How to Stay Safe During Obstacle Course Races

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With over two million Americans expected to participate this year, the popularity of extreme obstacle course races is exploding.

Spartan race injuries

Spartan Races and Tough Mudder races draw thousands of participants to every event, eager to experience challenging obstacles and to come limping away with war stories and a badge of honor for completion. It is clear that these races are getting a fresh group of participants interested in fitness, but news on Spartan race injuries and Tough Mudder injuries have led to genuine concerns that needs to be assessed before taking off at the starting line.

Traditional races such as 5k, 10k, marathons and triathlons offer a clear progression for beginner runners. They are also surrounded by decades of data, research, training manuals as well as other support systems. Race organizers understand proper safety precautions, and how to manage the most common injuries at each event. While there are well-publicized examples of serious incidents such as cardiac arrest, the number of preventable injuries is fairly low. From proper footwear and clothing to detailed training schedules, running enthusiasts can quickly learn how to properly prepare for the demands of their sport.

Extreme obstacle course races challenge participants to push the limits of endurance and dexterity in a serious of obstacles including temperature extremes, water, fire, mud, rocks, barbed wire crawls, weight lifting, wrangling and uneven terrain, altitude changes and even the potential for electrical shocks. Promotion for events and reports in the media seem to glorify minor injuries as par for the course. However, not all wounds are small. The rate of Spartan Race injuries and Tough Mudder injuries indicates that there is a need for some foundational changes to keep participants safe.

The number of companies offering these military-style obstacle courses is increasing as they take advantage of the popularity of the events. Event organizers try to beat out the competition by offering the most extreme race version and therefore the biggest bragging rights for participants. One race infamously has the web domain name http://www.youmaydie.com. The fundamental problem lies in a lack of governing body to determine which obstacles push the boundaries too far. One organization proposes to offer some governance, but participation is voluntary and the website information is stale, indicating a lack of active engagement.

One insurance company advertises its coverage for event organizers to manage liability and risk. They also offer limited coverage for participants that ranges up to $100,000 for injuries that may arise during the event. Other insurance companies have bowed out due to the high rate of injury claims. There is little quantified data about the rate of injury, but one study puts the estimate at six hospital visit injuries per one thousand participants. With many events drawing tens of thousands of athletes, the number of potential hospital visits is significant. Other organizers offer an onsite triage and medical care plan, which includes the ability to treat injuries such as sprains, abrasions, heat related illness, and even on site sutures of cuts in order to lessen the burden on the local hospital emergency room.

The waiver for each event typically states that the participant is aware that the risk of injury or death from these activities is significant, including the chance of near drowning, sprains, fractures, heat or cold injury and more. Spartan race injuries often incurred by participants include overuse injuries like muscle cramps, shin splits, broken bones and stress fractures. Traumatic or orthopedic injuries occur as a result of falls, collisions, and landing on obstacles or other participants. Underlying medical conditions may be triggered by physical exertion. One Tough Mudder injury resulted in the drowning death of an athlete who participated in the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, jumped off a fifteen foot high platform into muddy water and drowned when another participate jumped on top of him.

It is possible to improve your chances for a safer and fun obstacle course race experience. The first step is to get fit. A basic level of fitness is important before tackling extreme sports including obstacle courses. Use a variety of training tools and programs to prepare such as running, climbing, circuit training and strength or resistance training.  Unlike long distance running, obstacle course races require sprints of short, medium and long lengths followed by an immediate obstacle. Train your body to recover rapidly from a sprint to a lower heart rate in order to prepare for the style of racing at an obstacle course race. Improve balance and practice running on uneven terrain, up and down hills and on mountain trails. Strengthening your core will also provide you with the agility needed on an obstacle course. Additionally, you can use kettle balls, medicine balls and interval training to simulate putting your muscles through dynamic strength workouts.

Prepare for the race. Do not have a “finish or die” mentality as that increases the likelihood for injury. If the race offers tips to help participants prep for the race, take them seriously. Preview the course if allowed. Note the number of event staff on hand to manage the safety of each obstacle and the medical assistance plan. Ask questions and listen for knowledgeable and reasonable responses. If you have any indicators that safety is not the number one priority of the event organizers, give yourself permission to bail. When running the course, be willing to walk around an obstacle if you feel you are unprepared to handle it safely.

Obstacle course racing as a sport is expected to continue to experience expansion. Participants need to prioritize their health and safety when choosing to engage in these races. When the event is properly organized and managed, and the participants are prepared, trained, and practice common sense, it is possible to walk away as a healthy, and muddy, finisher.