It has been a couple of months since I finished the Tough Mudder NorCal 2011 event in Squaw Valley, CA near Lake Tahoe. I’ve had some time to think about that day, the obstacles that I faced, and the overall experience. All in all, it went very well. I had a great time and, to be honest, it wasn’t that hard for me. That’s a good thing. That means that my training worked and preparation paid off. That doesn’t mean that it was easy. By no means was it easy! It was definitely a test of your strength, endurance, teamwork, and your willpower to continue despite fatigue, hunger, pain, and extreme discomfort. For example, I don’t think there is any way to really be ready to enjoy the icy cold water of the Chernobyl Jacuzzi and the Underwater Tunnels obstacles, unless you’re a member of the Polar Bear Club and get off on that type of thing. I hate being cold, so I was careful about the gear I chose to wear that day (Read more about my Head-to-Toe Gear here).
Let me share some of my recommendations on training for Tough Mudder overall and some specific tips for the obstacles that I encountered at the NorCal 2011 event. It should help you be better prepared physically for your own event and give you some practical advice on how to handle the different military-style obstacles.
Overall Training and Conditioning
I must admit that I was surprised by the wide range of obvious levels of fitness at the Tough Mudder event. Some people were in fantastic shape and you could see it reflected in their performance (e.g., running uphill, going fast up and over the walls). Others were in pretty poor shape and needed a lot of help with some obstacles or were skipping obstacles (e.g., being pulled up on walls, walking a lot, sitting down to rest). To each his or her own, I guess. No one is stopping people from signing up for the event and there is no “fitness test” to qualify. But, the Tough Mudder site does have this warning:
WARNING: Tough Mudder is 3-4 times longer and MUCH TOUGHER than a typical mud run such as Warrior Dash. On average, only 78% of participants finish the event. Only those in reasonably strong physical condition should enter. See our Training Page for training requirements and read the History of Tough Mudder to learn more about Tough Mudder’s origins and philosophy.
So, why would someone who hasn’t been training and isn’t in decent shape run an event that is billed as “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet“? Seems risky to me. If you are not physically capable for this event, your chances of getting injured or worse (e.g., having a heart attack) are pretty high. It also has an unfortunate impact on others who do seriously train to get ready for the event. People who aren’t really ready for Tough Mudder end up blocking obstacles and slowing down the course when they can’t get over walls, can’t climb the ropes, can’t let go of the barrels to swim under them, etc.Done ranting. For overall training and conditioning, I did a combination of CrossFit metabolic conditioning, olympic lifting and powerlifting, and trail running. The CrossFit conditioning (metcons) and trail running build up overall endurance so that you can keep going for hours. During my trail running training, I did sprint intervals on hills and this helped tremendously when climbing the steep trails at Squaw. I was able to run up the hills, while others walked. The weightlifting helped with leg strength, core strength, and upper body strength. This again helped with hill running, but also helped with the many obstacles that required climbing and pulling yourself up. Of course, CrossFit typically includes tons of pull-ups and chin-ups, so that helped with the climbing as well. I’m glad that I added trail running to my usual CrossFit routine. Running on rocky, muddy terrain at Tough Mudder is very different than running on paved surfaces. You need to learn how to balance, how to watch the trail for obstacles, and pay more attention to where you put your feet. It can also be a bit painful (e.g., stepping on rocks and such), so it helps to toughen up your feet and strengthen your ankles.
Acclimate Yourself to the Event ConditionsIf you already live exactly where the Tough Mudder event will take place, then you shouldn’t have a problem with the altitude, temperature or humidity; unless you haven’t been doing any training or running outside. Some people train almost exclusively in the gym, which is usually heated and cooled. If this sounds like you, then you had better get your butt outside! If your event is going to take place in the summer with high temperatures and/or humidity, get used to running outside in high temperatures and humidity. If you are doing it in the Winter in Indiana, get used to running in the cold. You also need to get off the sidewalk and streets. Very few people do trail running, but that is what the conditions at Tough Mudder are going to be. You will be running on rocky, muddy, slippery, and uneven surfaces; so get used to it now. I run almost exclusively on trails here in California, so running the trails at Tough Mudder felt normal to me (although they were even rockier at the NorCal event in Squaw Valley than I’m used to). Find a place to do trail running or run off the paved path where you normally run. Yes, your pretty shoes are going to get wet and dirty. But, isn’t that what they are made for?
Plus, you will be encountering a lot of water obstacles, so get used to running when you are soaking wet. Very few people do that, but you should if you want to kick butt at Tough Mudder! I’m lucky enough to have a river that runs right beside my favorite running trail here. So, when I was preparing for my Tough Mudder, I jumped into the river and fully submerged myself. Then I finished the rest of my run in my soaking wet clothes and shoes. This serves more than one purpose.
- You get used to the shock of jumping into cold water (you’re going to do a lot of that at TM).
- You get used to running while you are soaking wet and get a sense for how you are going to feel in those wet clothes (in my case, almost hypothermic at one point).
- You also get a chance to test out your clothing and shoes to see if they are going to work well for the event or not (e.g., do the shoes drain water well enough, do the clothes shed water and dry out or do they cling to your body and make it hard to run, etc.). You don’t want to find out that your gear sucks for the first time at the event.
If the Tough Mudder event is going to take place somewhere that has a very different climate than where you live, seriously consider going there a couple of days early to acclimate. That’s what I did and it really helped. Squaw Valley is at a much higher elevation than where I live. At the peak, almost 8,500 feet higher! I knew that the altitude was going to play a big role in my physical performance, so I went to Lake Tahoe early to get used to it. I took some hikes, did some jogging at the higher elevation, etc. The same would be true if the temperature and/or humidity is going to be much higher or lower than you are used to. Don’t be surprised by it on the day of the event!
Food and Water
At my Tough Mudder NorCal event, there were a decent amount of water stations and some even had food too (e.g., bananas, apples, power gels). I expected the water, so didn’t bother wearing something like a Camelback. I highly recommend that you do not weigh yourself down with water bottles or a hydration backpack. Those were actually quite dangerous for some individuals who got trapped by them in the obstacles. In some cases, the backpacks got caught up in barbed wire or got people stuck in the tunnels. In the most dangerous cases, some people got trapped underwater by their backpack. For example, I read about a few guys that were diving under the wooden partition in the Chernobyl Jacuzzi and got stuck. They would have drowned if their friends hadn’t noticed and pulled them back out. Bad, bad, bad!I actually wore a small armband that I loaded with a few tablets of Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem Solids. It is a pretty dense little source of carbs and protein, which helped get me through the hours of the event with very little food. Luckily, they did provide some bananas and other energy gels, but I didn’t know they would be available. That was way too long to be pushing my body that hard with no energy intake, so I’m glad that I had them. They are very dry, though, so be sure to have water to wash it down with when you eat one.
RunningThere are very few places where you do much sustained running. This isn’t like a 10K race or a marathon. Don’t worry about training like you would for a long, long run. But, you do end up doing quite a few sections of uphill running, which is intense and it seemed like very few people were prepared for that. I spent several months of training before the event doing trail running with hills. I’m glad that I did. The altitude added an interesting twist, but I was actually able to run up the steep trails while others were walking. To be ready for Tough Mudder-style running, I highly recommend getting off the pavement and doing a combination of trail running mixed with hill sprints. I even did some of that with a weighted vest. It will suck, but it will pay off.
CrawlingThere are quite a few obstacles where you need to get on your hands and knees, and even on your belly, to crawl under barbed wire, through tunnels, and usually in muddy water. Don’t be shocked when you have to even dip your head under water at a few points and keep crawling blind. It will happen. Obviously, general physical conditioning will help here. Training with push-ups will help a lot, since you are going to get real tired, real fast, of crawling on sharp rocks with your knees. Quite painful! There were a few places in these irrigation pipes, for example, where I got into a push-up position on my hands (with gloves on) and the tips of my toes to keep moving forward and give my poor knees a break. Even so, I did end up with a few bloody cuts to my knees even though I was wearing the UnderArmour leggings. They provided more protection than nothing, though, so I was glad that I wasn’t just wearing shorts.
ClimbingYes, you will be doing a decent amount of climbing; up and over several walls, up a quarter pipe, up a rope, over big hay bales, on the Funky Monkey, across a rope net, etc. Most of the people that I saw that day had a lot of trouble with the climbing and that includes a lot of guys. It was a bit harder for the ladies too, due to the upper-body strength required. But, some did very well and the others used teamwork to get boosted up and pulled up. To train for this, I recommend pull-ups and chin-ups. Lots and lots of pull-ups and chin-ups. It takes time to get stronger and better at these, so start doing them every day. Yes, every day. You can also do some rope climbing, which is great training and builds up your hand strength. If you want to even have a chance at succeeding at the Funky Monkey, hit the playground and start spending some time on the monkey bars. Again, build up your grip strength, your shoulder strength, and the calluses on your hands. I spent about a year before my Tough Mudder event doing pull-ups (almost every day) and rope climbing. It made it pretty easy for me to climb up and over the walls and up the rope. Well worth the time invested to get stronger at these movements. The gloves were useful for the wall climbing, unless you really like splinters and cutting your fingers. They were moderately useful for the rope climb. But, gloves were useless for the Funky Monkey. Wet gloves were simply too slippery on the metal bars they used on that obstacle. I tucked my gloves into my waistband and just used my bare hands. It worked well. CAUTION: The bars are not fixed into the frame of the obstacle. They rotate and spin. So, if you are not prepared for this and start swinging out, the bar will spin and you will slip off and fall into the water. A lot of people fell off right away. Some fell off at the highest point, which isn’t fun. I heard that a few people have broken their legs or ankles when falling from that height. So, I personally recommend that you go across one bar at a time, so that you have two hands on a bar, reach forward to the next bar, and then move your other hand up to join the first hand. If you try to be cocky and swing forward like you would normally do on a fixed monkey bar, you will probably spin and slip off. You can still move pretty darn quickly, like I did, using shorter and faster arm movements going bar to bar (instead of swinging wildly). Let me just take a minute to share how unhappy I was with the Everest quarter pipe obstacle. It is certainly one of the hardest obstacles, since you can’t get over it alone. You need help to get boosted up from the bottom and to get pulled up at the top. But, I’m fine with that. What I didn’t like was the 1-hour backup to get through the obstacle, which you can see in the photo of the crowd below. They really should have set up a second Everest obstacle or spaced people better. The backup really sucked because we had just come out of the Chernobyl Jacuzzi and we were freezing in our icy wet clothing as we stood in the cold wind for an hour. That is when I had my hypothermic experience, which I describe later.
Climbing around on the cargo net obstacle is less about strength and more about dexterity and balance. You need to pay close attention to where you place your hands and feet and coordinate your movements to maintain your balance, otherwise it is pretty easy to have a hand or leg slip through. It isn’t the end of the world to have your leg slip through. It’s just awkward, hard to recover, and slows you down. One trick that many of us used as we first entered the cargo net was to lie sideways and “log roll” down to the bottom. It’s pretty efficient and then you just need to climb up the other side.
Icy Cold WaterI guess it depends on when and where you run your Tough Mudder, but we had icy, cold water in Tahoe. You hit this pretty early in the event (or at least we did), when you have to crawl through icy, muddy water under the barbed wire obstacle. So, you start out cold and wet and stay that way for the rest of the event. Be prepared to be cold and wet for hours and hours. That’s why I wore the UnderArmour ColdGear. The Chernobyl Jacuzzi and the Underwater Tunnels obstacles were the worst for me. For the Chernobyl Jacuzzi, you jump into a huge container of ice water that has a plywood board blocking your progress in the middle. You have to dive under the icy water and pull yourself under the board, underwater, to the other side. Then you swim/crawl through the slushy, icy water to try pull yourself up and out of the other side with numb, shaking arms and fingers that can barely grip the edge. It was pretty miserable. It seriously took me about 2 hours to warm up after that and standing around in the cold wind for over an hour on the mountain top waiting to get through the Everest obstacle didn’t help. I started to shake uncontrollably and simply couldn’t stop. Looking back, I guess I had the early stages of hypothermia at that point. But, I pushed through it and started running, which helped me warm up and get going again. The Underwater Tunnels sucked quite a bit too. Sensing a theme here? I hate being cold. First, you jump off of a platform that is 15 feet above the surface of the lake into the freezing water below. And I do mean freezing! You go pretty deep underwater because of the jump and the water down there felt colder than the ice water of the Chernobyl Jacuzzi. So, you want to quickly swim back up the surface. Then you start swimming for the floating barrels that are covered with barbed wire. You have to swim under 3 sets of barrels, one at at time. When you surface, there is barbed wire overhead, so you can’t reach up too high or climb over the barrels. The hardest part is that you are really, really cold and feeling a bit weak at this point. Plus, we had people that were hanging on the barrels and wouldn’t move! They were blocking our progress forward as our heat and muscle strength were quickly being drained from our bodies. I had to yell at them to “MOVE!” to get them going. Kind of stupid to waste your strength and body heat by hanging onto the barrels while you are submerged in freezing water. You really, really want to get the hell out of that water as fast as you can, while you still have your strength and mobility. It is hard to prepare for this, but here are some things that you can do to be mentally prepared and physically capable. A few of us started taking ice baths a couple of months before the event. You work your way up to it. Start by taking cooler and cooler baths. Then, start adding a little ice to your bath. Then start adding a lot of ice to your bath and increasing your time submerged in the cold water. DO NOT DO THIS ALONE! Let me repeat that: Do Not Do This Alone! I’m not saying that you need to share the bathtub with someone, although you are more than welcome to try that. But, you can seriously become hypothermic, fall unconscious, and drown in your own tub. Sad way to go. Make sure that someone is around and checking in on you and do not stay in the tub more than 10-15 minutes at the most. Some people use cold baths around 50-60 F to recover from workouts, and speed muscle repair and recovery. The point of this exercise, however, is to prepare you for the shock of being immersed in freezing cold water. I did it and it will help. I know of some people who did not prepare and the shock of the cold water took their breath away and they panicked. You don’t want to panic when you are swimming in cold, deep water. To make the ice bath more bearable, some people wear a warm top, a stocking cap, and drink hot tea or cocoa.
Another way that you should train for this is by jumping into cold water and swimming while wearing the clothing and shoes you plan on using for the Tough Mudder event. If you are not a strong swimmer, you had better become one by your event day or skip the swimming obstacles. Seriously. It is hard enough to swim in cold water. It’s even harder to swim in cold water while you are fully dressed and wearing shoes. Then, top that off with treading water while you wait to go under the 3 sets of barrels, avoiding the barbed wire, etc. and it is a recipe for disaster for anyone who isn’t a good swimmer. Even if you are a great swimmer, I would bet that you don’t swim full dressed very often (if ever). So, take the time to get used to that ahead of time. It also gives you a chance to test out your choice of clothing and shoes. You may find that you need to make some changes. For example, your shoes may be too heavy to swim in or they may not drain water as well as you thought they would.
Twinkle Toes Balancing ActFor the Twinkle Toes obstacle, you need to walk across a long and narrow wooden beam across a pit of freezing cold water to get to the other side. I failed miserably at this. It was the second to last obstacle, I was tired, and my legs were shot. So, I wasn’t able to get across without the beam shaking violently out of control and me plunging into the cold water, again. This obstacle is all about balance and moving with controlled speed. If you try to go too quickly, you will probably fall off in a spectacular fashion. If you go too slowly (as I did), the shaking and vibrations build up each time you recover your balance and eventually you shake yourself off the beam. You can also get bounced off if you have the bad luck to get on the beam too soon when someone is still walking on it or if they get on too soon behind you and lose control. My recommendation is to walk across at a reasonable pace (not running) and especially get through the middle before it is too late, since the middle is where the most swaying movement will occur. If you do fall off, do not try to catch yourself on the beam. A lot of people seemed to instinctively grab for the beam as they fell off and banged up and scraped up their arms, chest, etc. It looked pretty painful. If you do fall, just gracefully jump into the water and swim to the other side. No sense in banging up your body by trying to catch yourself on the way down.
The Infamous Electroshock TherapyThe Electroshock Therapy seems to be the most famous of all of the Tough Mudder obstacles. People love to talk about it and many seem to fear it the most. It’s a strange one, since I have seen a wide variety of reactions to being shocked. Some people seem to barely notice the shock. Some obviously feel the sting of it. And some are knocked to the ground by it! Not sure what is going on with that. Are they really that sensitive to shock or is that just their reaction to it? Not sure, but I think the worst thing that you can do is fall to the ground in the middle of this obstacle. You cannot crawl under the wires. They will reach you and continue to shock you. So, the people you see crawling are the ones who end up getting shocked over and over and over. Ouch. Running isn’t a good idea either. I have seen people running through it out of control and getting wires wrapped around their arms or even their neck. Can you imagine having a wire wrapped around your neck shocking you over and over? Not fun. My strategy was to move straight through at a good pace with my arms in front of me forming a wedge, so that wires did not get wrapped around any part of my body and to avoid having a wire hit my face. I didn’t receive a single shock (or didn’t notice it). I have been shocked a few times before in my life (e.g., electric fences for livestock), so I wasn’t really worried about it. I actually wish that I had received a shock so that I could tell you how it felt. Sorry! How do you prepare for this? Ummmm, I don’t know and I’m not going to suggest anything that might be hazardous for your health. So, good luck with this!
So, will I run the Tough Mudder again? Absolutely. It was fun to test my endurance, willpower, and physical capabilities. It was also really fun to do this with a team. You end up laughing a lot (mostly later) and have great stories to share. You might even end up with some battle scars to show off. I saw a decent amount of bandages, wraps, and bleeding at the end. I certainly ended up with a few injuries of my own. I will make a few changes to my gear for the next event. I love my minimalist shoes, but my feet took a serious pounding from the extremely rocky trails. It was “ok” for the first 8 miles, but the last 2-3 miles were excruciating and it slowed me down. So, I will wear shoes with a more rugged sole next time. Not too heavy though, since I want shoes that I can swim in. I was really happy with my UnderArmour ColdGear top and leggings. They held up amazingly well with no tears, despite crawling across sharp rocks and over splintery walls. It kept me warmer in the cold water, but I’m not sure if I would have been a little bit warmer without the wet shirt on while I was running. The UnderArmour receiver gloves were a waste of money. They are supposed to keep their grip when wet, but I found them to be very slippery. Next time I will just use a cheap pair of Mechanix gloves that velcro tight at the wrist to stay on.
I will continue to train with a combination of weightlifting, CrossFit, and trail running. Having stronger arms, legs, and core always helps you perform better. I felt very well-prepared physically for the obstacles. Training with hill sprints and using the weighted vest will also continue to be part of the plan. It made it feel easy to run up the mountain during the event. I’m looking forward to Tough Mudder 2012. Should be another wild adventure!