Imagine running a brutal cross-country race over rugged terrain. Then you sling a 20-kilo sandbag over your shoulders and put in a huge anaerobic effort hauling it up a mountain. Then you’re back to running, only now your legs are heavy and wooden, your muscles tweaking. Next you leap into freezing-cold ice water that makes your legs full-on cramp. Now you’ve got to jump up and scale a wall, but your calves are no longer firing, they’ve shut down. That’s obstacle-course racing (OCR), and—oh, right—there are 20 more obstacles between you and the finish line. Welcome to Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and the like.
“It’s in those moments that you’ve got to dig deep and find strength within yourself,” says David Magida, one of the sport’s first pro athletes and the recent author of The Essentials of Obstacle Race Training. Yes, what once looked like a mud-splattered fad of people taking the scenic route to a drinking party is now a real, gruelling sport (with professional athletes), and a growing one at that. “That’s what makes the sport so beautiful—you find out a lot about yourself over the course of a race.”
What it works: Because of the event-based nature of OCR, it’s more a way of testing fitness than of building it. “It’s all about being challenged by a race that tries to break you down from every facet of fitness imaginable—strength, power, endurance, speed, agility, mobility and, just as critical, recovery,” Magida says. “It tests you, it pokes holes in your fitness, and challenges you to correct them so you can be better the next time you line up.”
Calorie burn: 552 per hour
Pros: The “R” in OCR stands for “race,” so straight-up speed is important, but all of those strength obstacles—heavy carries, wall climbs, monkey bars, and the like—tend to level the playing field for guys who do a lot of strength work. And the races are fun! “I think we were designed to run, to jump, to climb, to move, to get dirty,” Magida says. “It makes you feel like a kid again, but it also kind of makes you feel like a man at the same time.”
Cons: OCR sounds like a prison escape, as it’s more than just a test of strength, endurance, and speed; it’s a test of toughness. Crawling through mud beneath barbed wire, hefting yourself over high wooden walls, running through charged electrical wires, jumping into grimy water—you’re bound to get bruised and battered. And then there’s the fitness beatdown: “By the time you cross the finish line, you’re crushed,” Magida says. “You’re sore for days.” And while the equipment may be minimal, race entry fees often start near the triple digits.
Australia has 500,000 kms of paved roads to explore, and, on a bike, the adventure begins right outside your door. And while there’s long been a perception of elitism in roadie culture, that’s disappearing, replaced now by a more welcoming community. “Nowadays, you finish the ride, you high-five your buddies, you grab a coffee, and you’re stoked—that’s the new norm,” says recently retired pro cyclist Ted King. Fitness, cafe, and stoke? Sounds like a winning combination.
What it works: One look at a professional road racer’s tree-trunk quads and carved-from-granite leg definition is proof enough this is a lower-body workout. King makes the case that “if you’re really pumping your bike in a sprint, there’s plenty of upper body to be done,” but sprints last only a matter of seconds. Still, there’s a huge variety of leg workouts to do on a bike, from strength-building SFRs (slow-frequency repetitions) to sprint intervals, and hill climbs.
Calorie burn: 816 per hour
Pros: You can cover a lot more ground on a road bike, which is the fastest, most efficient mode of human-powered travel. And because it’s more efficient, King says, “you can do a ton of work in a one-hour ride—you can sprint, you could do SFR, you could do endurance, you could do whatever—and that’s going to be much more efficient than a comparable one-hour run” that would leave your body wasted for days.
Cons: “You have to get over the fact that you’ve got to wear spandex,” King quips, “and you’re only going to look cooler when you shave your legs.” So there’s that to deal with, and traffic. Plus, cycling gear isn’t cheap. (Plan to spend at least $1,000 on a solid entry-level steed.) Racing technology is advancing at a Tour de France–worthy pace, though plenty of that tech trickles down to beginner bikes, meaning you can get more bike for your buck than ever before.
When pounding pavement starts to grind on your nerves and joints, it’s time to lose yourself on the local trails. Exploring wilderness on your own two feet is “very raw and very natural, and that’s what inspires me,” says pro trail runner Max King. That, and the fact that it takes your stale cardio routine to the next level, building a more full-body fitness than the treadmill could ever hope to. “Outside, you’ve got undulating trails, you’ve got hills, you’ve got uneven terrain and uneven footing,” says King, “so [trail running] works those stabilizing muscles in a way that you don’t get from the very repetitive motion of running on a road or treadmill. It takes that basic runner and fills him out into a more complete athlete.”
What it works: As with any kind of running, trail running is primarily going to work your lower body—quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. But irregular terrain—riddled with roots, rocks, and other obstacles—and softer surfaces require you to use more stabilizer muscles and connective tissue and engage your core muscles for stability.
Calorie burn: 735 per hour
Pros: Dirt running is dirt cheap, since the only gear you need is a pair of trail shoes ($100 to $150). Plus, softer surfaces and uneven terrain mean fewer of the overuse injuries that typically plague runners (hello, runner’s knee), though there are environmental factors—more exposure, falling hazards, animal encounters—that, depending on your outlook, can be seen as very good. And you burn up to 10% more calories than on concrete.
Cons: Finding a trail isn’t nearly as easy as stepping out your front door. They’re almost everywhere, from rugged mountain ranges to local city parks, but seeking them out takes time and effort. Also, King points out, “it’s still just running.” There’s enough lower-body work to beef up your chicken legs, but you’re still not hitting your upper body much. King supplements trail runs with core work, upper-body weight training, and rock climbing. And, well, if you really don’t like running, you probably won’t like it any more in the boonies.