May 20, 2019

Going To Extremes

From crawling under an electrified fence through mud to jumping 40 feet into ice-cold water, extreme fitness challenges and non-traditional races are not for the faint of heart.

“You have to be wired for this type of thing,” says Matthew Kenney, DC, a Colorado chiropractor who tests his limits on extreme challenges. And many other people appear to be wired this way, if statistics are any indication.

In only five years, participants in non-traditional running events grew from low six figures in 2009 to an astounding 4 million in 2013—a 40-fold increase, according to Running USA (runningusa.org), a runner’s website. More than 35 non-traditional and themed races include everything from mud, color, foam, zombie and even ugly sweater runs.

The races attract fitness-minded people seeking something more fun and creative than simply running and crossing a finish line. Thousands of people often participate, creating a gathering that looks more like a giant festival.

Obstacles, Zombies and Mud

To an outsider, slogging through mud and pushing beyond your limits does not seem appealing, but proponents disagree. 

“It’s more interesting than doing a marathon,” says Pete McCall, senior advisor with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), who has participated in numerous non-
traditional runs. A survey of 1,200 so-called MOB-sters (mud, obstacle, beer), those who wear costumes, crawl through mud, climb obstacles and chase zombies, cite their three top motivators for participation as fun, uniqueness and being with friends. In fact, the adrenaline rush, appeal of camaraderie and sense of accomplishment motivate many participants.

Social networking gets credit for spreading the word quickly, as people post photos of themselves and their friends covered in mud or splattered in color, eliciting thumbs-up “likes” and helping to create interest in these events. Gender is nearly split down the middle, with women representing 60% of participants and, surprisingly, more than 90% are over the age of 29.

Several categories of these games exist, with specific “brands” within each theme, says McCall. For example, “mud race” is a generic term while Tough Mudder and the Warrior Dash are specific brands of mud races. “It’s the equivalent of marathons as a general term and ‘New York Marathon’ and the ‘LA Marathon’ as specific brands,” McCall says. The same thing holds for Spartan Races, the name of a type of obstacle course race. Most are not timed events but focus on simply making it through to the end.

Getting Dirty

Mud races run the gamut from small, two- to three-mile, 30-minute runs to Tough Mudders, which are between 10 and 12 miles. Some extreme versions, such as the World’s Toughest Mudder, go for 24 hours, says Kenney, who’s completed 10 Tough Mudders. It’s not a straight run through mud but includes obstacles as well. “One was a 40-foot cliff dive, so you’re in and out of freezing water,” Kenney says, which he felt was the toughest part. “You also do not know the obstacles ahead of time, and they’re different each time you do the race.”

The World’s Toughest Mudder includes many military-style obstacles, most of which involve being drenched in freezing cold water. They’re often held in winter months, making it even more physically demanding. Only about 10% of participants make it all the way through to the finish line. Visit ToughMudder.com for event info.

Up and Over

Among the most popular types of obstacle courses, Spartan Races include a number of challenges such as a rope climb and trekking up an inverted wall—moves that require strength as well as speed, says McCall. Standard obstacles include crawling under a barbed wire fence, a spear throw and an Atlas Carry, where the racer picks up a large stone, carries it to a flag, performs five burpees (a jump, squat and push-up combo) and then returns the stone to the starting flag. 

Those who need the motivation of a real drill sergeant can sign up for the Marine Corps’ Bootcamp Challenge, a Spartan Race that takes place at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. “You go through genuine obstacles with real drill sergeants who employ their ‘unique’ brand of encouragement,” says McCall. Visit Spartan.com for more race info.

Running From the Walking Dead

Being chased by a zombie would motivate anyone to get a move on, even if it’s through 5k to 15k of mud and sludge. “Somehow it works even though you know they’re people in costume,” says McCall.

Zombies decked out in “blood” chase you down as you run, crawl and flee in horror to prevent them from devouring you alive. Each participant starts with three or four flags (depending on the race), which you wear on your hips and behind. The zombies try to take your flags; each zombie may take only one flag.

You can still complete the race even if you are “infected” and void of brain power (missing all your flags), but those who finish with at least one flag are designated “zombie survivalists.” By the end of the race, if even one of them remains, the zombies lose. Find one near you by going to zombierace.co.

Colorful Running

Billing itself as the “Happiest 5k on the Planet,” the Color Run promotes health and happiness. With more than 300 events in over 50 countries, the Color Run has tripled in growth since its incarnation in 2011. With a focus on fun more than competition, the five-kilometer, untimed race douses runners with white powder (a combination of cornstarch, baking soda and FD&C dyes, certified non-toxic) at the starting line. At each subsequent kilometer runners get dumped with additional colors until they finish wearing a rainbow of hues. A party at the end of the race includes music, dancing and massive “color throws.”

The Color Runs raise money for local and national charities and have donated more than $4 million since 2012. Check out TheColorRun.com for more info.

Avoiding Injuries

It’s not all fun and games, however. You can get hurt amidst all the commotion, but taking a proactive approach can reduce your risk of injury.

Some of these events come with greater risks than others. The Tough Mudders, for instance, are billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” and there’s little wonder people have been hurt—some badly. Multiple electrical burns from running through a field of electrical wires while wet and hot, inflammation of the heart muscle and permanent disabilities have been reported, according to a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine (3/14). In 2013 a 28-year-old man died during a Tough Mudder race after jumping off a platform into a 13-foot deep pool of muddy water. Another race participant landed on top of him, according to reports.

Although it’s impossible to prepare yourself for unexpected obstacles, you can give yourself a fighting chance by injury-proofing yourself as much as possible before the race, says Kenney, who’s never suffered an injury as a result of his Tough Mudders. “Accidents can happen, so make sure you’re in shape. Take it seriously and prepare ahead of time by training for it.” 

Fortunately, Spartan races do not require you to perform every obstacle if you don’t want to, says McCall, “but you will have to do an exercise instead.” For example, they may make you do burpees.

A Spartan race is about a 6k run with 12 to 14 obstacles, so it’s like running two laps and then doing a body weight exercise. So McCall suggests training for obstacle races with body weight exercises, such as pull-ups and push-ups. “Go to a playground and climb on the monkey bars,” he says. “Combine that with running three to four miles to mimic the type of agility and endurance required of an obstacle course. “The better shape you’re in, the more fun you’ll have,” McCall says.

“Most of the injuries I see are single-event types versus overuse injuries (such as tendonitis), mainly musculoskeletal injuries from landing awkwardly or getting stuck in the mud,” says David Geier, MD, a South Carolina orthopedic surgeon and sports physician. “This can cause knee and lower extremity injuries.” Muscle strains to the calves and hamstrings are common, along with ankle sprains and meniscus tears, which can occur from the force of trying to get out of the mud.

“Mud runs are very physical, so they’re not a good place for a sedentary person to start,” says Geier. “Often injuries occur when participants become so exhausted and tired they lose their form and just do what they can to get through it.” He suggests attaining a baseline level of cardiovascular fitness endurance along with upper body strength and shoulder strength, which helps you get over walls, ladders and other obstacles. 

The dangers of muddy water have come to light in recent news stories where mud run participants become sickened with E.coli, although it’s not likely to happen unless the race takes place near pastures, says Michael G. Schmidt, PhD, microbiology and immunology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Try not to ingest the mud, which may be easier said than done since a little E. coli goes a long way. Schmidt suggests reducing your risk by not eating or drinking until you’ve had an opportunity to wash with soap and water. “The mud caked to your face and hands may contain the microbes,” he adds. “Once clean, wash your hands with soap and water again before eating and after showering since you cannot see or taste the bugs that could get you sick.”
With proper preparation and precautions mud runs and other non-traditional races add fun and a change of pace to the same old running routine. Pick your event wisely.

“In general, you don’t want to choose an event or activity you know you can’t do,” says Kenney. “But it’s good to pick something outside your comfort zone, because it will change you in everyday life.”