How to Train for a Tough Mudder or Other Obstacle Style Race

Tough Mudders, Zombie Runs, and Paint Runs are quickly becoming popular amongst both serious and beginner runners alike. In 2012, Tough Mudder has conducted 35 events in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia with more than 500,000 participants total.

Unfortunately, given the relative newness if these events, finding the right training plan can be rather difficult. While there are literally thousands of books written on how to train for a marathon, I don’t know of any books written (at least yet) on how to train for a Tough Mudder.

Having a well-thought out and specific training schedule for a Tough Mudder is important whether you’re just looking to run and finish for fun or if you’re trying to compete. Not only are the obstacles dangerous if you’re not fit enough to tackle them, but being specifically trained to handle the demands of the course not only makes you faster, but allows you to enjoy the experience more. It’s like the first few weeks you start running – it’s no fun until you can complete the distance comfortably.

In this article, I am going to outline the specific training demands of the Tough Mudder events and show you exactly how you can train to run well, have fun, and stay safe.

Training for the Tough Mudder

The Tough Mudder event is completely unique in the world of sports. To make things more difficult, you can’t easily simulate most of the obstacles unless you want to build a course in your backyard, which is both difficult and dangerous without proper supervision.

Because we’re a site that focuses exclusively on running, our suggested training approach to the Tough Mudder is to modify and adapt the running and strength workouts you would typically do as part of your running training to target the specific physiological demands of the Tough Mudder race. Not only will this prepare you for the Tough Mudder, but it will allow you to maintain your long-term running progression should you have another goal race, like a marathon, in the months after the Tough Mudder.

If you’re an injury-prone or beginner runner, training for a Tough Mudder can actually help you stay injury-free and become a more well-rounded athlete. Why? You’ll be doing more strength and circuit training work and lowering your overall mileage, which will help correct muscle imbalances and weaknesses that cause most running injuries.

The following is a summary of the running-specific demands you’ll face during a Tough Mudder and the training strategies you can implement in your schedule to conquer them on race day.

The Specific Demands of the Tough Mudder

Unlike a typical race where you’re unencumbered and have the advantage of getting in a rhythm, a Tough Mudder blends lots of stopping and starting with performing strength movements when tired (winded and out of breath) and running on slippery and uneven terrain. As such, your Tough Mudder training must simulate these demands.

Training for lots of starting and stopping

As mentioned previously, you won’t be able to get in a rhythm during your Tough Mudder race. You’ll be sprinting for short, intermediate, and long periods of time and then, without resting, performing an activity – usually some type of obstacle.

This means you need to train your body to recovery quickly from sprinting (i.e. get your heart rate back to normal) while continuing to move.

During traditional interval training, you typically stop and rest between hard sprints. While this is great for developing your VO2max, your body adapts to resting while standing, which is not what you’ll be facing during the Tough Mudder race.

How to conquer in training

One of the best ways to train for this specific demand of the Tough Mudder is to adopt what elite coaches would consider 5k and 10k specific training. Basically, instead of stopping and resting between intervals, you perform a quick, jogging rest.

A sample workout for a 20-minute 5k runner would look something like this:

2 mile w/u, 6 x 800 meters @ 6:30 to 6:35 pace (3:12 per 800m) w/200 meters jogging (8:00 pace) rest between, 2 mile c/d

-or-

2 mile w/u, 12 x 400 meters @ 6:30 to 6:35 pace (1:35 per 400m) w/100 meters jogging (8:00 pace) rest between, 2 mile c/d

The intervals in these example workouts are run at slightly slower than 5k pace and the rests are run a little slower than marathon pace. Both will teach you how to recover quickly while moving and teach you how to sprint when tired and not fully recovered from your last obstacle.

Training for Tough Mudder obstacles

Obviously, you’ll also have to battle obstacles during your Tough Mudder race. While I don’t recommend building mud pits, logs of fire, and barbed wire crawls in your backyard, you can use kettleballs, medicine balls, and circuit style training to simulate putting your muscles and body through difficult and dynamic strength workouts. On race day, the exact obstacles you face may be new, but your body will be ready for anything.

Likewise, as I pointed out in the above section on training for the stop and start demands, you’ll need to train your body to perform dynamic strength movements while winded. You won’t be pulling yourself up a wall or crawling through the mud fully rested and recovered. Rather, you’ll be tired and out of breath.

How to conquer in training

The best way to train for the obstacles is to include circuit style strength training into your weekly routine. If you’re a beginner, you can start with bodyweight circuit exercises. As you get fitter or you’re more experienced, you should add a medicine ball or kettleballs to the mix.

Here’s a sample circuit routine from our strength training for runners DVD:

1. 15 second lateral shuffle

2. 20 x body weight squats

3. 10 x push ups

4. 20 x burpees

Jog 800 meters

5. 10 x Med ball toss into the air

6. 10 x Med Ball V-ups

7. 10 x Med Ball Oblique Twists

8. 10 x Med Ball Alternate leg touches

Jog 800 meters

9. Prone position x 30 sec

10. Side Lying hip lifts x 15 reps

11. Prone Knee bent x 15 reps

12. Hip thrusts x 15

Jog 800 meters

13. 10 x Med ball toss into the air

14. 10 x Med Ball V-ups

15. 10 x Med Ball Oblique Twists

16. 10 x Med Ball Alternate leg touches

By keeping each exercise dynamic, specific, and constantly moving you’re able to combine an aerobic workout with strength training. The medicine ball adds explosiveness to the movements and makes some of the exercises a little more difficult. Plus, you start each strength set winded from your 800 meter run, which is exactly what you’ll face at the Tough Mudder.

Terrain, strength and balance

Tough Mudders aren’t run on tracks or big city streets. Instead, you’ll be running through the mud and uneven terrain, jumping over obstacles, and avoiding fellow competitors in the process. As such, you need to practice running on uneven terrain, develop your balance, and improve your proprioception.

How to conquer in training

Performing your easy and long runs on trails is one quick way to improve your ability to conquer varying terrain challenges. Try to pick one or two runs a week that are specifically run on trails, grassy fields, or off-road.

In addition, you should perform dynamic core and balance routines (like hip strength training and lower leg exercises). Not only will these types of exercises help you improve your ability to run the Tough Mudder well, they are also the foundation to developing into a stronger, more injury resistant runner. Actually, you should be including this type of training in your schedule already. So, if you’re not, this is a great excuse to get started!

Sample Training Schedule

Here is a two week sample schedule. The paces are designed for a 20-minute 5k runner. You can adjust the easy run distances to fit your current weekly mileage or take them off if you need rest days:

Day Workout Purpose
Monday Easy running on trails/off + core, hip and lower leg exercises Recovery running with balance and core work
Tuesday 2 mile w/u, 6 x 800 meters @ 6:30 to 6:35 pace (3:12 per 800m) w/200 meters jogging (8:00 pace) rest between, 2 mile c/d + leg strength Specific stop and go training with leg strength work to improve strength
Wednesday Medicine ball circuit Practice for the demands of the obstacles and recovery for legs after workout day
Thursday Easy running on trails/off + core, hip and lower leg exercises Recovery running with balance and core work
Friday 2 mile w/u, 6 miles @ (7:05, 6:50, 7:05, 6:50  7:05, 6:50), 1 mile c/d Threshold training work to improve overall aerobic abilities and maintain long-term training goals
Saturday Medicine ball circuit Practice for the demands of the obstacles and recovery for legs after workout day
Sunday 12-14 mile long run on trails if possible Easy long run to practice on trails. Tough Mudders are 10-12 miles long, so need to get used to distance and time running
Monday Easy running on trails/off + core, hip and lower leg exercises Recovery running with balance and core work
Tuesday 2 mile w/u, 12 x 400 meters @ 6:30 to 6:35 pace (1:35 per 400m) w/100 meters jogging (8:00 pace) rest between, 2 mile c/d Specific stop and go training with leg strength work to improve strength
Wednesday Medicine ball circuit Practice for the demands of the obstacles and recovery for legs after workout day
Thursday Easy running on trails/off + core, hip and lower leg exercises Recovery running with balance and core work
Friday 2 mile w/u, 5 mile cutdown (7:30, 7:20, 7:10, 7:00, 6:50 – No rest), 1 mile c/d Threshold training work to improve overall aerobic abilities and maintain long-term training goals
Saturday Medicine ball circuit Practice for the demands of the obstacles and recovery for legs after workout day
Sunday 12-14 mile long run on trails if possible Easy long run to practice on trails. Tough Mudders are 10-12 miles long, so need to get used to distance and time running

The great thing about this training plan is that it doesn’t take you too far away from a normal running routine. It can serve as a nice change of pace after a string of marathons or half marathons training cycles.

Let us know what questions you have about conquering the Tough Mudder training, we’d love to help you on this new adventure!

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References

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One Response on “How to Train for a Tough Mudder or Other Obstacle Style Race

  1. Have a question you may be able to help me with. I have a friend who is training to do an Ironman in about 18 months. She has done Olympic triathlons before and half marathons.

    She has currently booked herself to do a Tough Mudder on a Saturday, and then wants to turn around and do a half-marathon about 24 hours later. Is this even possible? Is it safe?

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