Obstacle Course Race Survival Guide


I’m going to keep my intro short because I know most people will just skip ahead to the tips anyway. About once a year I write one of these and each year I amend them. The more obstacle course races that you do, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you need to tweak the guide. I want to keep you informed so you can avoid injury, have as much fun as possible, and be successful.


Survival 101–Mike Patota Style

Master Bodyweight Movements. Barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells work really well in training, but on an obstacle course, you’ll find that there is none to be had. If you haven’t mastered bodyweight movements such as dips, chin-ups, bodyweight rows, and even the push-up, you’ll likely need help from a friend to get through some obstacles.



During the winter months, I suggest focusing primarily on strength in the gym with your traditional squats, deadlifts, bench press, rows, military press, and pull-ups. Leading into spring and summertime, focus on endurance and mostly bodyweight training. The point is to build strength in the gym and then to use that newfound strength outside. This will be a recurring theme, if you do all of your training in a gym and almost none outside, you will find you won’t be as successful outside without help.

Run and Workout on Trails. You’ll notice (especially with Spartan) some races are practically in the woods and/or on a mountain and the weather is what it is. To new runners, it is perfectly ok to train on the road and even do some speed-work on a track, but it is vitally important that you work on your distance on trails–bonus if those trails include big hills. As if that’s not enough, it is even more beneficial to throw in some push-ups or burpees every 15 minutes or so (you can use any time or distance interval). This will closely mimic OCR race conditions.


Never Use Weather as an Excuse to Run on a Belt. A potential disaster you must avoid is staying indoors because of rain or because it’s a little too warm out for your taste. This is the time you need to get acclimated. If you aren’t used to outdoor training, I’m not saying to run eight miles when it’s 104 outside. Do a slightly shorter and easier workout, but still DO the outdoor stuff.



The biggest problem that you face when treadmill training is that you’re training on a moving belt with shoes that you likely won’t be running with outside. If it rains or it’s 98 degrees and humid on race day, you won’t know how to react if all you trained on is a treadmill in an air conditioned room. The only time I would suggest staying in is if the weather is severe. Use your head too–obviously there are exceptions to every rule. For the most part, you want to train the way you’re going to play.


A little story, at a gym I used to work at there was a client that ran endlessly on a treadmill watching Saved by the Bell DVDs (I’m not kidding). One night I asked him what his goals were and he told me that he was training for the Philly Half Marathon. Despite me telling him it was a bad idea to train solely on a treadmill because of potential injuries, he laughed it off like I knew nothing. Long story short, he didn’t finish the half because he got injured. Remember what I said about doing all of your training in a gym.

Climb the Rope When You’re Tired. This was a huge oversight on my part last year. We had all of our clients learn to climb the rope. Everyone climbed the rope when they first came in, or once after their workout, or after some rest, a drink and some conversation. Some of us even put on a new beautiful 20 pound weight-vest and climbed that rope. We were so awesome!



Awesome…Until we ran up a mountain, climbed over walls, crawled under barbed wire, carried some heavy stuff, ran up another mountain, did some burpees, ran up mountain again (did I mention a mountain?), did even more burpees (how about burpees?  Did I mention those because we did some), ran through water, and then had to run into more water that was waist high only to hoist ourselves up and climb that rope. I think two or three people (out of a team of roughly 30) successfully climbed the rope on race day. Honestly, there were quite a few really strong people that failed at it. It isn’t because anyone didn’t practice enough. It’s that we didn’t practice it the way it would happen in the race. The water and mud that caked on all of us probably weighed an extra 20 pounds so the weight-vest was equalled out. What we didn’t plan for was exhaustion.


Here is my recommendations to practice for this obstacle. Find your three rep max (RM) deadlift. Every minute on the minute for 5-10 rounds, do one deadlift  and go immediately into the rope climb–no rest between deadlift and rope climb. Then rest for the remainder of that minute and go again. As an alternative to the deadlift, you can do do 15 burpees (and I mean burpees, chest to ground) and go right into the rope climb. Do that twice no rest at all for 5-10 sets. So 15 burpees, one climb, 15 burpees one climb is one set. Rest before your next set, no more than two minutes.

Lean Out/Drop Excess Weight. This is a goal I typically focus on the second spring starts. It runs in line with the end of all of the heavy winter strength training and getting outside working on speed endurance and manipulating your own body weight. You want to lose fat without sacrificing too much muscle. Having excess baggage is like driving around in your car filled with buckets carrying rocks and kettlebells (like I have to do sometimes). This extra weight will burn up fuel much quicker whether I’m talking about YOU or the car.



A really good/healthy way to drop this weight is to decrease the amount of carbs you eat at meals and replace them with vegetables like asparagus and spinach. You want to almost overdo it with vegetables and underdo it with pastas and rice.

As I said before, there are exceptions to every rule. You want to eat some carbohydrates immediately after a hard workout to replenish your energy stores for your next hard workout or race. You have to find the balance.  My suggestion: on workout days, you should emphasize water (LOTS – actually you should emphasize water all the time) and carbs from vegetables. After a hard workout session, pasta or rice is acceptable. On rest days or days where you can’t workout until late, emphasize a heavy amount of vegetables. You will “lean out” following this methodology.

NEVER EVER Experiment on Race Day. I have only ever heard horror stories about people trying a new eating or drinking strategy on the day of a race. I promise you that you will poop (a lot) if you try something new. We’ve all done it despite reading all the things suggesting against doing so. Take this as my final warning don’t try something new.


Wake Up and Workout at the Same Time and You Will Race. Create routine well before race day and stick to it. If your race is at 8:00 a.m., try to create a routine where you get up early and work out at 8:00 a.m. on a daily basis. Your body will be primed and ready to go at that time.



I learned this lesson in the most harsh way possible during my first half marathon where I only took off work the night before rather than a week or two. I was used to a second shift schedule and needless to say, both melatonin and Tylenol PM failed to put me to sleep and then I had to run 13.1 miles all drugged up and sleepy.

Train with What You Plan to Race With. If you plan to run with a hydration pack, then train with it on. Running with it for the first time on race day will add a dimension that you never even thought of. If you wear “special shoes” for race day, make sure you train with them on while you do hills. Lastly (this is especially for the NJ Spartan Beast people who brought SHOPPING BAGS worth of food for the race), your race is going to be between 45 minutes to about six hours depending on length. You’re not going to be alone in the woods for a week. Bring some dates or gu gels, mustard for cramping, whatever works…You’re not sitting down to have a picnic…take whatever it is that will get you through.  You can feast after.  Again, whatever you take…practice with it.  You don’t want to eat something for the first time when you’re in the middle of an OCR course (see poop comment above).


Do Burpees with Every Workout. If the Spartan Race is your goal, then the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is fail an obstacle and have to do 30 burpees. Get good at them now so that your biggest fear just turns into a mini-obstacle that you need to get through. Don’t look at burpees as a punishment, but rather as a tool to get better. Also…if you practice them, then 30 won’t be as hard when you are fatigued.


Come to My Spartan SGX Class. For more details “like my facebook page” or email me at Mike.Patota@gmail.com. I hold these classes every Sunday at noon in the NE Philadelphia area. During each class, we work on all movements essential to completing a race successfully including grip work with kettlebells, running, hills, teamwork, and sandbags. You name, it we do it. I will be adding and Tuesday night class soon as well.  Feel free to email me and I will give you the rest of the details.


The Most Important Rule Of All. HAVE FUN!!! It’s so easy to get caught up in the adrenaline and the chaos of everything or to let nerves get the better of you. Before your wave starts off, close your eyes and remember why you signed up. Remember all the hard work and fun that you had in training for this day. Go out and run your race and prepare to have the most fun you ever thought possible!



Know that one of the the best feelings in the world is the one when you cross the finish line and realize what you just accomplished.