How to set up obstacle course training for CrossFitters
CrossFit Athletes have great power output, they love challenging WOD’s and pushing their limits while also finding their weaknesses. A great test of fitness that also likes to expose you to your weaknesses is the Obstacle Course Race (OCR). These races in recent years have become more and more complex and less backyard wrestling and more like a serious triathlon like event without the expensive gear.
Most people entering these races are just looking for some fun and a change from the 5k runs through the city but CrossFitters are looking to test out their engines that they are building at the box. “Run, jump, climb, get dirty and give it my all?” yeah that sounds like some good fun and they get to push it a bit. This falls right in line with the “play new sports” part of “Fitness in 100 words.”
How do CrossFit and OCR work together?
The demands of an OCR are not that much different than a long CrossFit WOD but the differences can sometimes cause an issue for CrossFitters that are not ready for the demands of getting up and down a mountain while hitting some obstacles unless you happen to be doing “Murph” or “Glen” every few weeks on a rocky mountainside.
When setting up training for these events you will need to break down the training into phases and ramp it up according to the type of OCR you will be facing. How much time do you have before the race? 12 weeks? 8 weeks? You will want to prioritize your training based on the amount of time you have to prepare your athletes for the race. The longer the time out the more strength work you will want to do before increasing the run mileage. Don’t have much time? Focus on the running and obstacles.
Here in the Northeast the start of the OCR season kicks off with the Tough Mudder in June. Most of your athletes will not be looking to hit this 10k+ challenge as their first foray into OCR. Most will start with something like a Spartan Sprint or Warrior dash. Some of the smaller local run ones may be a bit hit or miss or in some cases downright dangerous so I suggest you steer your newbies towards a highly professionally run OCR like the Spartan Races for their first one.
Building your base
The first thing we look at is distance. Is it a 5k, 10k or more? In CrossFit most WODs only have ½ to 1 mile of running involved. While intense, doing just the WOD will not fully prepare your athlete for the rigor of trudging uphill for 1 to 3 miles. So planning a long group run once a week with increasing mileage over the course of training is a good idea as well as increasing the runs in the WODs. This will also help build the team mentality and cooperation needed in an OCR. If your athletes are unable to hit a group run prescribe them homework to get the longer runs in when they can.
You want your athletes able to get through the running so they are fresh for the obstacles as well as being able to deal with the mental hurdles that come with tough uphill running. When running is easy the obstacles are fun. Increase the grade and elevation of the runs as you progress closer to the race. But taper off 2 weeks out.
We set up our CrossFit affiliate very close to a state reservation for this reason, we have access to a great set of smooth and rocky terrain on which to run and prepare for OCR races. I suggest mapping out a few trail or hill runs ahead of time (1k/5k/10k courses) as well as locating a ski mountain that you can get to once or twice before a big race to practice the hard uphill work.
Most OCRs are 5k in distance but the first mile/1k is usually uphill, muddy and meant to tire you out before the obstacles, in the 10k’s it is the first 3 miles and sometimes a hard mile up and down in the middle. Make sure your athletes are prepared to grind out a long uphill battle at the start. After that it is usually only ½ to 1 mile between obstacles. This is where CrossFit athletes will feel most comfortable.
Movements to incorporate in WODs for uphill conditioning:
- Front Squats
- Back Squats
- Mountain climbers
- KB Swings
- Lunges (Walking and add weight, use sandbags if possible)
- Step ups (weighted with barbell, sandbag, buckets with sand, Increase box height over training)
- Bear crawls and crab walks (start on a flat surface then incorporate small to medium incline up and down hill work)
If you have 12 – 16 weeks to prepare for the OCR I suggest a 4 – 6 week strength cycle at the beginning. This will bring your new people up to speed on the strength needed for the uphill work to come. I suggest something like 5/3/1 as it is a percentage based program that usually takes a while to plateau with and works well with conditioning work like a metcon or accessory work like OCR specific skills after it.
Obstacle Specific Training
Are your athletes afraid of heights? Never climbed a wall before? How about a rope climb or tire flip? There are some specific things you as a coach may need to address so your athletes are not skipping obstacles and incurring penalties*.
Working closely as a team can be one of the best ways to help someone get over a fear, especially the high walls. While most people are really friendly and helpful at these races it is best for your athletes to know they have a support system. Make sure they know it is a team event and that you will stay together for the obstacles. If you have a lot of athletes running the race make sure they are in groups of no less than 3. The 8’ or higher walls may require 3 people to get over. And in some cases if an injury does happen they will have someone they know with them.
The high risk/high skill movements should be taught like a skill session. Slow, controlled and with no pressure/time attached to it. These would be the wall climbs, cargo net climb, rope climb, and in some cases a tire flip. This would be similar to teaching the O-Lifts with PVC. After proper technique has been demonstrated you can add them into the WODs or create small O-Courses for the workouts.
* Note: In some of the OCRs there is a penalty for skipping obstacles (usually up to 30 burpees). The burpees can suck time and fun out of the race. Prepare your members to be able to get 30+ burpees without an issue just in case.
Obstacle Specific Movements to incorporate in WODs:
- Army/low crawl
- Side rolls
- Crawl over/under/through objects
- Jumping (on, over, onto and from object to object)
- Low 4’/Med 6’/High 8’ wall climbing
- Rope climbs
- Tire flips
- Sled pull/push
- Monkey bars
Cold, Muddy and Fun
The OCRs are pretty famous for being cold and muddy. Most of the time you do not need to train in the cold and mud but you may need some strategy and good gear. If you are in an area that has some snow a few short outdoor workouts may not be a bad idea just be smart about it.
The first strategy is not to actually run when its really muddy or in water over your ankles. You will want to run no doubt but conserve your energy for flatter land and save your ankles from a trip to the hospital. The mud and water will wash away topsoil to leave rock and uneven ground hidden beneath it. especially if you are in a later wave start time.
Investing in some good mud run sneakers is a great idea. They are built for traction in the mud and that will save some energy for the running. I like the inov-8 Talon’s but they also just released a new mudclaw specifically for OCRs. There are a few other companies out there with mud sneakers so read up on the reviews.
For clothing I suggest good compression gear (long sleeve top and bottom) if the weather is still a bit cold out. This will help get the water off your body and keep the mud from drying onto you. The water obstacles vary from race to race but most of them involve ice water baths, cold rivers or jumping into and swimming through lakes. So make sure your athletes are prepared to be cold and swim a short distance.
Be prepared to throw some clothes like a shirt or socks away after the race. Bring a towel or two for changing after the race.
Creating an OCR Specific WOD
Here is a sample OCR WOD for an athlete that has done the running and skill work and preparing for a 5k OCR:
Full range of motion joint warm up and flexibility work
Dynamic warm up
Bodyweight movements (push/pull/squat/jump/crawl)
wall climb technique – mindfulness over speed
getting up, transition over safely, getting down safely, teamwork
4’ wall, 6’ wall, 8’ wall
scale as needed
- 1 mile (1600m) run w/ sandbag (20/10#)*
- 10 lunges w/ sandbag
- 10 sandbag swings
- 5x over/under 4’ wall with sandbag
*decrease run distance by 400m each round