Introduction: How to Train for a Tough Mudder

About: Freelance mechanical engineer from the Bay Area.
So, you're here because your friend showed you a Tough Mudder montage on YouTube, you went home and bought a ticket, and now you're thinking "Wait, WHAT did I just sign up for?". Most people wouldn't pay money to run 12 miles, work themselves to exhaustion, or to be shocked repeatedly by an electric fence. But, for some reason, you just paid $150 for all of the above. 

For those who are not familiar with Tough Mudders, they are basically "races" with obstacles every half-mile. These obstacles can range from boot-camp style activities like crawling under barbed wire or climbing over walls, to submerging yourself in ice water.
This video will give you a taste of a typical Tough Mudder.

These Tough Mudder events take an enormous amount of physical and mental strength, and while I can't say I know much about how to increase your mental grit, I might be able to help you achieve your physical goals. This post will walk you through the actions I took to train for this event, and I'll do my best to explain the reasoning behind those decisions. 

In order to physically be able to complete one of these events, you must be a good runner, or at the very least be able to walk or jog 12 miles. You should also be able to do a number of different bodyweight exercises, as these will help you complete the obstacles. 

Even if you cannot do all of the obstacles yourself, there is a huge teamwork element to these races, and there will definitely be other participants eager to help you through the obstacles and encourage you through the tough running sections. 

Alright, now that you know what you're in for, lets start training! 

Step 1: Running

To complete a Tough Mudder, you must be able to run 10-12 miles, as this is the milage range of all Tough Mudder events. To train for running this distance, a marathon running schedule comes to mind first. However there are several things to alter in the basic "two week cycle" marathon training schedule. 

The Basic Marathon Training Schedule

Most marathon training schedules focus on a two week cycle that repeats back to back anywhere from 15 weeks to six months from race day. These two week cycles are composed of several key factors essential to your successful training:
  • Maintenance Runs
  • Intervals
  • "Race Pace" Runs
  • The "Long Run"
  • Rest Days
Maintenanceruns are just regular 'filler runs' designed to keep you active on the days in-between your real, difficult training. These are meant to be run at a normal, comfortable pace, and are usually 3-6 miles long.

Intervals are where you run cycles, switching between running much faster than normal (80% effort) for several minutes at a time, and then jogging slowly or walking for another couple minutes. These runs are designed to make you faster.

Race pace runs are designed to apply that speed you developed in your intervals to longer distances. In these runs you will run longer distances (4-6 miles) at maybe 60% effort, not so fast that you have to stop often, but fast enough so that you feel like you are really pushing yourself for several miles at a time. 

The long run usually happens once every two weeks, and this is when you run at a comfortable pace until you just can't anymore. These runs are where you actually increase your milage, and the idea is every two weeks you run a couple miles further. Running these long runs every week is just to taxing on the body for most people, and thats why there is a two week gap in-between them. 

This is where rest days come in. All of this running is extremely hard on your body, and you must keep up proper nutrition and sleeping habits or you run the risk of injury. 

Just to recap:
The basic marathon training schedule is built around a long run every two weeks, with maybe two interval runs and two race-pace runs in between. On the remaining days you will be doing maintenance runs and taking one or two rest days per week. 

Why this is not ideal for Tough Mudder Training

In a Tough Mudder, it's not as much about finishing as fast as possible, its about finishing. Period. Only something like 3/4 of participants actually finish these races, so during my training I was more concerned about running 12 miles at all, as apposed to running 12 miles quickly. Also, during the race you are going to be climbing over walls, under barbed wire, up and down hills, etc. Basically you will be doing a full bodyweight workout and running hills on top of completing a half-marathon. So, to me anyways, it was more important to be able to run 15 ish miles comfortably than 12 miles with a really good time. So, I would recommend eliminating race pace runs and intervals from your routine, and just focusing on hills and the long run. Also of course kept the rest days!

My Running Schedule

That being said, during the early parts of my training, I didn't want to wait two weeks to run really far because it's so much fun! Here was my basic schedule:

Normally I run 4-6 miles at a time, anywhere from 3-6 times a week. About 3 months before the race I began picking my milage up, and I gradually started running 8 miles twice a week, with a couple other shorter runs. Then at about two months before the race I started running 10 miles every weekend, again with shorter runs sprinkled in around that. About five weeks before the race I started doing the traditional 2-week cycle I described above, with a long run every 1.5 - 2 weeks. I did three of these long runs, first a 12.5 miler, then a 15.5, and then an easier 10 mile run the week before the race. Throughout the last couple months I also did some hill training.

Getting rid of those 'unnecessary' intervals and race-pace runs also gave me more time and energy to work on the second aspect of training: strength training. 

Step 2: Strength Training

Like I said, a Tough Mudder is basically a race and a bodyweight workout at the same time. So, you not only have to be able to run, but you also need to be strong enough to climb over walls, do monkey bars, and roll around on the ground for a couple hours. 

Since most of the obstacles only require lifting yourself, and maybe helping others do the same, you can train pretty effectively with just bodyweight exercises. This means you do not need a gym membership, however if you do belong to a gym or have access to one, that's even better.

Home Workouts

Here are the core exercises you should be able to do before race day:
  • Pull-Ups
  • Push-Ups 
  • Dips
  • Sit-Ups
  • Plank

The Routine

Dont do everything every day! Clump several of the exercises that you like doing together into one day, and do those a bunch. Then the next day do the remaining exercises. Make sure to wait at least two days between doing the same exercises, so that that muscle group has time to recover. For body weight routines like this, dont worry to much about specific repetition and set numbers, just make sure you are feeling better and stronger over time. 

If you've mastered these, then great! Here are some more advanced exercises that will help you along in the race:
  • Muscle-Ups
  • One Arm Lock-Off
  • One Arm Pull-Ups
  • One Arm Push-Ups
  • Inverted Plank
If you'd like explanation on how to do these exercises, google them. There is a ton of information and videos online of people who can do these movements much better then me. 

Of course, these are all simple bodyweight exercises, and will work fine if you dont belong to a gym or have much equipment at home. If you do belong to a gym, you might as well take advantage of it! Here is the workout routine I did at the gym

My Workout:

I went to the gym four days a week with a two day split routine. The first day of my split was chest, triceps, and shoulders.
  • Flat Bench Press
  • Incline Bench
  • Decline Bench
  • Butterfly with dumbbells 
  • Shoulder raises with dumbbells 
  • Shoulder press with dumbbells
  • Dips
The second day of my split was biceps, back, and abs. 
  • Wide pull-ups
  • Dumbbell curls
  • Barbell curls 
  • Reverse Butterflies with dumbbells
  • Sit Ups
  • Bicycles
  • Plank 
I switched up my rep range every week or two, from highs of around 12 to lows of 5 or 6. The number of sets varied from as low as 2 to as high as 8. 

I know some people are going to criticism me on this, but I never did leg work outs in the gym. My lower body was so tired from all the running and hill workouts that I didn't even want to think about doing squats or anything like that. That seemed to be fine though, because the most you have to lift with your legs in a Tough Mudder is maybe one other person, but mostly just your body weight. If you are running hills and stuff, you will be more then capable of doing that. 

Step 3: Diet

Another important aspect of a good training routine is a proper diet that is designed to your specific situation. In the case of the Tough Mudder, being light will not only helps with running, but also aids in things like monkey bars and climbing over walls. That said, you should ideally try to lean out a bit for the race, as this will only make everything easier on race day. If you are already doing some sort of "cutting and bulking" routine, try timing your schedule so you are as light as possible for the race! 

There are a variety of ways to lose weight, but many of them are taxing and sometimes detrimental to your body. Since you still need be strong for the race, the best way [that I found] to slim down for the race while still getting stronger is eat slightly under maintenance for a few days in a row and then slightly over maintenance for one day or several days in a row. Use your "over eating" days when you do big strength training workouts and the days before long runs, and the "under eating" days can be sprinkled in around those. The idea is, your increased workout and running routine will bump up your metabolism, and since you will be eating right at maintenance on average, you will lose some weight while still getting stronger. 

My Diet:

My normal diet is pretty healthy already, so I basically just stuck to that during my training. I ate about 2000 calories per day on the under-maitinence days and around 3000 cals on the over-maitinence days. I usually ate 3-4 meals a day. 

My diet consisted of the following:

  • Oatmeal 
  • Quinoa
  • Whole Wheat Bread
  • Fruit (usually bananas and apples)
  • Some occasional snacks like pretzels and tortilla chips
  • Turkey lunch meat 
  • Grilled chicken 
  • Grilled Salmon
  • Protein Powder
  • Fat free greek yogurt
  • Fat free cottage cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Chia seeds
  • nuts and nut butters
  • avocados 
I ate salad and vegetables at least once a day. I also took some supplements: creatine, vitamin C, branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), and glutamine. Supplements are definitely not necessary, but they can help. 

If you aren't quite sure how to start eating cleaner and/or leaner, check out some of my own Healthy Recipes! Also, remember that when trying to stick to a specific diet, cooking your own food at home is much better than eating out!

Step 4: Leading Up to the Race

Now that you have spent [possibly] months training for the race, dont let it all go to waste by overtraining leading up to the race!

I know running and working out is awesome and makes you feel great, but try not to do either of these things for about 4-6 days leading up to the race. I'll say it again, take 4-6 rest days before the race! 

I had a little bit of a different situation because the Tough Mudder I participated in was at Northstar, in Tahoe California, which was about 7000 feet above sea level. Since I live at sea level, this drastic elevation change makes me light headed, tired, and lethargic, and it takes me a day or two to acclimate to the difference in oxygen levels. I've found that doing a short 2-4 mile easy run helps me acclimate, so I broke my own rule and went on a short 2 mile run the day before the race. I also spent a lot of time walking that day, and they helped too I think. 

The day before the race, feel free to eat more then normal, especially complex carbs in the evening. This will make you feel super energetic in the morning, and you will feel great for the race! 

I ate a big dinner with a lot of flour-based foods the night before the race, and in the morning I had oatmeal and bananas. Carbs carbs carbs! I didn't want much protein or fat in my system for the race, because those macronutrients fill you up more, and I didn't want to feel full at all for the race!

Step 5: The Race

The race I did was at Northstar, in Tahoe California. Northstar is a ski resort in the winter, and in the summer they open it up to hiking, biking, and running because all of the ski runs turn into great trails when the snow melts. The race started at the base of the mountain, at 6,800 feet above sea level, and then over the next 5 miles we climbed up the mountain to the summit at 8,600 feet. It was a hard climb! I was able to run about half of the distance on the way up, and had to walk the other half. I was not expecting so much of a climb, and I wish I had run even more hill workouts during my training. But it was fun nonetheless!

My friend and I took a GoPro with us, and made a video of the race:

Step 6: Closing Comments

Even though I wasn't able to run the entire distance, the event was still a ton of fun! I'm definitely excited to do it again sometime. I think the training I did helped a lot, because I was able to do every obstacle without assistance. And being able to run 15 miles helped too because my legs did not feel that fatigued when we finished. 

However, training for the Tough Mudder has done more than just prepare me for one 3 hour event. Now that I've had to do some long distance running and intense body-weight exercises, I've realized that I actually really enjoy these activities. Even though the race has come and gone, I've still been doing long runs, and the week after the race I did a 14 mile trail run with 2,300 feet of elevation gain. I also plan on building some type of body-weight training gym when I go back to school, with walls to climb over and monkey bars, etc. Basically, I'm super happy that I put in the work to train for this event, because it's showed me two great activities that I probably wouldn't have discovered otherwise.