Obstacle Racing Popularity Soars, Offers New Fitness Challenge

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Orthopaedist Dr. Joel Buchalter recommends extreme fitness for extreme endurance events.

They have names like Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder. They represent a new type of team endurance challenge that burst on the scene just a few years ago and has grown explosively. The Outdoor Industry Association reports an 85% increase in extreme event participation from 2006 to 2010. Tough Mudder, an adventure sports company established in 2010, regularly attracts 15-20,000 participants to two-day weekend races that it bills as “probably the toughest event on the planet.” “These events aren't for the casual jock,” says Dr. Joel Buchalter, founding partner of Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group. “Emergency rooms frequently see an increase in business when endurance races come to town. And with a Tough Mudder event coming to Vermont in July, those planning to participate, especially first-timers, should be aware of the dangers and train rigorously to minimize the risk of injury.”

Each Tough Mudder event, modeled on British Special Forces exercises, covers 10 to 12 miles with 35 military obstacles that test strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Participants, who pay as much as $200 apiece, might slog through a mud bog, crawl through a greased pipe or under barbed wire, soak in an ice bath, climb over a vertical wall, cross a rope bridge and run through strands of electrified wires. Each event is designed to be unique and incorporates challenges and obstacles that utilize the local terrain. Some events are shorter and less intense but structured similarly.

“Lacerations, dislocated joints and fractures – particularly of the legs, ankles and collar bones, – are the most common injuries in obstacle racing,” says Dr. Buchalter, “and the best way to avoid them is to train properly. You need to build endurance, since the more tired you are, the greater the risk for injury. You also need to build upper body strength, since you'll be pulling yourself up and over things. And you should get used to running on uneven surfaces, twisting, turning and jumping.”

Training workouts for obstacle racing include a combination of resistance training, high-intensity cardiovascular exercises and flexibility work. The training starting point depends on each individual's fitness level. Those who are participating for the first time should start with a basic conditioning routine, walking or jogging three days a week and resistance training on the alternate days. Training progresses through intermediate and advanced levels to a “super circuit” that simulates race day. For example, obstacle races typically involve running to stations and performing a variety of body-weight exercises. So a training circuit might include running followed by body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges, pushups or pull-ups, then running a minute or two again before the next set.

“In addition to general conditioning, do a little research ahead of time,” Dr. Buchalter advises. “Most of these events post the race layout on their Web site so you can see what's in store. Then train appropriately. If there are hurdle jumps, try jumping over a bench. If there is a crawling portion, crawl across the room. On the day of the race, stay hydrated at all times, pace yourself and don't try to push through obstacles recklessly. When mud and sand slow you down, if you try to power through you run the risk of wearing yourself out or losing your footing, possibly causing a foot or ankle injury. To conserve your energy and keep your joints intact, take your time over muddy terrain.”

There is no prize money in obstacle racing and contestants are not timed. The idea is not really to win, but to finish. These events shift the focus of endurance sports away from personal performance and repetitive exercise to varied challenges, teamwork, camaraderie, and fun. “But it is important before you sign up to know what you are getting yourself into so you can prepare yourself,” Dr. Buchalter concludes.

Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. http://www.somersortho.com

Joel S. Buchalter, M.D., F.A.A.O.S., F.A.C.S., a founding partner of Somers Orthopaedic, has been in practice since 1988. He received board certification in Orthopaedic Surgery in 1990. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

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