How to Train for the Mud Run

I have run the MS Society Mud Run in both of its Jacksonville locations and this guide will be based on those experiences.  From what I’ve seen of other course layouts, it should also be useful for other courses around the country.

Can I make it?  Yes, you can.  People of all shapes and sizes have finished this race.  Because there are competitive and non-competitive heats, most people can complete the Mud Run.  If you are capable of walking seven miles and playing around on a kid’s playground, you can probably do it.  If this is all you can do, you will probably be very tired at the end of the race though.  Training will make race day much more enjoyable and safer.  People get hurt on the course every year.  Some injuries can be attributed to  accidents and goofing around but others occur when folks aren’t physically prepared.  Of course, before you start any type of exercise, you should see your doctor and talk with him or her about what you plan to do.

What is the most important thing I can add to my training for a fast time?  Run.  It is that simple.  While the obstacles get the spotlight, most of this race is running.  The obstacles are pretty quick so the difference between a fast obstacle time and a slow one is easily overcome with a faster running pace.  Because this is a roughly 10k race, I’d recommend getting your long runs up to at least seven miles by race day – nine miles would be even better.  If you want to contend for a top place finish, add in speed work and tempo runs.  If you are unfamiliar with setting a running schedule, a good basic place to start is this free online running schedule/calendar generator.  Click on the link and then select “Smart Coach” from the middle of the page.

Here are some more tips for first-time runners:
1.  Enter the for-fun division instead of the trophy division.
2.  Expect to wait at obstacles (because a lot more people do the for-fun division).
3.  You will probably not be running the entire time so don’t worry if you can’t run a 10k before the race.  If you want to enjoy the race, plan on being able to run at least three miles or be ok with walking much of the course.  For these reasons, when you train you should consider focusing on running more often instead of running longer.
4.  You might consider a run/walk training program like Jeff Galloway’s.  You’ll be able to run with a group of people at your same level of fitness this way too.

I’m already a runner.  What else can I do?  Run hills.  I got this tip from a team that finished 3rd one year and it is the single best piece of advice I’ve gotten on training for this event.  They are tough to find in Jacksonville, but be creative.  You can run bridges or stairs (stadiums, buildings, parking garages, etc.).  As a substitute, you could climb a Stairmaster or use a treadmill set on its steepest incline.  I don’t believe either of these options is as good as bridges or stairs though.  They get your heart rate up quickly and build many of the non-running muscles you’ll be using on several of the obstacles too.  If you lay out your course right, you can even simulate the actual event by having stretches of flat runs peppered with stairs to get your body used to the bursts of exertion mixed in with continuous running.

What about upper body training?  This really is very secondary.  It is a huge help to do pull-ups because you will be required to lift yourself over various obstacles.  If you are running in a non-competitive heat, you’ll have three tries at an obstacle then you move on.  If you can’t do an obstacle, you can still finish the course.  If you are running competitively, you will be disqualified if you can’t finish an obstacle so having some upper body strength is necessary.

Yeah, but what about upper body if I want a fast time?  This past year we added in a bunch of body weight exercises and it really seemed to help us.  We could recover from the obstacles quicker and, because they were easier for us, we had a more fun time during the race too.  Here are some of our favorites (click on the bold name for a link with detailed info on each):

Pull-ups  As mentioned above, many of the obstacles require you to lift yourself over something.  These are touted by many as the best overall upper body exercise you can do.  If I was only going to do one upper body exercise for the Mud Run, this would be it.  If you don’t have a gym membership, I recommend this cheap-o piece of equipment.  It is what Melanie and I use and it really works.

Chin-ups  Just like pull-ups but your palms face toward you when you grip the bar.  These are a little easier and work your biceps more.

Dips Work those triceps and chest.  These are good for pushing yourself up onto platforms during the race.  We just use a couple of sawhorses.  This allows us to space them so they are in tight to our bodies and keep ourselves as upright as possible so we focus more on our triceps than chest.

Push-ups For chest, arms and shoulders.  You’ll spend a little bit of time on a couple of obstacles crawling on your hands and knees or shimmying underneath stuff.  Using the Iron Gym on the floor to do push-ups really saves our wrists.  You could substitute a couple of octagonal or square dumbbells placed on the floor for wrist-saving hand grips.

You’ve talked about legs and upper body.  What about the stuff that connects them?  Core exercises are a great idea.  A stronger core makes everything else easier (including running) and helps you avoid injury.  It is amazing how much faster I could run once I started doing core exercises.  Just as in the case of the upper body stuff, there are lots of things you can be doing, but here are my favorite core exercises:

Crunches  Works your abs.  In my case, because I put my hands beside instead of behind my head, it also strengthens my neck.

Lifted-Leg Crunches  A college soccer buddy showed me these.  You’d think they would work the same muscles as crunches, but try ‘em and feel the difference.  Maybe it is the same muscle groups but they are definitely harder.  Just do the same crunch exercise with your legs mostly straight and lifted off the ground.

Twisty Leg Kicky Thingy of Death (Bicycle Crunches) The toughest by far and probably the best for you.  The link takes you to a video of three core exercises and bicycle crunches are one of them.  I love them.  I hate them.  Melanie enjoys listening to me struggle through them.

Side Planks  Everyone thinks about the front muscles of the core when they work out.  Don’t forget all those other ones that wrap your waist and make up your “internal weight belt.”

Back Extensions  Strengthen your lower back.  We don’t do them exactly as shown in this video but they cover a lot of good info so I included it.  We keep our hands at the side of our head and just lift our upper body.  I’m not sure my midsection could take lifting my legs and my back at the same time.  :/

Anything else?  There are obstacles that require balance.  You could practice crossing a balance beam quickly or set up a rope bridge and practice that.  If you have a park with a playground nearby, they might have something you could use – preferably at a time when kids aren’t there so you can avoid funny looks from the parents.

Great, but how do I put it all together into one routine?  Well, if you are a fit person who already runs a lot, I’d plan on doing upper body and core M, W, F and running T, Th, S.  This gives you at least a day of rest in between each type of workout.  Remember, you don’t get stronger when you exercise.  You get stronger while you rest after exercise.

If you are new to running, I’d focus on that.  Once you get to the point that you can run three miles without extreme effort, you could start mixing in core and upper body where your schedule allows.  Don’t forget to run hills and/or stairs.  If this is going to be your first organized race, don’t plan on setting any records (or training like you plan to).  Focus mostly on the running prep and enter with the intention of having fun.

Look for an article about what to wear for the Mud Run and another article with some miscellaneous tips in the coming weeks.  You can also sign up for email, Twitter or Facebook notification on the right-hand side of the screen.

You can find all of my other mud run articles here.

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