Tough Mudder. Spartan. American Ninja Warrior. At one time, these were fringe events. But in recent years, they’ve become household names—even among non-racers.
Drawn to the out-of-the-box obstacles and full-body challenges at obstacle course races (OCRs), people flocked to races at the outset. Registrations rose steadily from 2009 to 2013, with non-traditional registrations surpassing marathon and half marathons that year. (Source: The Rise of Obstacle Course Races). 2015 saw declines, with a million fewer runners participating in the races that year.1 But obstacle course racing is on the move again.
8 obstacle course trends to watch
Obstacle Race Travel
While 5Ks may pop up in every neighborhood, OCRs are less common and often require travel. It’s fitting, then, that more races are creating travel partnerships, as Spartan Race did with the Marriott Rewards program with race and hotel discounts. Look for more races to adopt travel partners in the future.
Less Extreme Obstacles
A handful of events are removing electricity obstacles—and the events’ original shock-value along with it. Tough Mudder is the most notable of these in the U.S. In November 2015 the series announced it was eliminating the obstacles from its Tough Mudder Half. It has also phased out the Electric Eel, which requires a stomach crawl under live wires.
Triple the Fun
The Spartan Trifecta is setting the precedent, challenging competitors to take on a Sprint (3 miles), a Super (8 miles with 25 obstacles), and a Beast (12 miles with more than 30 obstacles) in a calendar year to earn the coveted medal. Some competitors are even taking on all three races in a few days at the Spartan Race Hawaii Trifecta Weekend.
Shorter and Longer Distances
A three-kilometer race debuted at the 2016 OCR World Championship, putting short-course races (considered to be any distance less than 3 miles) on the world stage.2 The event is back in 2017 and is alongside another premiere for the championship—this one at the other end of the endurance spectrum. Produced in partnership with the Australian-owned race series True Grit, the 24 Hour Enduro Championship will feature a 10-kilometer course with 30 obstacles—only this course will be done in laps over a 24-hour period.3
Families Racing Together
Short-course races open the door for more and younger competitors to join races. Families with pre-teens and teens are racing these distances together. There are also dedicated events for children, as with the Kids Obstacle Challenge for kids aged 5 to 16. The creators of the Bonefrog Challenge recently added a family element to their event with the “Mini Hesco Bonefrog” kids area where they can also have some muddy fun with scaled-down obstacles throughout the day.
NBC broadcasts Spartan Races and America Ninja Warrior as summer staples on the network. Tough Mudder live streams events and some races appear on CBS Sports. In other words, obstacle-course racing has hit the mainstream media. The sport’s broad recognition promises to lead to more national advertising and local-race sponsorship in the future.
Training for obstacle course races used to mean jerry-rigging salmon ladders and rope nets in the backyard. But as more people discover the lifestyle, they’re seeking comprehensive training experiences. Accordingly, fitness gyms are opening to meeting their needs.
The first Spartan Gym opened in Miami, Florida, in January 2017, with obstacles to suit, including a climbing rope wall and monkey bars. American Ninja Warrior–style gyms are also popping up, along with functional fitness ‘box’ gyms. With formal training grounds and dedicated trainers to teach new participants the ins-and-outs of these competitions, look for more athletes joining the field and progressing quickly from novice to serious competitor. These would obviously be a good place to advertise your OCR.
What’s a little mud in your eyes when you’re crawling through a pit with friends? Teams are forming across the country to push each other through tough training sessions and to new heights during competitions.4 Pro teams are following. Take the Midwest race series Conquer the Gauntlet, which formed its own pro team to participate in different events.5 Look for more pros to bring star power to obstacle course races in the future.