The Obstacle Course Craze

New Balance IMPI Challenge GP pic 1_web

cherie vale / newsport media

Having the compulsory military call-up after school removed for good, young South Africans and the youth of today seem to be craving what our parents dreaded in the army, the gruelling test of physical ability racing through obstacle courses. The only difference with the modern version is that it is done voluntarily and for the primary reason of having fun.

So what has brought on this sudden craze for these tough and dirty events?
With the sedentary lifestyles we lead today, we are spending more time awake and unproductive than asleep – this is a researched fact; and a very scary one at that. The modern human spends the majority of his day seated behind a computer, usually assuming a badly crouched posture, slipping in an odd fix of excitement through social media as the boss leaves the room.

Due to our everyday routines of the known, many previously active individuals and those seeking a challenge are breaking out in search of something different, something to talk about. We move in seek of a challenge that allows us to feel an upliftment in our social status on completion of the event with a medal around the neck.

Enter the muddy obstacle course. Obstacle course racing is becoming an extremely popular event for people to test their inner fortitude and determination.

Within the fitness industry, as in any other industry, there will always be the latest trends or fads. What are these events that are motivating the masses to get out and sweat on a perfectly good weekend day, when they could be sleeping in? We will always have the marathons and triathlons, but the latest and greatest seem to be these obstacle course races and team-building events that entail a whole lot of craziness and have seriously good times thrown in.

The days of earning bragging rights on the achievement of completing an Ironman or Comrades Marathon are slowly fading – not taking away from the mean feat that they are. These Ironmen and women are now flocking to these events looking for an alternative, an additional box to tick?

The nature of the obstacle course run is more laid back and often primarily about completing the course than doing the best time. They are events that encourage friends to join in and help one another overcome their fears. These may be fears of heights, dark tunnels, bats, electrical wires, splashing through water or getting shot on the butt by a paintball gun. The events vary from one another primarily due to the nature of the terrain and vegetation they take place within. The variation is also highly determined by the imagination of the course planner. This all creates for an element of the unknown; none of the events can be test run or tried out, so all the athletes are in the same boat.

Often the events are a test of mental strength, stamina, grit and camaraderie. Due to the layout of the obstacles, these events bring out the child in everyone. People are forced to get dirty, jump off of high structures, balance on beams and even climb trees. All the things we were warned by our parents not to do as children, but still we did them. This willingness allowed us that sense of freedom and control over the consequences – often not considered as children.

Taking part in these events brings back to each participant that sense of control.

Living the rat race of our modern lives, we very seldom have full control over what we are doing or how things may turn out, we often find it hard predicting what tomorrow may bring. Taking part in these events brings back to each participant that sense of control, whether it be a control over their effort and ability, a control over the team they are assisting through the course, or being able to control the result of Are we serious? or just here to have fun…

At many of the events, certain obstacles are impossible to conquer alone. It is impressive to see the camaraderie amongst the participants in joining hands to assist one another. Friendships are made and bonds are strengthened when individuals are taken out of their cushy comfort zones. This is the element that these obstacle or military type events grasp with both hands.

New Balance IMPI Challenge GP pic4_web

cherie vale / newsport media

8 Dirty Tips

Preparing for that next obstacle course mud run? Ready yourself!

  1. Be mentally prepared. Most of these events involve many an uncertainty; you may have an idea of what obstacles lay ahead, but you have no idea how high, how deep or how cold they may be. Prepare yourself to possibly face your fears; it is thus all the more necessary to have a close friend or partner join for that helping hand – who knows, they might be the more vulnerable one on the day.
  2. Ensure you are running fit. The events vary in distance, but many of the bigger events entail quite a bit of running. Consider this: a 12km run on the road may take the average “Joe” or “Jane” a little over an hour; throw in an obstacle or two or three or 20 and it becomes an event of ultra-proportions. A 12km event could take anything from 2 hours to 4 or 5 hours for the same “Joe” or “Jane”. To be running fit and not just physically fit, you are three quarters there.
  3. Train the upper body too. Many obstacles require the use of your arms, mostly in carrying or lifting your own body weight. There is no need to do additional weight training, but the main consideration would be to get use to your own body weight. This can be improved by doing pull-ups or push-ups, hand stands, bridging and dips.
  4. Find a fitting partner. An important consideration if you would like to do well or finish more comfortably. Seek out a partner with similar running abilities to yours but with different strengths or skills in other areas. If you manage to find the right person, you can improve on your strengths and iron out the weaknesses.
  5. Don’t wear your best training kit. You will get dirty and very likely rip your clothes; so don’t wear your favourite running top or new pair of running kicks, as they will come out the other end with a bit more character.
  6. Wear gloves. Probably the most underrated yet best advice I can give you. Many of the obstacles will require grabbing, scrambling or sliding all while using your hands to assist. Protect them from the start and you will be thankful at the finish.
  7. Start in a later batch. The advantage of starting later is that you hang around and hear the stories of those who have already finished; this provides a clearer picture of what is out there and things to expect. Often the actual obstacles themselves are more grounded than and not as rickety as would be for the first group.
  8. Have fun! This should be the primary reason you enter the event. Due to the nature of these events, time and position is virtually immeasurable as conditions vary for every participant. There may be bottle-necks, different lines at obstacles may offer different challenges and some may have assistance readily available, while others may struggle along.

Obstacle course events certainly are all the craze of late. I urge you to go out and try an event for yourself. Challenge yourself and your mates, then consider the above tips and I assure you’ll have a blast out there.


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About Ryan Hodierne

Ryan is a sports scientist who firmly believes sport makes the world go round. His specialty is in Performance Analysis. He has assisted many of SA's national teams at the highest level, including the Olympics. He's a training author and keen adventure athlete who competes in off-road events of all kinds. He is the official Otter African Trail Run and Tour de Tuli training coach. Ryan currently resides in Singapore where he functions as a biomechanist, serving the nation's top profile athletes at the Singapore Sports Institute. Email him at

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