Sure You’re Ready for That Obstacle Race? When Under-Preparation Meets Fatigue, Bad Things Happen

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By Dr. Joseph Horrigan

As fitness enthusiasts continue to search for activities and sports that keep their interest and avoid boredom, new exercise fads emerge. The mini-triathlon boomed in popularity 10 years ago, as very few people could (or should) compete in the original two-mile ocean swim, 110-mile bike ride and full 26-mile marathon. The mini-triathlon–a much more manageable half-mile swim, 30-mile bike ride and 10K run–popped up everywhere, providing a less grueling, yet still exhilarating option for anyone who has run (all technique aside), ridden a bicycle and was a decent swimmer. It provided a focus for training and became a social event for competitors wishing to meet other fitness-oriented people. These outdoor events also avoided the hours of training and classes in a gym.

The next wave arrived in the form of running events with a wide variety of obstacles, difficulties and names. Such obstacles include walls, cargo nets and fire pits… competitors must often crawl in mud under barbed wire, cross planks high over water, swing across monkey bars high above the ground, swim across creeks and small rivers, and even endure electric shocks.

My focus is on you, the competitor, and your preparation for such races. Are you sure you are ready? When under-preparation meets fatigue, bad things happen.

Since obstacle courses became the latest craze, reports have indicated everything from mild to severe injuries, and even a few deaths as a result of hyperthermia and drowning. One competitor, looking to use an obstacle course race as a way of jump-starting his fitness program, collapsed on the course and arrived at the emergency room with a temperature of over 108°. He died a few days later from multiple organ failure. Outside Online reported that 40% percent of the problems encountered on these courses is dehydration and weather-related.

Dehydration is not a simple problem; it leads to overheating, as sweating is our cooling system. We lose sodium, potassium and chloride (electrolytes) in sweat, which is the reason sweat tastes salty. When we lose enough electrolytes, people can suffer from cardiac complications. As fluid is lost, the viscosity of the blood increases and the heart has to work harder to pump the thicker blood. Mental focus is diminished and cognitive dysfunction can occur. Dehydration and hyperthermia can have catastrophic results.

How can this be avoided? You must be honest with yourself and assess your fitness level. Consider asking yourself these questions:

Fitness Level
Have you been training enough to handle a race or course such as this? When is the last time you trained? How often do you train? What level of difficulty is your training? Are you strong enough to climb over obstacles? How do you know you are strong enough? If you are not fit enough, fatigue will set in and you will be more susceptible to strains and sprains. Some of these ankle sprains may actually be fractures due to the fatigue of the supporting muscles. Your fitness level will in part determine how quickly you overheat. The less fit you are, the faster you will run into hyperthermia and dehydration.

What is your hydration plan, or prevent dehydration plan? Do you even have a plan? Do you know how much fluid you should ingest, especially on a hot summer day? If you weigh yourself before and after your training sessions, you will get an idea of how much fluid you lose during this level of exercise. This fluid must be replaced in a timely manner.

Can you swim? I don’t mean can you survive swimming a lap across your pool? Can you swim across a current in a river? If you are not accustomed to swimming against a current, you need to start with a little bit of river or ocean training until you acclimate. The resistance of a current can weaken an average swimmer quickly.

Are simply yielding to peer pressure to compete in the race? What is your real reason for taking on such a challenge? Your decision to embark in a more challenging obstacle course style event should not be one made under pressure, but rather the result of personally setting the goal of finishing such a race with the specific preparation for any obstacle you may encounter.

Have you had any form of medical check up before entering races such as this? Have you had an EKG? Have you had a stress test? Do you know if you have any underlying heart disease? Is there heart disease in your family? This is prudent information to know before you push yourself over a course you may have no business running, climbing, and swimming. If the course provides live wire electric shocks, you may want to know your cardiac health first.

Honesty in self-assessment is a critical tool, and is often lost due to a false sense of fitness perception. I have a friend who was a world-class powerlifting competitor. He always performed the bench press at home alone. He routinely handled 525-540 lbs. I asked him, “How can you lift this alone in your home gym?” His response was simple: “I am honest with myself. I don’t lift a weight I know I can’t handle. If I am tired in a particular workout and the weight feels heavier than usual, I will handle less weight.”

Can you have the same level of honesty about your fitness level? It takes time and specific effort to prepare for these types of obstacle course runs. If you did not prepare, bad outcomes are predictable.

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