New sport challenge: OCR or Obstacle Course Racing

HUN Blog from 18/09/2021

In the last decade or two, a new compound sport, running combined with overcoming obstacles, getting more and more popular around the world. It is called OCR (Obstacle Course Race). It is becoming an increasingly popular mass sport, the competitions can be completed by almost anyone with an average level of fitness, although the bar is set high in the professional categories. This year I’ve tried it myself, competing in two races so far and helping others prepare. In this article I analyse the conditional needs of the sport and write about my first impressions and experiences.

Why not?

Running is a basic natural movement. The human musculature is genetically able to sprint fast and run long distances for hours. Furthermore, with conscious training work, you can greatly improve your factory design running performance! Climbing over various obstacles, hanging from tree branches (like monkeys), carrying heavy objects, balancing, target throwing, crawling on the ground are also basic natural movements. Getting dirty and muddy, getting some scratches on the skin in the process are nothing new. So combine all of the above, add a little tractor-tire flips, archery or other fun obstacles (e.g. water slides) and you have a modern obstacle course! It includes many forms of exercise that an active, sporty Homo Sapiens should have no problem with, a great physical, mental challenge and a great social experience!

What do you need?

First of all, a great determination and signing up for the chosen competition. Then, it doesn’t hurt to put some training into the bag, so that it won’t be a struggle to get through the course, but an enjoyable sporting experience. From a physiological point of view, the demands of this genre are quite complex. Endurance is the most important aspect, but it’s also important to be strong, agile, explosive and mentally tough. The following is a brief, simplified analysis of the various fitness and mental abilities. The bad news is that the sky is the limit for all of them, so there’s always room for improvement. The good news is that all of them can be developed to an appropriate level with regular, conscious training! So setting an OCR race in your calendar can give you a long term goal and motivation to train regularly!

  1. Endurance:
    Endurance is the most important thing in this genre in my opinion. The minimum is to be able to run 5-10km even if you wake up in the middle of the night. In the race, you have to add the obstacles too. Regular runners should have no problem. For them, some strength, mobility, coordination, explosiveness development and you’ve got a hopeful OCR racer. The endurance of complete beginners can be built up in a few months, you just have to work on it! Steady aerobic runs, anaerobic like intervals, anaerobic sprint interval runs or alternating pace fartlek runs can be useful in your training plan. This is of course very individual to whom and in what proportions and amounts. Flat, cross-country and hill running are all recommended, but it is probably wiser to focus on the latter two.

2. Strength-endurance
This is not a race where the muscles constantly burn and lactic acid levels skyrocket for 1-2 minutes. Strength-endurance is not the most important skill here, but it doesn’t hurt to have some. Think of 10-30 burpee penalties for failing an obstacle or a less frequent task that can be completed in half a minute or so with continuous effort (e.g. rolling a tractor tire, running up a hill). Functional strength workouts with lower resistance, higher repetition rates, shorter rest periods or hill run, sprint-intervals and shuttle runs can be useful.

3. Strength
OCR requires a good level of strength, most importantly relative strength, grip strength and their suitability for serial loading. That means being able to handle your own body weight well and often for short periods of time! There are some one-handed hanging, slippery obstacles where even Tarzan would sweat, because a super strong grip is required. All this several times, half or completely tired from running. So it doesn’t hurt if you can handle your own body and can do a few pull-ups, push-ups, etc. It’s also okay if it’s over 10-20 reps… If you can’t do them yet, no problem, you can ask for help from your mates in the general categories or pay for the missed obstacle with burpees. In the long run, it’s also beneficial in many ways to reach a basic bodyweight strength level, so it’s worth doing regular strength training regardless of OCR.

It also doesn’t hurt to have eccentric strength in the house (when you lowering down in the squat exercise, for example). Think about jumping off and landing from obstacles! Or the lots of burpees! These can be injury hazards if you’re not prepared for them. This is why I incorporate jumps or slow eccentric execution for strenght exercises into my training plan. I also like the good old weightlifting exercise, the clean, because once you pick up the weight, you have to decelerate it with your whole body, just like jumping off an obstacle. This way you can leap off the hurdles with ease and grace, without any falls or ankle sprains.

So let’s start to pump your muscles! With your own body weight, kettlebells or weights. The goal should be a high relative strength and a repeatedly high level of it! Low-repetition range, high-resistance strength training in several sets!

4. Speed, explosiveness
You don’t need to be fast as lightning, the race consists of longer duration runs. It’s not the sprinters who win OCR races, it’s more likely that a more muscular middle or long distance runner (or a thinner crossfitter with good running skills) will win. You can gain some advantage on some obstacles with fast muscles and you have to be able to jump up on the obstacles somehow. This is not done with slow muscle fibres and sloth-sluggishness. All of this has to be performed up to 20-30-50 times while the heart rate is already high from running. It’s also worth spending some time developing speed and explosiveness, especially if you’re really lack of them. Jumps can again be useful for this, as well as Olympic weightlifting exercises, strength exercises done explosively or some short sprint runs.

5. Movement coordination, dexterity
A good sense of balance, spatial orientation, high body awareness, sense of rhythm and ability to react quickly to circumstances are essential. If you don’t know which is your left and right hand-leg when you move, you’d better bring these qualities up first and get more skilful. In an OCR race, after a run, you need to move coordinated through obstacles, being half tired, where clumsiness can result in injury. I would definitely work on coordination in preparation. e.g. balancing, bodyweight exercises on the ground, animal like crawling, ball games, martial arts, dance, agility ladder.

6. Agility
A few thoughts about agility, i.e. how quickly we can change direction, accelerate, decelerate with nice, coordinated movements. We also sometimes train with an agility ladder so that we are not surprised by sudden changes of direction. It comes in handy when you’re running down a hill at a thousand miles an hour speed on a narrow, rocky trail! I also like to incorporate shuttle runs into my training, because in competition you often have to decelerate and then restart and change direction. It’s not just a smooth, continuous run! It’s more like an interval run, with longer and shorter sections, lots of braking and starting!

7. Flexibility, mobility
High levels of joint mobility and ballerina flexibility are not essential, but the risk of injury is greatly reduced, energy efficiency is increased. It’s great if you have loose and strong joints, you can exert force over a wide range of motion. Even with a hunched back and frozen hips from sitting too much, you can still get over obstacles with an indivdual technique, but you’ll look better if you do it with a nice posture and elegant muscle control, like a gymnast. There are countless exercises and training methods to improve mobility (e.g. yoga, pilates, movnat). It is up to the individual who needs to focus more on which body part. The good news is that strength training with a good technique and full range of motion can also improve mobility! With smart strengthening you can kill more birds with one stone!

8. Psychological factors
You should be strong in your head of course! Determination and perseverance for both the preparation and competition. Not as monotonous as long distance running, you can put together very colourful workouts for OCR. Calm thinking before obstacles is also an advantage. Also the ability to withstand stress, “dirt, mud and bruises”. This will not be a gentlemanly event in your finest princess dress, ball suit. If we are not competing in the professional category, it can suddenly become a team sport from individual, so harmonious cooperation with our partners and helping each other is also part of it.

Difficulty grades

Depending on the race organisers, the distance can be either a short sprint (e.g. 100-200m) or an extreme 100-mile, 24-hour ultra-run. In general, distances of 5-10km are more typical. The run can be on flat surfaces, but cross-country is more typical and organisers like to include ‘wicked, thigh-burning’ climbs as well. There are mostly small ascents, but there are also races specifically for mountain running.

Most races are designed to be doable with average fitness level and a few training sessions per week. The races are mainly organised for mass participation, but there are also professional competitions.

There are usually several categories. In the general and age group categories, you can either ask your partner for help with the obstacles (a huge relief!) or you can pay with 10-20 burpees if you can’t complete the task. In the pro categories there is no option for error or assistance. If you fail an obstacle, you’re disqualified, you can take a shower and go home. If you want to win or get close to the podium, you need to be highly athletic! It has become a popular sport and many talented athletes have been systematically preparing for it for years, with high standards at the top.

My experiences

I’ve been twice so far and overall I’ve enjoyed both, a great sporting and team experience! The first one was the Bestial Race in June, 9 km of up&down hill running with 30-35 obstacles in between. I was in pretty good shape, I really enjoyed it. I lost a few minutes due to tactic mistakes and ended up finishing 17th out of over 300 people. For the first time it was ok, I was satisfied.

The second one, in September, was the Baifo Extreme, which started with a 5km cross country run (with a few refreshing water container obstacles), followed by over 30 obstacles. Here I would have liked to have achieved something better results, but unfortunately I had a serious wrist injury before, so I could hardly train normally. By the time my wrist was in better shape, I managed to get another injury on my foot. A few weeks before the race, I stepped on a stone while running, which flared up with a sharp pain after 5 minutes of running, so I just limped slowly the run, and somehow managed to get over the obstacles with one and a half hands and legs. I still finished on the 46th place out of over 300 people. Not bad considering the circumstances. But I know I can do much better if I’m 100%. I hope my time will come!

Everyone from our small SunnyFitness team finished in the top 1/3 of the competitiors in both races, happy and injury free (apart from a few scratches). I’m proud of them, they gave out their all and worked super well together on the obstacles. All this with a busy work and family life and 1-3 training sessions a week.

As a coach, I see that people of almost any age (well, between 14-60) and average fitness levels can complete the basic race distances. Even with a few months of smart training a few times a week. If you manage to train more (or better), you can finish more and more close to the top athletes, the risk of injury is greatly reduced, you don’t need to ask for help or burpee at obstacles and completing the distance is not a torture but a joy run. The professional level, in my opinion, requires years of serious training.

My perspectives

This sport suits me very well! 25 years of canoeing gave me an excellent foundation in endurance, work capacity, also some strength came with it. I’ve been in hundreds of serious competitions, in which I achieved good results and always did well mentally. Thanks to the last 7 years of MovNat training and strength training, my mobility has improved a lot, I have become much more agile, faster and stronger. My endurance has declined, I haven’t run any long distances for about 4 years, I started again this year. Fortunately, the deficit is not too big, I had reserves. I’m also gaining experience from the coaching side, and I’m constantly learning the profession, so I can create more and more precise, no-frills training plans.

I’m currently training as an enthusiastic amateur, with 3-5 smart-minimalist workouts a week as I have time next to work and other sports. If I want to be in the international elite, I should be training 8-10 times a week for at least 1-2 years and not doing much else in life. But who is funding that? So at the moment the reality is, if I can train well (and injury free), I can finish within the first 1-10 in smaller, local competitions. In 1-2 years I might even qualify to a bigger international competition and not be the last. And if I could turn pro and put 2-4 years into it, I might be in competiton with the top. Let’s see, currently I enjoy the preparation and go step by step.

To sum up,

I really like this sport and recommend it to anyone who likes challenges! It uses your fitness and basic natural movements in many ways. Be prepared for endurance, strength, agility, mental perseverance! The atmosphere is also great if you’re looking for a fun, sporty group of people. In the long run, you can motivate yourself to train by scheduling a race for a few months later. If you’ve not been particularly sporty, it’s a good excuse to start exercising regularly! If you’ve been sporty and are open to new adventures, give OCR a try!


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