a single person took me up on that offer. I ended up with a group of racers coaching me every step of the way and giving me words of encouragement to get me through the obstacle. People will also offer to boost you up walls, and trust me when I say they CAN carry your weight. These racers are strong as f***.
Do the same! Offer words of encouragement to others, cheer for people who complete an obstacle, offer to help people if they seem like they’re struggling, do what you can to make the experience that much more rewarding and positive.
Everyone is Different:
Some people race for time, to land a spot on the podium, or to beat their own previous record, while others are first-time racers or are just looking to complete the course in a friendly, non-competitive fashion. That being said, some people will want to pass you or go around but don’t take it personally - they might be trying to beat a personal best or catch up to a friend, and most do their best to make sure you don’t feel like you’re in the way as they politely swing around you or call out as they’re approaching you from behind.
Some people might excel at running while others have mastered the obstacles. Don’t ruin the experience by being hard on yourself for not being good at some aspect of the race. It’s your first time! Enjoy it!
You worked hard, pushed your body and tested its limits. You will be sore and your muscles will need some recovery time. Icy Hot, epsom salt, pas patches, and ibuprofen will be your best friend during this time. Don’t be surprised if you struggle to get out of bed the next morning - I remember waking up and saying that I felt like I was run over by a car (not that I’ve experienced that but I definitely imagine it would feel very similar).