One of the nice things about obstacle course racing is that unlike many solo sports, there isn’t a standard template for how to train.
That might make OCR training sound daunting, but fear not – there are plenty of training elements that are useful for most Irish OCR events. With a few exceptions, Irish OCR events don’t yet have highly technical obstacles when compared to international level events. This means that it probably won’t be your inability to tackle an obstacle that will stop you, but rather the cumulative effect of the of obstacles and terrain that will wear you down. If you can jog a 5K, you can probably survive an Irish OCR course, especially if you run with a group. You don’t need to train too hard to just make it around the course, but maybe you want to do a little more than just finish.
Let me outline how you should start training if you want to go from finisher to competitor.
The most important component of your training should be trail running. With a few exceptions, you’re generally going to be running through mud, fields and forests. To train for this, you’ll have to find your nearest forest and go off the beaten track a little. Road running will also build your aerobic fitness, but it will not prepare you for what lies beneath your feet. Tree roots, spongy forest floor and slippery mud are all waiting there to catch you out! Once you spend enough hours on this terrain though, instinct will develop and you’ll be able to glide over these. This takes time to develop, so you need to start doing this now. You’ll be less likely to roll an ankle during the big event if you’ve been hitting the trails too.
It’s not wise though to venture too far into the wild without a pair of good trail runners. If in doubt, Salomon and Inov-8 are some of the top brands to look to. Trail running groups are very popular in Ireland, and there are probably groups meeting most weekends in your area. Just contact the Irish Mountain Running Association if you want to find a group in your area.
The obstacles are the next thing to deal with. At bigger OCRs abroad (and at a growing number here) it’ll be these that make or break you. In Ireland at the moment, the obstacles probably won’t be a showstopper for most people. That said, you can save seconds on them here and there, and seconds add up quickly. Obstacles vary widely. There are walls and nets to climb over, tunnels to crawl through, and all sorts of other things. Being flexible and supple should translate well to most obstacles found on the Irish circuit. Whether you have to contort yourself into a cramped space or throw a leg over the top of a wall you’ll benefit from a little-added flexibility.
Every morning, take a few minutes while waiting for the kettle to boil to loosen up with some dynamic stretches. Every evening then, take 10-20 minutes to do some Yin yoga style static stretches (loads of routines can be found on YouTube), focusing on your hips and shoulders the most. You can do this while watching TV, so it doesn’t need to eat into your leisure time.
You’ll be pulling more than pushing in OCRs, whether here or overseas. That means you’re better off focusing on pull-ups over push-ups, and barbell rows over bench presses. Don’t neglect the chest and triceps, but it’s the back and biceps you’ll be relying on when climbing a wall, traversing monkey bars, suspending from a rope or powering up and over an A-frame cargo net.
Grip is the next thing, and there are a few angles to it. Pure grip strength itself will ensure you can support yourself in the first place. Grip strength will then feed into your overall grip game, but it’s not the most important component of it. Your ability to maintain your grip is much more important in OCR than how strongly you can grip something. It will be taxed constantly throughout almost any OCR, and once your grip is gone, you’ll be in big trouble. There are two factors at play here — grip endurance and hand durability. I overlooked the latter in my training for the 2017 OCR European Championships, and that lead to an awful experience.
Grip endurance can be developed quite easily and safely by doing dead hangs from a pull-up bar. Doing them this way will not only develop endurance in the appropriate muscles, but it will also introduce your arms to the tension they’ll experience when dangling from obstacles. When you feel you can no longer hold onto your pull-up bar, do a slow pull-up. This will redistribute the load across your muscles. That should give your fatigued muscles a brief break, after which you may be able to go again.
The other side to maintaining grip comes from your hands’ durability. If you’re not regularly exposed to manual labour, the inevitable scuffs, scrapes and slaps your hands will take over the course of an OCR may be what brings you down. Kettlebell exercises, as well as traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises without the use of gloves, will help toughen the hands. If and when you develop calluses on your hands, be sure to file them down. Trust me — you don’t want to risk tearing them on a kettlebell swing or a monkey bar.
The final piece of the puzzle you initially need is the ability to shift gears efficiently. Maybe you can run a steady 10K in under 50 minutes, and that’s a fine base to be starting from. How much thought would stopping to tie your shoelaces in the middle of that upset your rhythm? How long after a set of monkey bars do you spend trying to settle back into a comfortable pace? No amount of steady paced running will help you adapt to the stop-start nature of OCR. You will, therefore, need to add some high-intensity activities to your training. A simple way to start with this is to add interval runs to your training.
Intervals are runs characterised by sprints of 50-150 meters, followed by slower jogging for perhaps the same distance, repeated a number of times. A basic interval session might be to jog for 10 minutes to warm up and then do five rounds of intervals, followed by some more jogging to cool down. Intervals will be very tough at first — you’ve been warned! As well as improving you physically, they will also help to improve your mental toughness.
That pretty much wraps up where I think a beginner should start when it comes to improving at OCR. If you add these elements to your routines — trails, plenty of pull-ups, attention to hip and shoulder mobility and flexibility, grip endurance, and finally, intervals, you should be well on your way to becoming a competitor. If you want to find out about any OCR gyms, groups or clubs near you, just contact OCR Association Ireland. They will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.