Mud, Sweat, and Tears: How to Plan an Obstacle Race

Running events have tripled in popularity since 1990. With 17 million participants in 2015, we’ve seen all kinds of twists on the traditional road race from beer runs to costume contests. But the biggest change came in 2009 with the advent of obstacle course races, or OCRs. These events exploded: only 2,000 people participated in the first Warrior Dash; three years later, it was 800,000. Now, more than 40 countries host OCRs with nearly 5 million participants!

If you’re tempted to hop on the bandwagon but don’t know how to plan an obstacle race, read on to crawl, climb, and jump over those hurdles for a great race!

Know Your Athletes

The OCR athlete is not your typical marathoner. In fact, they might not be a runner at all! These races require both strength and endurance, making them an appealing challenge for a wide range of athletes. Their fun factor also attracts many people entirely new to endurance events.

So decide who your race is for. Is it the hardcore athletes or is it designed for all fitness levels? There are even women-only events like Mudderella and family-friendly OCRs like Mud Factor.

Communicate Clearly

Every event is different and many people are new to OCRs, so it’s important to communicate expectations for your course. Don’t downplay the difficulty and don’t try to sound cool by making your race seem more challenging than it is. Just be honest! Include a description of each obstacle on your website and offer specific training recommendations. Your participants must understand what they are getting themselves into and being properly prepared will help reduce injuries and disappointment.

Respect the Race Location

Unlike a traditional road race, your OCR will likely be held off the beaten path. But increased traffic to natural areas and digging to “engineer” mud can have a detrimental impact on plants, wildlife, and your ability to use the area again. Speak with your area’s environment or parks division and look for natural obstacles such as hills, fallen trees, or streams. Not only are natural obstacles good for the environment, but they’re good for your budget, too!

Outstanding Obstacles

Creating obstacles is one of the most important – and most fun! – aspects of planning an OCR. Get creative and make your participants crawl through tunnels, shimmy under wire, swim around platforms, scale walls, slosh through mud, swing on monkey bars, ride a zip line or go down a slide – the possibilities are endless!

Whichever obstacles you choose, space them out to avoid bottlenecks. 8-15 obstacles is typical for a 5k course. To keep costs down, talk to local businesses about donating building materials.

Safety First

When talking about how to plan an obstacle race, safety should be your #1 priority. In addition to typical racing injuries and falling risks, OCRs have seen two people drown, others burned, and a few reports of E. coli and other infections.

Understand that the more exhausted your athletes are, the more dangerous an obstacle becomes. Place your water obstacles closer to the beginning of the race and test each obstacle for durability. Explore your insurance options and talk to a lawyer early in the planning process to develop a waiver for all athletes. And always, always have more aid stations than you think you will need!

Scoring & Timing

For a competitive OCR, you’ll have to find the right scoring balance between time and obstacle completion. Implement a penalty for skipped obstacles, whether it’s 30 burpees or points off one’s time. You’ll also want to do your research on timing as not all equipment will work in mud and water. A good place to start is our active tag timing system that has been tested by the Spartan Race and proven to have reliable results in adverse conditions.

After the Race

No one wants a muddy beer, so don’t forget to give participants a way to rinse off after the race. This can be as simple as garden hoses or portable showers or, for extra fun, a finish line with fire hoses! Then check out our blog on how to host a post-race party. Completing an OCR is a big accomplishment and this is the time to celebrate! Make it easy for athletes to show off through an Instagram-connected photobooth, a branded hashtag, or ChronoTrack Live updates.

While OCRs continue to grow in popularity, it will be interesting to see how the trend develops as the market saturates. When it comes to differentiating your race, remember that upping the danger is not the way to go. Instead, try coming up with new obstacles, adding a theme, a fundraising component, or even other races to make a series. In the end, the goal is to have FUN – not recreate the Hunger Games!

If you’ve organized or participated in an OCR, we’d love to hear your ideas on how to plan an obstacle race in the comments below!

For more race management tips, contact ChronoTrack!