The Dangers of Running an Obstacle Race

Tough Mudder Endurance Race Takes Place In Edinburgh

When you take a look at the ads for obstacle races like Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash or Spartan Race, the challenge to your mental and physical toughness is apparent. “Are you really strong enough to take on this race?” they seem to ask. And for most red-blooded Americans, the gut instinct is to answer, “Hell yeah!” But not so fast. In recent years there’s been a huge surge in the popularity of obstacle races and endurance challenges. And if your Facebook newsfeed is to be believed, it seems like there’s one every weekend. Anything that gets people outside and exercising can be good, but there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration, especially for those new to training. These races truly aren’t for the faint of heart (especially if there’s something medically wrong with your heart), so training for them needs to be taken seriously. Before you sign up for an obstacle race, be aware of the risks you’re taking and how to train properly.

All obstacle races, by design, contain inherent risks.

Be Aware of the Risks

A study from 2003 closely examined five cases of injuries sustained while running in a Tough Mudder race in Pennsylvania that same year. A common feature of the Tough Mudder races are the electrified obstacles in which participants face electric shocks from wires running through or hanging over the obstacles. Four out of the five cases analyzed in this study resulted from electric shocks. The consequences of these types of obstacles included headaches, altered mental status, possible seizure activity, speech difficulty, confusion, inability to move one side of the body, loss of consciousness (and associated fall injuries), anxiety and loss of bladder control. Fortunately, all of these patients were discharged from the hospital within four days of admission.

There have also been instances of severe injuries and even death at such obstacle races. In April 2012, Avishek Sengupta died while taking part in a Tough Mudder event in West Virginia during a plunge-pool obstacle that requires participants to jump into cold water from a platform 15 feet above the pool. This incident was ruled an accident, but it’s clear that such obstacle races are not without risks.

All obstacle races, by design, contain inherent risks. It’s this element of danger that attracts seasoned competitors and weekend warriors alike. Injuries like minor burns, bruises and cuts are commonplace from climbing over obstacles, swinging on ropes and running or jumping through fire. But there are also less obvious risks: In particular, electrified obstacles and submersion-based obstacles are much harder for organizers to control because previously unknown health issues can sometimes be exposed by them.

And who knows what’s lurking below the surface of that muddy water so many races feature. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during an October 2012 long-distance obstacle race, there was an outbreak of campylobacteriosis affecting 22 people who inadvertently swallowed muddy water.

“Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. Most persons who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea can be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts about one week,” says the CDC.

Prevent Common Running Injuries

Aside from the obvious risks in obstacle races of running through fire, being submerged in ice-cold water and climbing obstacles high above the ground, there are a number of more prevalent risks to the endurance competitor, whether an ill-prepared newcomer or a seasoned competitor.

The annual injury rate for runners ranges between 37 to 56 percent, depending on the group (competitive athletes, joggers or children). This means that nearly half of all runners will experience an injury each year. “Most running injuries are lower-extremity injuries, with a predominance for the knee,” says Willem van Mechelen, professor of occupational and sports medicine at the University of Amsterdam. “About 50 to 75 percent of all running injuries appear to be overuse injuries due to the constant repetition of the same movement.”

These types of injuries can commonly include iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome, stress fractures, Achilles tendinitis, patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee) and plantar fasciitis. These injuries are usually systemic rather than the result of any one particular event or action. Systemic injuries are often caused by things like the individual’s physiology, muscular imbalances, warm-up routine (or lack thereof), mobility, stability, running pattern, shoe type and running surface. Getting assessed is a great way to minimize the risk of these systemic injuries, as it will help identify potential causes of injury that can be addressed ahead of time.

In preparing for an adventure race, it’s always best to seek out an assessment of your movement from your doctor, an orthopedist, physical therapist or running coach before you start to train. If you have dysfunctional movement, the last thing you want is to perform thousands of repetitions of the same dysfunctional patterns, because they can contribute to the injuries and conditions mentioned above.

This can be further compounded if your race or event requires you to compete and train while bearing a load (like in a GoRuck Challenge). The change in your body positioning to accommodate the load and increased ground reaction forces make it even more important to ensure you are assessed and moving well ahead of time.

Properly Structure Your Training

Another contributing factor to these injuries is the individual’s inability to adapt to a sudden increase in training volume. This is common amongst sedentary people with little to no idea of how to build a safe and sane training program who suddenly decide to take part in an adventure challenge or endurance race. While it can be a great motivator to kick-start your training, it’s important to train progressively.

Your ability to adapt to -- and recover from -- training stimulus is affected by many factors, some of which are predetermined by genetics and others that can be controlled through nutrition, sleep and hydration.

Within any training program there are a number of factors that need to be carefully managed and manipulated to ensure the successful adaptation of the athlete. These fall into four categories: type (how you train), frequency (how often you train), intensity (how hard you train) and duration (how long you train).

Not allowing your body the time to adapt to any one of these factors (or trying to change too many of them at once) leads to some significant physiological and psychological effects that can negatively affect your performance and overall health.

The main problem with this failure to adapt to training is that it can be a vicious cycle for those caught in it. And without an objective outsider (such as a coach) it’s hard to tell that it’s happening -- and even harder to correct. Ultimately, if left uncorrected, the situation worsens and can lead to burnout, overtraining and loss of motivation.

Train Smarter, Not Harder

It’s important to remember that training more isn’t always better. The perception that training harder or increasing volume will bring a more optimal performance is misleading.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the endurance community, where the miles you run/bike/swim are often used as indicators of how hard you’re training, with little consideration given to movement patterns and whether they are potentially causing or magnifying dysfunction that could lead to injury.

Knowing when to go hard and when to dial back the intensity using pacing is something every athlete needs to master to be successful. While this takes time and practice, learning how to run your engine is one of the most valuable skills you can possess as an athlete, regardless of your chosen sport.

In order to optimize your athletic performance and health over the long term, it’s key to approach your training in a holistic manner that integrates recovery, nutrition, hydration, mindset, program design, movement analysis and, of course, your individual goals. If you’re not sure how to build a program like that for yourself, seek out the help of a certified personal trainer with experience in building training programs for people who participate in obstacle races or endurance challenges.

The Choice Is Up to You

As fun and exhilarating as obstacle races are, with their high adrenaline and camaraderie, it’s important to always dynamically assess each obstacle from a safety and heath perspective. Does the benefit and sense of achievement from passing an obstacle outweigh the risk you face by attempting it? In many cases, it doesn’t. But if you are aware of the risks, take the time to train properly and choose a race that is safe for your individualized physiology and medical history, competing in an obstacle race or endurance challenge can be a rewarding experience.