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Why Are Obstacle Course Races so Popular?

obstacle course race

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exercise and running may help you to live longer, but some find the monotony of traveling miles along a paved road boring
  • Obstacle course races were developed in 1987 in the U.K., and gained popularity in the U.S. beginning in 2010 when Spartan Races and Tough Mudder Races offered their first events
  • Long-distance races increase your risk of heart and kidney damage, but obstacle courses offer shorter distances with some of the same physical endurance and mental challenges
  • The events are physically demanding and may easily result in injury; physical fitness, flexibility, correct foot strike and the right shoes may help reduce this risk

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise and running helps you live longer, but running more is not necessarily better. Increasingly, experts are moving away from recommendations suggesting you need just 30 to 60 minutes of moderate daily activity. Data now demonstrate high-intensity interval training may be far more beneficial for most, and when you exercise intensely, you only need to do it for a fraction of the time.

A large observational study1 gathered data from more than 55,000 adults and found runners experienced a significantly reduced risk of death from all causes compared to those who did not run. Although the study was observational and could not conclusively prove running was responsible for these benefits, it is in line with a lot of other research showing exercise in general is an excellent life extension strategy. That said, studies have also demonstrated that excessive exercise can backfire.

In the past decade the number of individuals who complete marathons has declined.2 Although a marathon has been the ultimate competition for amateur endurance athletes, research demonstrating the negative effects of long-distance events,3 combined with a 26.2-mile solitary endeavor, may have triggered declining numbers. For those who get bored easily, a new type of race has emerged, requiring feats of strength and dexterity designed not only for the athlete, but the spectator as well.

Running Industry Takes a Hit

After peaking at 19 million finishes in 2013,4 the number of people participating in marathons fell to just over 17 million in 2016. Just 3 percent of those running road races completed a marathon in 2016. High fees, competition from other fitness activities and increasing race options have shrunk the field in many races. Richard Harshbarger, chief executive of Running USA, believes the sport may have gotten too big too quickly.5

Between 1990 and 2013, road races experienced a 300 percent growth with much of the boom occurring between 2008 and 2013. Harshbarger believes supply has outstripped demand and may account for some of the decline in participation. Businesses that have grown up around the running boom have also suffered. Book and magazine publications, running stores and apparel retailers have experienced a decline in income and some have filed for bankruptcy. Harshbarger commented:6

"Events that aren't professionally managed or professionally produced are going away, and then those left in the market are forced to get more creative. Now everyone's got bands on the course and beer at the finish line, so what's new?"

Studio classes such as CrossFit and yoga have taken a bite out of the running industry as well. Phil Stewart, president of Road Race Management, points out rising fees for local and national races rose quickly, causing 20 percent of runners in 2017 to reduce the number of races they planned to participate in this year. This same reduction in participation is being experienced by the businesses supporting the running industry. Stewart commented:7

"Back when you could enter a road race for $10 and you could enter a marathon for $25, the sport really had no appeal or very little appeal for for-profit businesses. But then we moved into an era where people would pay $85 for a half and $135 for a marathon. That's when you really had all the for-profit groups, and it just transformed the model."

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Fun in the Mud Obstacle Course Races

During the same period, obstacle course races enjoyed a rise in participation. Tough Mudder and Spartan Race Inc. are two of the more popular.8 Each was founded in 2010 in response to participants looking for a more challenging and varied course. Tough Mudder claims 2 million total participants and Spartan reports 5 million. This short video gives you a demonstration of a Tough Mudder race.

Spartan Race offers distances from 3 to 30 miles or more, which are unique in this genre as they are timed. They offer more than 200 races in 30 different countries, encouraging their participants to push for both a strong mind and body, and to increase resilience by pushing through the training required to complete a race.9

The shorter races are advertised as perfect for new and returning athletes, while the intermediate and longer distances are a test of physical and mental endurance. Spartan's founder Joe De Sena told The Atlantic:10

"Look, at the end of the day, most of us are extremely lazy and our modern environment allows us to be lazy. If someone wants to change that and feel good and go exercise, does a 26.2-mile run on pavement sound appealing? In contrast, with [Spartan], it's just badass and more fun. The imagery, the videos, it's just more likely to rip someone off the couch."

Spartan races are designed with obstacles to test your physical and mental strength. Most have a few signature obstacles, such as barbed wired and mud, but there is a wide variety between races so it's nearly impossible to anticipate what you'll be facing.11 By contrast, Tough Mudder races are based on either mileage or time, but are not timed.

They offer a 1-mile ultimate showdown to a 10-mile obstacle course. They also offer an eight-hour, through-the-night race, 10-hour competition or 24-hour no-fear race. Obstacles in the Tough Mudder Race include barbed wire, swimming through ice water, climbing walls and crawling through mud.12 While most find the races challenging, including marathon runners and former soldiers, they also enjoy the camaraderie as participants push each other to finish.13

Training and participation builds endurance, agility and coordination. Participants help each other over and through obstacles so each may make it to the finish line.14 John Fidoe, who was a marketing consultant for Tough Mudder until 2016, said the goal of the event is to test the participants' determination, mental strength and ability to work together to achieve their goals.

Long-Distance Running May Not Be Healthy

While training for, and participating in, some of the longer endurance obstacle races may be popular and encourage teamwork, they may not be healthy for your heart and kidneys. Although it's often easy to pick out the long, lean body and cardiovascular endurance of a marathon runner, this physique may come at a significant cost.

Benefits of moderate distances include stress control, weight reduction, lower blood pressure and lower extremity muscle development.15 However, data demonstrates chronic training for endurance events may cause transient acute volume overload on your heart with reductions in right ventricular ejection fractions that return to normal readings within one week.16

Months and years of repetitive injury lead to patchy myocardial fibrosis in the atria, intraventricular septum and right ventricle, increasing your risk of arrhythmias. Additionally, long-term training is associated with coronary artery calcification and large-artery wall stiffening.17 One study18 enrolled 20 long-distance runners training for the Quebec City Marathon with no known cardiovascular disease. The runners were tested prior to, on the day of and again within 48 hours of completing the race.

Half of the amateur runners experienced adverse changes, including heart muscle swelling, reduced blood flow and changes in function in the left and right ventricles. Dr. Eric Larose of the University Institute of Cardiology and Pulmonology of Québec observed the changes were more common in runners who began with lower fitness levels or who had trained less.19

In a study20 from William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, researchers found 40 percent of runners suffered kidney damage after a marathon,21 but another study places the number closer to 75 percent of runners.22 The researchers found the damage was due to physical stress on the kidneys during the race. Fortunately, the kidneys returned to normal days later. However, the question remains if there are long-term consequences to chronic injuries from multiple endurance races.

Obstacle Courses Enjoyed by Men and Women

Obstacle-course racing has become increasingly popular, attracting more participants. The modern obstacle course began in 1987 when Tough Guy races originated in the U.K. Although not new, the races didn't begin enjoying exponential growth until 2010. The market reached saturation in 2015 and since then the numbers have remained stable.23

However, while the number of participants rose, so did the number and type of races. For this reason, the average number of participants remained stable. Unlike other road races, obstacle course races don't have standard distances.

If they are broken into categories of less than 5 miles, between 5 miles and 10 miles, and those longer than 10 miles, participants in the shorter races increased sixfold between 2010 and 2017. However, while you might imagine the shorter races would enjoy the greatest growth, it was the longer distance races that increased the most — 39 times.24

Although there are more men who participate than women, the difference in percentage is not as wide as you might imagine. In 2017, 64 percent of the participants were men and 36 percent were women.25 However, the age distribution is skewed significantly to the left with the number of participants peaking at age 30. Interestingly, California reports 449,500 participants, nearly double the number as the next closest state, New York.

Foot Strike and Shoes May Help Prevent Injury

While humans have been running for thousands of years, the modern running shoe was not invented until the mid-1970s. As the sport continues to grow in popularity, so does the number of injuries. The repetitive nature, with a force of impact on your knees and hips, increases your risk of injury. Although some would like to increase the amount of cushioning in the shoes, the reality is the shoes with less cushion may offer greater protection.

Your loading rate is the speed you apply force to your body. The greater the rate the higher the potential for injury. The theory behind using a well-cushioned shoe is to reduce the force on your joints, tendons and ligaments. However, researchers have found runners who wear shoes with little to no cushion and who run on the balls of their feet usually experience lower loading rates.

In a study of 29 runners, researchers compared normal shoes against minimal trainers. Lead author Hannah Rice commented on the results:26

"So many people use running as a means of reducing the risk of chronic diseases, but about three-quarters of runners typically get injured in a year. Footwear is easily modifiable, but many runners are misguided when it comes to buying new trainers.

This research shows that running in minimal shoes and landing on the balls of your feet reduces loading rates and may therefore reduce the risk of injury. Our research tells us that becoming accustomed to running with a forefoot strike in shoes that lack cushioning promotes a landing with the lowest loading rates, and this may be beneficial in reducing the risk of injury."

Despite new gels, air pockets and foams, more than 50 percent of runners continue to be injured each year. Brian Metzler, editor-in-chief of the running magazine Competitor, believes blaming injury on the type of running shoe you use ignores other contributors to the high injury rate in the sport.27

He points out two factors may impact injury rate, including people who begin running from a nonrunning background and others who suffer from training errors. To read more about your running style and shoe choices, see my previous article, "Ironically, Less Cushion in Your Running Shoes May Mean Fewer Injuries."