Ryan Atkins on Overcoming the World’s Toughest and Muddiest Obstacles

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With new races popping up every year, obstacle course racing has been a fast-evolving trend over the last decade. These races turn school teachers and businessmen and everyone in between into fierce competitors who take down each hurdle one step at a time.

Enter Ryan Atkins – one of the top obstacle course racers in the world. A former mountain bike racer, Atkins is now a dedicated obstacle course racer. In 2014, he won the World’s Toughest Mudder and placed second in the Spartan World Championship – earning serious bragging rights and a respected spot at the top of the billion-dollar industry. He trains in and around Caledon, especially on the Bruce Trail, and loves spending time training in the wilderness, practicing for major races by encountering nature’s many obstacles. A perfect example of a fitness enthusiast who has found his passion in obstacle course racing, Atkins embodies those looking to push themselves as far as they can go.

In the below Q&A, Atkins opens up with Men’s Journal about his take on health and fitness, how he prepares for races – and what he couldn’t live without on his path (or rather, mountain trail), to the race ahead.

Q: How did you get into racing?

A: I got into racing when a friend of mine told me of a race. I love testing myself and saw it as a great opportunity to see what I could do in a rugged, natural environment.

Q: How do you balance your training routine with your everyday life?

A: I balance my training routine with everyday life by slotting in training wherever possible. If it was an especially busy day, I like to take work breaks every hour to do 100 squats and some pushups. Otherwise, prioritizing training and maximizing the quality of the training time you do have is essential. Finally, if life gets in the way (which it does), it’s important not to stress over the missed training time. Move on and refocus on your next session.

Q: What kind of outside-the-box workouts do you do to prepare for a race?

A: I love doing workouts that mix in hard running with elements of strength. These can include log carries, burpees, and squats along with fast-paced trail running.

Q: What is your daily routine like? How does it change during race week?

A: My daily routine involves me waking up, having breakfast (usually oatmeal and/or eggs) and getting out for an easy run. After that, I’ll come back and take care of some emails and work-related stuff while having a snack. Then I’ll do my hard training session for the day. In the afternoons, I like to work on something (car, woodworking, etc.) or go rock climbing. Usually, I go to bed by 10 PM and try to get at least eight hours of sleep.

Q: What’s the difference between health and fitness?

A: To me, health and fitness go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. So it comes down to balancing the amount of fitness you can handle whilst still remaining healthy. Conversely, I see methods of becoming healthier (nutrition, life balance, etc.) as ways to extend and enhance your fitness.

Q: What helps keep you going during a race?

A: During a race, I love to come up with intermediate “mini-goals”. Sometimes these can be to run (instead of walk) up a hill or to go over a wall slightly more efficiently. By having these attainable mini-goals, you can focus on something more immediate.

Q: What’s the hardest part about racing? How do you push through?

A: The hardest part about racing is managing the workload through training and keeping yourself fresh enough (mentally and physically) through the races. Combine that with racing 20+ times a year and the long-term hunger and desire to push yourself can be tough. I push through by recognizing how lucky I am and by training outside in beautiful, natural locations.

Q: How do you recover after a race?

A: After a race, I like to recover with an ice bath and a good meal. Sometimes hanging out with friends and a beer can be a great reward after all the hard work.

Q: What type of gear would improve your race experience? 

A: Having gear that is as tough as the courses that I race on would be a great addition. A watch like the G-Shock Mudmaster can be massively beneficial as it’s designed for the harshest conditions possible. Having a watch to track my time through the course can give invaluable knowledge on splits and other environmental factors.

Q: What other race gear could you not live without?

A: I couldn’t live without a pair of compression socks, grippy trail shoes and compression shorts.

Q: What was the toughest race you’ve done?

A: The toughest race I’ve done is the World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour, lap format race, where competitors try to run as far as possible in the time period. The 2013 race was my first race of that length and I was able to push myself longer and harder than I’ve ever done. It was also the first major OCR race that I won and that put me on the map as a competitor. Last year, I ran 105 miles in this iconic race.

Q: What lessons has racing taught you?

A: Racing has taught me that you can’t stress your failures. Celebrate your victories or mourn your defeats, but move on once it’s over and refocus your efforts. Never waste mental energy on being negative – it’s not worth it. Positivity is the best tool you can have in racing and in life.

Q: What does your nutrition plan look like?

A: I like to focus my nutrition on real, natural foods. I don’t adhere to any strict diet, but I try to maximize my intake of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. This, combined with lean, high-quality protein sources and whole grains, has proven to be the key for me to stay lean and healthy.

Q: What race are you most excited for in the future?

A: I’m always most excited for my next upcoming race. It’s another opportunity to test yourself out and see how your training and preparation has worked (or not!)

Q: Beyond racing, what health and fitness goals/lifestyle are important to you?

Beyond racing, I love hiking and running through beautiful trails and landscapes. Otherwise, my goals are always to maintain a healthy lifestyle and remain focused and positive throughout my life. Finally, I think it’s important to always have goals to push and motivate you through your daily life.

Q: Tough Mudder vs. Spartan Race – which one do you prefer? Why? What are the benefits of each?

A: Tough Mudder and Spartan races are so different. They both have differing lengths to challenge people’s endurance. I find Tough Mudder has bigger and more fun obstacles. The focus is on having a good time and finding your personal best. Spartan is more of a “beat you down” style of race. Heavy carries and repetitive obstacles tend to force athletes to compete against each other and see what they are made of. Both races are tons of fun and offer wonderful experiences. 

Q: Why is it important to stay healthy and fit?

A: It’s important to stay healthy and fit because your body’s health directly affects your mental health. Your mental and physical health makes up your entire being, so of course you want to take care of that and take care of yourself, in order to maximize the experiences, opportunities and relationships that you can have, with your time on this earth. 

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