At its highest levels, obstacle racing requires incredible cardiovascular fitness and impressive functional strength. For multisport athlete Ryan Atkins, both came naturally as the result of his diverse athletic interests. A former wrestler and rugby player, Atkins won multiple unicycling world championships (trials and mountain) in his teens. Today, the Canadian is a nationally ranked mountain biker who, between back-to-back victories in the World’s Toughest Mudder (a 24-hour race in which you complete as many laps of a five-mile obstacle course as possible), still managed to dabble in adventure racing, ultrarunning, rock climbing, weight training, cycling, Nordic skiing, and hard labor—quite a laundry list of fitness feats. We asked Atkins which activities offer the best preparation for obstacle racing and why.
Every pro we talked to agreed that running is the most important type of fitness to develop for obstacle racing success. Trails help you improve your technical footwork and agility while exposing you (in most cases) to a healthy dose of elevation gain as well as obstacles. “I find trail running on technical, steep trails to be the best training for OCR,” Atkins says.
As a counterbalance to running, cycling is a great low-impact exercise that develops your cardiovascular system. Take it off-road, as Atkins often does, and it improves your ability to judge—and react to— terrain at high speeds.
Rock climbing develops incredible forearm muscles for grip strength and endurance. Plus, it promotes balance and increases body awareness. These skills translate directly to handling all variety of obstacles, including traverse walls, rope climbs, and bucket carries.
Ever wonder why turtles are so slow? Try putting your entire house—or at least your camping gear—on your back and going for a long walk through even mildly vertical terrain. It’s definitely tough (and slow) going. But it’s also great training. The heavy pack simulates doing heavy carries in a race, and it goes a long way toward building leg strength.
Plain Old Hard Work
“Doing hard manual labor builds great strength and resilience,” Atkins says. “I love building trails by hand and constructing obstacles.” As an alternative, you can carry heavy logs or sandbags up hills and chop wood.