Why Obstacle Races May Be Riskier Than You Think

An orthopedic surgeon discusses the risks involved with extreme obstacle course racing

No doubt, fun runs and obstacle races have recently played a significant role in encouraging more people to embrace exercise and physical activity.

The popularity of these adventure type races is growing at an alarmingly fast rate, and while the benefit is that it inspires more people to be fit and active, the downside is that there are also some risks involved, and they’re frequently overlooked.

Dr. Derek Ochiai a board certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, says that the potential dangers shouldn’t be taken lightly, and those who plan to participate, especially if they don’t currently exercise or have formal training, should consider several factors before committing to obstacle races with extreme challenges.

The Active Times: What are the top risks associated with “fun run” and obstacle course races?
Dr. Ochiai: From an orthopedic standpoint, the main risks of fun runs is tendonitis. If someone is going from a sedentary lifestyle directly to a fun run, there is a risk of stress fracture as well.

For obstacle courses (such as Tough Mudders), there are the risks of tendonitis, but also ankle sprains and upper extremity injuries, such as shoulder rotator cuff tears and tendonitis, as these courses put more stress on the upper body than a lot of people are used to.

What measures can athletes take to reduce those risks, and what should they include in their training regimen?
The most important is to get in shape for the activity, and don't use the activity day as the jump start to getting in shape.  For fun runs, try doing some light jogging, or walk/jogging, for a few weeks beforehand, and slowly build up intensity and distance. 

For obstacle courses, it's not just about lower body endurance.  Try to add in some light, controlled weight lifting—for beginners, definitely use weight machines instead of free weights.  Also, try to find out beforehand exactly what types of obstacles are in this particular course, and plan the workouts accordingly.

In your opinion, what is an adequate amount/level of training needed to prepare?
That would be different for everyone.  For a typical 5K fun run, as long as the runner knows their limits, then three to four weeks before should be adequate.  By a week before their event, the runs should approximate close to the distance they would run in the race.  For obstacle courses, at least four to six weeks prior.

Are there still dangers involved even if you've trained for the race? If so, what are they?
Fun runs are supposed to be fun, but a large jump in activity quickly can predispose to stress fractures of the legs and feet.  Ankle tendonitis can still occur.

For obstacle courses, I've seen (in fit individuals) rotator cuff tears, arm fractures and ankle fractures, since falling from loss of balance is definitely possible.

Are there any cases where an individual’s risk outweighs the benefit of participating in the race (e.g. any people who should definitely avoid these types of events)?
If there are major medical issues for the athlete—heart issues, for instance—they should definitely check with their physician prior to starting something like this.  Realize that obstacle courses like Tough Mudders may require the ability to swim for some of the obstacles. 

Any final words of advice?
For Tough Mudders, if there is anything that medically may be an issue with a certain obstacle, there is no shame in just skipping that obstacle and doing the rest.  Also, it may be advisable to just observe an obstacle race the first time, that way the athlete can get a gauge on whether this is something they can do, or what they would need to work on to be able to do that.

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