Forget your standard marathon: since the mid-2000s mud-filled obstacle course races have taken over the competitive fitness scene. While obstacle course racing originated as “Tough Guy” in England, it has taken North America by storm. Obstacle course races (such as the Tough Mudder, Spartan, Mud Hero and Warrior Dash) have become the fastest growing sport in U.S. history. Not only have their attendance rates far surpassed marathon and triathlon numbers, but niche categories (such as superhero scrambles and zombie races) have grown in popularity as well. With all lengths, styles and competitiveness, there is a race for everyone.
There are currently over 100 obstacle race series across North America, with participation rates reaching the thousands per event. With growing cash prizes and media coverage, there is momentum and growing appeal across all fitness platforms – from running purists to die-hard CrossFit competitors. Keep in mind that obstacle course racing has grown with the rise of many social media platforms – Twitter and Instagram – and as a result has developed a huge following both online and on the course.
With more media attention, come larger cash prizes. And with larger podium prize incentives comes a larger field of elite athletes. Today, the prize money awarded at these “mud races” far surpasses those of ultras, trail races, road running and cycling races. It’s no wonder obstacle races, such as the Tough Mudder, have pulled elite athletes across all platforms. For example, this year the Warrior Dash awarded both the top male and female winners $30,000.
The competition is getting stiff, and the elite field is stacked. While just a few years ago the podium was filled with your average ‘weekend warrior,’ obstacle course races are drawing world champions and Olympic athletes. The emerging talent pool at these races has sparked conversation about the standardization of races across the sport. Elites are calling for more consistency to marshall races if the sport is going to excel into more professional worlds – such as the Olympics. To avoid accusations of cheating and drug-use, many involved in the sport are requesting a neutral governing body in the industry to enforce standards and tightly regulate events. At odds with these demands, newcomers to the sport often crave the unknown and obstacle differences among races – each offering a unique experience for the racer.
With more endurance-based athletes toeing the starting line, there has been an on slot of rivalling training techniques and competing theories as to who is the ‘ideal’ obstacle course athlete. Athletes with strong endurance backgrounds in running and cycling over pure strength are frequently snatching the top podium spots. Stamina has been proven to be key to placing at these races. For example, Canadian biathlete Gadabout winning the 2014 Spartan Championship and well-known trail runner Max King podiuming at the Warrior Dash.
But not so fast. Many endurance athletes who can run far and fast have shown weaknesses at many of the strength obstacles. For example, at last year’s Spartan Race, Max King finished in 12th place due to unsuccessfully completing many of the “grip and strength” obstacles. As a result, he was forced to compete over 100 penalty burpees – leaving him out of contention for a podium finish. Meanwhile, athletes that focus on strength, especially upper-body strength, excel at the majority of the obstacles.
The rise in popularity – in both the non-elite and elite field – has led many to ask: who are obstacle race’s best suited for? The endurance junkie or strength-focuses ‘CrossFit’ athlete? While both ‘types’ of athletes are equipped with a unique toolbox of proficiency, each camp faces different challenges throughout the race. Versatility is key. But does one athletic background arm athletes with a distinct advantage?
What do you think? Is there an “ideal” obstacle course racer?