The fitness professional will be able to:
- Implement effective training modalities for clientele participating in outdoor obstacle course races,
- Identify common challenges when preparing for this modality, and create strategies to overcome them, and
- Substitute equally effective training protocols indoors when outdoor training and preparation are not options.
There has been an inexorable growth in the popularity of outdoor obstacle course races over the last several years. Along with that popularity comes opportunity for the fitness professional. As a majority of the participants are not professional athletes, they need guidance on training for these events. As a result, we are able to position ourselves to appeal to this growing demographic who may seek out our services in large part due to their increased activity level in preparing for these events (Mullins, 2012).
However, the challenges of preparing our clientele for outdoor obstacle course racing are numerous. Among other issues, the fitness professional will need to prepare his or her clients for:
Although outdoor obstacle courses vary, two things are almost a certainty:
- Mud and/or water will most likely be involved. This creates slippery conditions on both the ground and on obstacles, which creates a greater chance for injury compared to competitions on more stable surfaces.
- Fatigue will play a factor in your client's performance. Needless to say, fatigue brings with it a reduction in motor control and in attentiveness – a bad combination if safety is a concern.
The formerly athletic (or un-athletic) pursuing athletic endeavors
The marketing for most outdoor obstacle course races appeals to a large demographic. Many of the marketing strategies show contestants of all ages and sizes, essentially implying that anyone can do it. Some marketing displays physical transformations, suggesting that the training and preparation process can result in a transformation from flab to fit. Given that only about 18% of adults engage in the minimum suggested exercise requirements, and participation in outdoor races continues to grow, those uninitiated to exertion become initiated very quickly. This is often a recipe for regression rather than success (Mullins, 2012).
As fitness professionals, we are all too aware that most deconditioned clients, and/or those looking to lose weight or “transform” themselves, should not be starting out their training program immediately with sprinting up a ski mountain - and most of their exercise selections should be more regressed than hanging from muddy monkey bars. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the trainer to set realistic expectations and appropriate training protocols based on the client's current fitness level.
Multiple skills to train and improve simultaneously
Movement efficiency, strength, power, and endurance are some of the skills that will come into play during an outdoor obstacle course. However, training to improve each of these skills simultaneously is virtually impossible.
Under normal circumstances, if an increase in power is the goal, then the focus of the programming should be on power development - movement efficiency may have to take a back seat during the power stage of training. To improve endurance, one must focus on endurance-based programming, which is time consuming. Simultaneous improvements in strength, movement efficiency and power are very difficult to attain if you want maximal performance in the endurance realm. Frankly, MMA is the only other competition that may have such an unpredictable and varied spectrum of physical requirements.
Quite often these skill developments may be incongruous with the goals that the client was seeking your help with in the first place. Many of our clients come to us for fat loss, to change their appearance or to feel better with a reduction in joint pain. In many instances the training protocols to achieve these goals do not align with the training required for a specific outdoor obstacle course race. It is important to focus on the specific set of skills that will not only prepare your clients for the obstacle course, but that also allow your clients to accomplish their original fitness goals.
In spite of the numerous areas of programming that need to be addressed, there are three areas that have been proven to be extremely beneficial to the programming for this demographic: variable resistance training, sprint training, and group training. These areas of programming have been proven to be beneficial both through research and through our practical experience.
Variable Resistance Training
Virtually all of the obstacles and terrain involved in outdoor obstacle course racing involve a component of variable resistance. Dynamic loads, unstable terrain and wet surfaces come into play for the overwhelming majority of the competition.
Because, by definition, variable resistances are unpredictable and sometimes unsafe, the best way to prepare for it is to use variable resistance training tools within your own facility and training programs. Lunges, squats and presses with sand bags can be very effective, as well as push-ups, bridges and rotary stability core work on stability balls. Resistance bands or “super” bands get a lot of bang for the buck when it comes to incorporating an ever changing level of resistance. This video demonstrates various super band movements that have been used to prepare for outdoor obstacle course racing:
Because of the unpredictable and dynamic nature of these competitions – and again, because time may be a factor – varying the training modalities has been shown to elicit better results (Mullins, 2012). For example, you may perform one set of a sand bag exercise followed immediately by a super band circuit.
Sprint training will help to improve your client's performance because it addresses several needs at once. Sprinting improves peak power production, increases the speed at which the central nervous system recruits the arthrokinematic system, and improves the rate of glycogen replenishment. Training to improve these factors will be of great benefit to your client on an obstacle course (Mullins, 2012; Hazel et al., 2010; MacDougall et al., 1998).
Incorporating sprint intervals, involving a constant change in intensity levels, closely mimics outdoor obstacle course races. For example, the race may require you to ascend a hill and then race back down, or to climb over an obstacle before moving into a steady state run, which is simply a series of intervals (Abbiss & Laursen, 2008; de Koning et al., 2011).
Another much lesser known benefit of sprint training is that it has been shown to increase aerobic capacity and VO2 max. Typical long duration, steady state training with the goal of improving endurance and aerobic capacity usually comes with a few drawbacks, one of which is the time investment. Sprinting can improve your client's aerobic endurance, and in considerably less time than training that involves excessive repetitive motion (Hazel et al., 2010; Mullins, 2012).
In most cases, the clients you’ll be training have never participated in an outdoor obstacle course race before. Having other members with them for support, encouragement, and commiseration is an invaluable tool. The difficulty level of the training is new to many, so having social support – which is always a positive factor – becomes even more important from a psychological perspective.
Most outdoor obstacle course races encourage teamwork. In some cases, race times may be important to the individual. But more often than not, friends and teammates stay with each other and complete the race as a team, especially over the difficult stretches and major obstacles throughout the event. Mimicking this teamwork in training helps the entire group. A sense of pacing and a sense of understanding the difficult aspects of the competition become the norm, rather than something new.
In addition to the above benefits, as a facility owner I’ve seen a “community within the club” benefit when group preparation/training is involved. Having a group of clients training for a common goal - both in the facility and out - creates camaraderie amongst them, as well as generates interest and attention from other members who are not participating. As a business owner (and if you’re a personal trainer, you’re a business owner regardless of whose facility in which you train) this is a huge positive boost to your visibility and skills as a trainer (Caron et al., 2003; Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2005; Nicholls, 1984).
Preparing your clients for outdoor obstacle course races brings many daunting tasks to the doorstep of the trainer. With all of the uncertainty, unpredictability, and aspects of the competition of which you’ll be unaware (until you’re out there) it’s virtually impossible to develop a perfect program for the competition. Add on top of that the varied skill sets that need to be developed simultaneously and the trainer may feel as if there is no way to cover all the bases – and the trainer may be correct in that assessment. However, with the application of the aforementioned training protocols, a large percentage of necessary skill development will be addressed, which will reap benefits for your clients on the course, and for your business.
Obstacle Course Challenges: History, Popularity, Performance Demands, Effective Training and Course Design. Nicole Mullins, Dept. of Human Performance and Exercise Science, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH.
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