How to prepare for your first Tough Mudder

Ground Beef via @Artizone Flickr

Ground Beef via @Artizone Flickr

Raw ground beef.  

That’s what I thought when I looked at my knees: they look like raw hamburger.

Despite meticulous planning and training for my first Tough Mudder, I still missed something and paid for it.  Hopefully these tips will help you avoid my fate...

I ran the October 23rd, 2011 Tough Mudder in Virginia at Wintergreen Resort.  Tough Mudders tend to be similar in length and obstacles - this one was just over 9 miles and had 27 challenges.  Shorter than some, but located at a ski-resort, the hills were brutal.

Why would I choose to subject myself to an event that is notorious for injuries and nasty outcomes like hypothermia?  Well, I turned 40 that year and just wanted to prove I could.

Whether you’ve already signed up or are just thinking about it, here are a few things to consider:

Wear layered, synthetic clothing and expose as little skin as possible.

I thought about this A LOT. Not because I thought it would give me an advantage, but because I read tons of stories about how people screwed up clothing decisions and regretted it.  

You need to be mobile, warm, dry, and yet still be cool if the sun beats down on you while running for 10ish miles.  I decided on compression wear (aff), specifically a long sleeved tee with a short sleeve tee on top, compression shorts and then shorts.  No cotton!  Cotton would absorb water, and there are a lot of water obstacles.

I also happen to sport a nearly bald head, so I brought along a beanie.  This was critical for warmth in the below-freezing dawn period, and after coming out of the brutally cold water obstacles.  I had a heavy duty zip-lock bag that I would seal the beanie in and put it in my pocket before getting into the water.  That way, when I came out dripping wet and freezing, as soon as my skull was reasonably dry, I could put my hat back on to warm up.  I was really worried about hypothermia, and that helped a lot.

The one thing I didn’t wear: KNEE PADS (aff).  What a big mistake. There were several events where you had to crawl on your hands and knees through dirt and the TM folks intentionally added sharp rocks. As I mentioned at the beginning, my bare knees looked like chewed up raw meat by the end of the race. Knee pads would have solved that. At the very least, full length tights or neoprene knee sleeves (like for weightlifting) would have helped.  Elbow pads wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Pick grippy shoes that will shed water and stay on your feet.

I noticed a lot of people with shoe problems.  Sneakers would get filled with water and caked with mud, and even get sucked off feet.  I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers (aff), and have a pair that I use for hiking, so I wore those.  There were only a handful of people at the TM wearing them, but they worked spectacularly well.

If you don’t wear VFFs or “barefoot” shoes, you should choose a light-weight shoe with a grippy sole.  I’d even recommend drilling holes in the sides to shed water, and consider duct-taping them to your ankles.

(As an aside, everything you take with you on the TM will be ruined.  Deal with it.)

Use heavy-duty work gloves

It's not hard to find both pro- and con- testimonials for gloves at TM.  I took them and was happy I had them to keep my hands warm at the start-line, and during the log carry. I don't remember using them any other time during the TM, and ditched them not far along.  Don’t take wimpy gloves -- take work gloves, like those made by Mechanix (aff).

Consider swimming goggles

Yes, goggles. I wear contacts and wanted to be sure and not lose them (although because they are disposables, I took extras just in case ).  I put the goggles on before any obstacle that did or could involve me submerging in water. I ditched them after the last water event.

Stay hydrated

TMs are long fucking events and you will get dehydrated if you aren't careful. I had a fanny-pack-style water bottle holder. I took along a sleeve of Nuun tabs (aff) and at every water station I filled up my bottle and added a tab. No cramping the entire race so I'd call that a success.

Pace yourself

The TM is specifically pitched as an event, not a race.  This appealed to me because, at 40, I was not going to win, and at best my hope was not to come in DFL. I simply wanted to finish so I slow jogged most of the way.  Many 20 somethings ran right by me.  Bully for them.  And yet I passed several of them later on that were near dead from over-exertion.  Slow and steady...

Don’t rush the obstacles

Before the race, I studied each obstacle and made a strategy.  They keep a lot of obstacles secret and everything changes in person, so as I reached each one I took a couple of minutes to watch others go and see where they were messing up. Then I did better than they did.  

Your obstacles will be different than mine, obviously, but there will likely be a couple they seem to have at every TM:

Monkey Bars - They purposefully have rungs that spin or are greased randomly placed between those that don't, so when you grab them you have a hard time holding on.  Most people fall as soon as they hit the spinners because they are trying to go too fast, not maintaining control.  If you are deliberate with each hold, and ensure to use an exaggerated false grip, even when you hit the spinners you should be able to hold on (provided you’re strong enough).  I made it across without a problem and hit at least 4 spinners.  

Ice Bath - They called it the Chernobyl Jacuzzi, and it was awful.  They fill a large trash bin with ice water and you have to swim under a barricade. It is hard to state how horrible this is.  Whatever you do, move fast--don’t wade slowly. I saw a lady take her time and go into shock; her teammates had to pull her out and call the medic.

"Susan Climbs Everest" by @aloha75 Flickr

"Susan Climbs Everest" by @aloha75 Flickr

Everest - This is the only obstacle I didn't complete. I made several attempts at it and then decided it wasn't worth a dislocated shoulder.  I heard that about a dozen people get shoulder dislocations on Everest at each TM. It's the most dangerous obstacle by far. The photo at right exhibits why: most people get yanked up by their arms putting insane stress on the shoulder. You can judge for yourself if its worth the risk.


Electroshock Therapy - Run.  Run fast. 

Don’t be this guy:



Plan for recovery

The medical tent at the end looked like a war zone, overflowing with people seeking help.  I saw people needing stitches, with dislocations, broken limbs... crazy.  My minor scrapes and bruises were nothing in comparison.  Know what you are getting into - this is a truly dangerous event.

It's messy too.  Bring a change of clothing and a towel or two to clean up, unless you don’t care about your car getting filthy.  It would have been a good idea to bring bandages and superglue to seal up wounds in the car before leaving, but I didn't think of it and just sopped up blood with my dirty shirt.

When you get home (or in my case to a hotel), take a bath with epsom salts.  It's hard to tell whether they work, but it can’t hurt.  

And ibuprofen.  Lots of ibuprofen.

Train appropriately

I’m putting training at the end because if your race is in a couple of weeks and you’re just trying to decide on gear, no training can help you now.  But if you're looking at a race several months in the future, adjusting your training could be helpful.

Generally speaking, "functional" training is the way to go. Bodyweight exercises and pullups--lots and lots of pullups--are key ingredients. CrossFit and MovNat should help you develop skills to get across obstacles that bigger and 'fitter' (looking at least) people will face-plant on.

Have fun

Goes without saying I suppose - if you don't enjoy yourself, why do it?  

Good luck!