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August 2012

Train Your Clients to Get Down and Dirty

 

By Pete McCall, M.S.

Mud runs and obstacle-course races are hugely popular and attract a wide range of participants. Learn how to capitalize on this growing trend by offering profitable small-group training programs designed to help clients train for specific events throughout the year.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!

Have you or any of your clients recently participated in a mud run? If so, how did you train for the specific demands of the race? Let us know your training tips in the comments section below.

Wading through chest-high water, swinging along monkey bars, climbing over walls, low-crawling through mud and jumping into a freezing ice bath. While these might seem like the types of challenges faced by only the toughest soldiers competing for a coveted special-forces position, these are, in fact, just a few examples of obstacles from popular race-style events, commonly referred to as mud runs, that are changing the recreational fitness landscape. Standard race events such as 5Ks, 10Ks and even marathons place a significant emphasis on cardiorespiratory fitness. Mud runs and obstacle-course races, however, require aerobic endurance plus muscular strength and the ability to work anaerobically at high intensities. Clients who value exercise and physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle generally want to challenge themselves to determine their fitness level. Competing in and finishing a challenging obstacle course provides a sense of accomplishment and toughness not offered by traditional road races. 

While mud-run races are not new, there has been a recent explosion in the popularity of these and other obstacle-course events. With names like the Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, these events are becoming extremely popular among exercise enthusiasts. (Note: For purposes of this article, mud run and obstacle course refer to the same type of event—an off-road running race that includes navigating a variety of challenging obstacles to complete the course.) For example, in 2009 the first Warrior Dash held in Joliet, Ill., attracted just 2,000 participants; today, it has grown to include 33 separate events worldwide, with an estimated 650,000 participants. Likewise, the Tough Mudder series of races has evolved from 14 events in 2011 to 36 in 2012, with an estimated 500,000 participants.

Why the Surge in Popularity? 

What’s in a Name? 

Event names combined with featured obstacles are designed to support specific themes, which create a fitness experience that is difficult to replicate. For example, a number of event courses races feature military-style obstacles that allow participants to experience the challenge of military training without committing four years to armed forces or risking deployment to a dangerous war zone. Both the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder events advertise courses designed by former members of the British Special Forces. The Boot Camp Challenge at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot in San Diego allows participants to run a scaled-down version of the obstacle course used in basic training with verbal “encouragement” offered by real Marine Corps drill instructors. 

Some races go so far as to borrow from current pop-culture phenomena. Building on the zombie-related subculture made popular by the comic book and television series “The Walking Dead,” the Zombie Run challenges participants to navigate an obstacle course while being chased by volunteers dressed as the undead that are trying to steal flag football–type flags from runners. This allows racers the opportunity to experience the challenge of trying to survive a zombie apocalypse without actually having to face hordes of flesh-eating cannibals. 

What can explain the rapid surge in popularity of events requiring a “death waiver” for participation? One likely reason is that mud-run and obstacle-course races offer a unique experience for fitness enthusiasts. Arguably, these events also provide a sense of accomplishment and distinctively different “bragging rights” for completing a grueling physical challenge. Think about the conversation in the office on a Monday morning: “What did you do this weekend? Oh, a 5k run? That’s nothing, I ran a crazy course that made me jump over walls, crawl through mud and run through fire.” 

Most obstacle-course races promote camaraderie and a social atmosphere that often includes parties with beer and bands after the event (and requisite shower). Joe Decker, the current World Guinness record holder for the ‘World’s Fittest Man,’ author and a two-time winner of the Spartan Death race, runs the Gut Check boot-camp program in San Diego, Calif., and makes the point that fitness enthusiasts are always looking for new and different challenges to overcome. 

“In the eighties it was marathons, the nineties saw a surge in triathlons, in the two-thousands it was team adventure races and now it’s obstacle-course races,” says Decker. “They are pretty doable for the average person, but still provide a sense of accomplishment. The races tend to emphasize camaraderie and teamwork, as well as the social aspect of a party with live music after finishing the races to make it a complete group-focused experience.”

Another reason for the exponential growth of obstacle-course races is that they provide opportunities for adults to release their inner 10-year-olds and play like kids on oversized jungle gyms or splash around in mud pits. “I love the atmosphere and the chance to act like a kid going through mud, splashing through streams and racing with friends,“ explains Colorado teacher and experienced triathlete Jennifer Dombrowski. “One race I’m doing this year even has a 'piglet plunge' for my kids to splash around in after I finish the race.” 

For individuals who played competitive team sports up to or through college, it can be tough to find the same sort of athletic challenge later in life. Mud runs provide a worthy athletic outlet because aggression and intensity are required to successfully overcome many challenging obstacles, allowing for the emergence of an inner warrior that can’t typically be expressed at home or in the workplace. Training for, and participating in, obstacle-course races allow competitive individuals to have the experience of a challenging competition without the logistics of committing to a team practice and game schedule. In many races, participants are encouraged to support and help one another. For example, the Tough Mudder events are not timed and the start includes an oath that encourages participants to work together to overcome the obstacles and achieve success. “I tried a couple of traditional races and didn’t really like them,” says former college football player Nate Mangan. “However, I love to run in these events because the physical challenge far surpasses a mere running event.”

Mud-run and obstacle-course races can also be seen as a reflection of the overall fitness landscape, which has recently shifted from focusing on training volume to training intensity as the most important variable of an exercise program. Video-based workout programs such as P90X and Insanity, the rapid growth of Crossfit and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) training studios, along with the ongoing popularity of boot camp-type outdoor programs, demonstrate fitness enthusiasts’ increasing demand for hard-charging workouts that provide results. 

Great Opportunities for ACE-certified Personal Trainers

The skyrocketing popularity of mud runs and obstacle-course races presents ACE-certified Personal Trainers with a unique business opportunity to design small-group training programs that will not only help improve client fitness levels, but will provide an experience that cannot be easily replicated. 

Your first step is to identify a local mud run or obstacle-course event that is three to four months away, which will give you at least four to six weeks to properly advertise and market the training program to prospective participants. Next, identify a core group of fitness enthusiasts who want to challenge themselves with an obstacle-course race. And finally, develop a progressively challenging eight-week workout program based on the physical demands of the event. 

Still not convinced of the potential financial rewards of capitalizing on this trend? 

According to news reports, the parent company of Tough Mudder generated $22 million in revenue in 2011 and is projected to earn approximately $75 million in 2012. The average registration for a Tough Mudder event is $125, which indicates that, not only is there a strong demand for this type of challenging competition, but participants are willing and able to pay for it. This is important for personal trainers—if an individual is willing to make a substantial financial commitment to spend a weekend morning slogging through mud, then they will likely consider investing in a small-group training program to prepare for the experience to be money well spent. This is such an attractive business opportunity that the parent company of the Tough Mudder events recently teamed up with the 24-hour Fitness health club chain to start offering boot camps to help people prepare for Tough Mudder events. These one-hour classes are free to members and $15 for non-members. Given these indicators, taking the time to design and market a small-group training program to prepare clients for an upcoming event in your area appears to be a wise investment.

Developing a training program for a mud run or obstacle-course race requires taking the time to examine the event course (many races list most of the obstacles on the course on their Web site to help participants prepare, but do leave a couple of unknown obstacles for a race-day surprise). In general, participants will need both aerobic endurance and the ability to quickly recover from obstacles that challenge anaerobic strength. A number of the obstacles, such as swinging on monkey bars or climbing over a tall wall, require upper-body strength for successful navigation; therefore, a training program should feature specific exercises to address this need. Additionally, some obstacles will require teamwork to overcome, so be sure to include various partner and group drills in the training program. 

The Tough Mudder events advertise courses with approximately 25 obstacles over a 10- to 12-mile course (variability of the event venues makes it difficult to have the exact same course at each different location). This means that a participant can expect to perform one obstacle about every one-half mile or approximately one kilometer (1 kilometer = 1,000 meters = 0.6 miles). If participants are expected to overcome an obstacle every 1,000 meters or so, then it becomes more important to emphasize high-intensity intervals for running as opposed to long slow distance training typically performed for endurance events. 

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is arguably the most effective way to prepare for an obstacle course race that requires bursts of running at an intensity near the second ventilatory threshold (VT2), combined with short recovery intervals. HIIT is an effective way to boost both anaerobic endurance and aerobic recovery. A small-group training program that focuses on HIIT for running, combined with total-body exercises that progressively become more challenging from one week to the next, should adequately prepare participants for successful completion of an event.

To prepare for the specific challenges of running 800–1,200 meters at a time between various obstacles requiring strength and dexterity, alternate between circuits of three to five strength exercises (minimal rest periods between each exercise) and bouts of running following a HIIT protocol.

Decker urges trainers to take the time to understand the course and train for the specific demands of a particular race. “I believe in the specificity of training for any event if you want to be competitive and do well,” he explains. “My boot camp has won the group division for almost every event we’ve competed in because I prepare my clients for the specific challenges of each race.” 

Sample Eight-week Training Program 

Following is the initial phase of a sample workout for an eight-week program to prepare for a 10- to 12-mile obstacle-course race The workout program should become progressively more challenging leading up to the event. The most efficient way to accomplish this is to increase the distance of the runs and the times of the work intervals, while reducing the time of the recovery periods. This particular workout, which uses TRX Suspension Trainers, medicine balls and ViPRs, is designed for an outdoor small-group training program that meets three times a week; exercises will be performed for time rather than a set number of repetitions.

Sample Eight-week Training Program
Exercise  Intensity Work Interval Recovery Interval Repetitions
Warm-up:
  • Plank
  • Side plank
  • Standing hip hinge
  • High knee skips
  • Lateral shuffles
  • Backpedal

 

Bodyweight (BW)
BW
BW
Jogging
Jogging
Jogging 

 

 

10 meters
10 meters
10 meters

 

1 min after circuit

Perform BW exercises
as a circuit 2–3 times

Perform jogging drills
as a circuit 2–3 times 

Strength Circuit 1:
  • ViPR Cylinder squats
  • TRX Back rows
  • ViPR lateral lunge w/shift
  • Medicine ball overhead slams
  • Mountain climbers 

12–16 kg

BW
8–10 kg
3–5 kg

BW

 30 sec

30 sec
30 sec
30 sec

30 sec

90 sec after circuit 2–3 circuits 
Running Drills:
  • 80-meter sprints
  • 50-meter sprints

High
High

 

2–6

 

 10–15 sec
8–10 sec

 

5
5

Strength Circuit 2:
  • Medicine ball lunge to chest pass
  • ViPR flips
  • TRX Atomic Push-ups
  • Squat jumps
  • Inchworm walkouts
  • TRX Suspended lunge


3–5 kg

12–16 kg
BW
BW
BW
BW


30 sec

30 sec
30 sec
30 sec
30 sec
30 sec

 

3–5 kg

12–16 kg
BW
BW
BW
BW

2–3 circuits
Running Drills:
  • 90-meter shuttle run
  • 200-meter run
  • 40-meter sprints

 

Hard
Hard
High

 

 20–25 sec
30 sec
10–12 sec

 

30–60 sec
60–90 sec
10–15 sec

5
5
8
Cool Down/Stretching
  • Calves
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip flexors
  • Triceps
 


30 sec
30 sec
30 sec
30 sec

 

 

1–2
1–2
1–2
1–2


Conclusion

For personal trainers looking for a way to enhance their business and establish a unique brand identity, developing small-group training programs for mud runs and obstacle-course races might be an effective solution. Be sure to train for the specific challenges of the event and focus on the real purpose of each race: bringing like-minded fitness enthusiasts together for a unique exercise experience. 

_______________________________________________________________________

Pete Pete McCall, M.S., an Exercise Physiologist with ACE, creates and delivers fitness education programs to uphold ACE’s mission of enriching quality of life through safe and effective exercise. He has a master's degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion. In addition, he is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and holds additional certifications and advanced specializations through NSCA and NASM. McCall has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner’s World and Self.


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