As a personal trainer in London I get requests from clients who want to prepare for a specific event. One client wanted to go on a ski-instructor course, so I helped her get fit for that. Several clients wanted to get back into water-sports such as windsurfing and surfing, so I devised workouts to meet those challenges.
More recently, a client asked me to get her ready for a Tough Mudder.
For those of you who don’t know what this is, Tough Mudder is a grulling 12 mile obstacle course with 27 obstacles spaced at regular intervals. It challenges your cardio fitness, your physical strength, muscular endurance, and mental toughness too.
The best way to train for Tough Mudder is to simulate the physical demands of the course as closely as possible. You don’t have to do all your training outdoors, but at least half your training should be outdoors, whatever the weather.
Running for cardio fitness
It’s a 12 mile course, but you won’t be running constantly for 12 miles. You’ll be running just over half a mile (around 1km) before you reach the next obstacle. So I recommend your training should simulate this.
If you’re in the gym, run for 1km on the treadmill, then move onto an obstacle-simulation exercise. Without resting, go back to another 1km run, then do the next obstacle-simulation exercise. How fast you run, how hard the exercises in-between, and how long you make the workout, all depend on your current fitness levels. As you progress in your training, build up all these 3 elements (running speed, intensity of obstacle exercise, duration of workout).
If your cardio fitness is poor to average, you’ll need to do longer distance running too. The treadmill is a good starting point, because you can monitor your speed and distance precisely.
If your cardio fitness is poor, make 3km your goal. Start by running 3km at 9kph. When that is manageable, increase to 10kph. Then progress to 10kph for the first 1km, and 11kph for the remaining 2km. Then progress to 10kph for the first 1km, 11kph for the second km, and 12 kph for the third km.
If your cardio fitness is average, I suggest 5km as a starting point. Start at a steady pace, say 10kph, which means you’ll run the 5km in 30 minutes. This is a good baseline. When you can handle this without too much effort, build up the intensity. For example, run the first 3km at 10kph, then the remaining 2 km at 11kph. Then progress to running the last 1km at 12 kph.
Running for speed
There are times during Tough Mudder when a short sprint is called for. One of the obstacles, Lumber Jacked, is a series of 1.5 metre hurdles, and if you can perform a fast run-up to each hurdle, you’ll be able to clamber over it much more effectively.
Another obstacle which requires an explosive sprint is Everest: a long steep slippery slope, grab the top and haul yourself over the other side. The more momentum you can generate the better.
To condition your body for short sprints, run as fast as you can for 30 seconds, then walk for 1 minute. Then repeat. Before doing this drill, make sure you’ve warmed up for 5 minutes at a comfortable pace, and make sure your hamstring and calf muscles are flexible enough to withstand sprinting. See my comments on flexibility below.
Plyometric strength training
Plyometric strength is the ability to jump and leap with explosive force. This will come in very handy in many of the Tough Mudder obstacles.
Include in your workouts squats, progressing to jump squats, and fast runs on the spot with high knees.
This includes your glutes and lower back as well as your abdominal muscles. Include a wide range of core exercises: crunch, oblique crunch, lower back raises, supermans, glute raises, 1 leg glute raises, plank, side plank.
There’s a lot of crawling and scrambling on all fours in Tough Mudder, and a strong core will help you through obstacles like Sewage Outlet (crawling through a large tube), Boa Constrictor (crawling through narrow pipes), Trench Warfare (crawling through dark muddy trenches), Kiss of Mud (crawling through mud on your stomach under barbed wire mesh).
Any obstacle which involves climbing will activate your glutes (your bum muscles), so make sure you develop a high degree of glute strength for the climbing obstacles. Hero Walls (climbing a series of 9 foot walls), Ladder to Hell (a 5 metre giant ladder), King of the Mountain (climbing a 5 metre high mountain of straw bales) are just three examples of climbing challenges you’ll encounter.
Upper body strength
Primarily your chest, shoulders, back, arms, and grip strength. Probably the most important elements of strength to build are your ability to haul your bodyweight over obstacles, and hang by your hands without losing your grip. Pull-ups and chin-ups should be a major part of your training to build these two elements of strength.
A lot of the climbing obstacles require you to haul your body-weight over the top of the obstacle and down the other side. Other obstacles require a high degree of grip strength, so it’s worth building up your forearm muscles in preparation for this. For instance, Dong Dangler requires you to inch across muddy water while gripping a horizontal rope. Just the Tip requires you to inch along a wall with a hand-hold, and if you lose your grip you fall into cold muddy water below.
One of the most challenging obstacles of all is Funky Monkey, where you swing on monkey bars across a long pit of yet more freezing cold muddy water.
Again, pull-ups are a great way to build grip strength which primarily means forearm strength. As well as pull-ups, see how long you can hang by your hands from a pull-up bar. Get a friend to time you, and try to beat your personal best.
Your leg muscles will power you through all the climbing, running, and leaping, so include leg strength exercises in your training. Squats and lunges and the best strength builders for your hamstrings and quads, as well as your glutes.
If you lack flexibility in any muscle group, you’re setting yourself up for injury, particularly during movements which require explosive speed such as sprinting and leaping and jumping.
Your two most vulnerable muscles are your hamstrings and calves. Devote a lot of time to stretching these muscles after every workout, so you can use these muscles through their full range of movement without tearing them.
To get yourself conditioned to cold water and plunging into deep water, as well as swimming underwater, go to the local swimming pool and practice jumping into deep water (from the low diving board or into the deep end of the swimming pool) and swimming short distances underwater.
This will help get you ready for Underwater Tunnels (where you have to swim under a series of barrels), and Walk the Plank (where you jump off a 12 foot high platform into deep water then swim 40 feet to the edge of the water and haul yourself up onto dry land.)
To prepare yourself for the freezing cold water of Arctic Enema (where you swim through a series of ice-baths the length of a builder’s skip) try taking some cold baths at home, then introduce ice-cubes to get a feel for what to expect. The more acclimatized you are to freezing water, the less of a shock to the system it will be on the day of your Tough Mudder.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of the Fitness4London.com blog.