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AAR: Tough Mudder 5k and the Value of Generalism

On October 14th, 2023, I ran a Tough Mudder 5k event near Washington D.C. It was, for the most part, a team building event proposed by one of my coworkers back in May. I was fresh off of the West Virginia Run & Gun, and hyped to try something new. So I organized the group, got people to sign up for the October date, and put it on the calendar.

Along the way, I wrote up a 14-week physical training plan for my coworkers to follow in the event that they didn’t already have other training they did. In all, five people signed up (including me). One person, the other male in the group, regularly does Crossfit for training and opted to stick to that- though he backed out a few weeks before due to tearing an Achilles tendon (I’m sure there’s a joke in there about Crossfit).

The other three participants were all females ranging in age from 20’s to 40’s. They apparently tried to follow my suggested program, but didn’t keep it up. One of them sought out a personal trainer and followed his programming. Another came down with mono and halted all training to recover. The last one just couldn’t build the habit.

So that’s the setup. I didn’t go into race day with any expectations of trying to go quickly and make a good time. Rather, I took the approach of trying to be the positive and encouraging team leader. It was my role to help everyone else complete the course by showing them how to tackle obstacles, giving boosts and helping hands, and generally keep the team going.’

Credit for all photos goes to Tough Mudder and it's photographers. I pulled all of this posts photos directly from the event's gallery. While I only appeared in a handful (and only one on this page for OPSEC reasons), all photos are from the same day and event as the one I ran.
Getting our initial safety brief and motivational talk at the starting line

Hot Wash Thoughts

This was my first ever obstacle course race, much less one run with copious amounts of mud. It was a cloudy 60 degrees and raining all day. In all, I wouldn’t say the course and obstacles were any more challenging than your run-of-the-mill confidence course that any military member is familiar with.

That said, there were a few observations from how the whole thing went for my four-person team. The first was a solid reminder that in any team event, your overall pace and progress indexes to the slowest and least capable person in the group. Throughout the race, that wasn’t necessarily one person since each of the team members had different strengths and weaknesses. For example, one member was woefully under prepared for running, so our pace when moving from obstacle to obstacle after the first half mile or so was rarely more than a brisk walk. None of the women possessed terribly strong levels of upper body strength, thus requiring a lot of assistance on the climbing obstacles.

Success depends not just on your own abilities, but on getting everyone to work together

My second observation is an inversion. Some people are naturally the “best” at different things, and good teammates use their talents to help others. Despite not considering myself a particularly strong or fit person, I was still the most capable on the team. That made it my responsibility to help motivate others and see them through to the end.

An event like this rewards generalism. By that, I mean that the best performers, both individuals and teams, were the ones who were pretty good at many things rather than really good at only a few things. This is a lot how I view the requirements for success in a Scenario-X environment. The point is that you should not completely specialize in one thing at the expense of other attributes.

Tips for Success

This mud run was, well….muddy. That probably sounds silly, but judging from the photos of this event compared to others, the mud we dealt with was particularly slippery and sticky. Some of the most difficult challenges weren’t the obstacles at all, in fact. Instead, it was the running course itself.

The event took place at a motocross park converted into a Tough Mudder field for the weekend. Several steep hills dotted the course, all of them covered in the soupy mud sucking your feet deeper with every step. Most people ended up going to their hands and knees, endeavoring to crawl their way up. In the process, their hands, elbows, knees, and shins took a beating from the rocks embedded in the surface. This zapped energy and made progress even slower.

The best trick I discovered was to use momentum to your advantage. Give yourself enough running room to attack the hill with a sprint, driving yourself up the incline as quickly as you could. This worked for me most of the time. On a couple of hills, I lost too much momentum and went down to my hands and knees to finish the rest. In one case, I ended up slipping and sliding all the way back down the hill, with rocks scratching my shins and knees in the process.

It very much paid to have good sprinting ability and flexibility during these portions. The more power you could generate through your legs, the more momentum you had to drive yourself up the hill.

The very first obstacle, a long crawl through mud and under barbed wire. The wire was 14″ over the flat ground, with interspersed “pits” of muddy water that you slid into before crawling up the opposite bank and continuing on.

Climbing Ability and Upper Body Strength

Most of the obstacles required good upper body strength, particularly climbing ability. Whether it was a straight up climb over an eight-foot wall, or using ropes to rappel up or down a muddy bank, you needed good grip strength and pulling ability. My grip strength was so “burned” by the end of the event that as I made the two-hour drive home, I couldn’t actually open my hands all the way since they were so cramped up.

Navigating this one required help from everyone, not just your team. Everyone had to keep the blocks turning while others latched on to get over to the other side.

Other obstacles, particularly the so-called “Block Ness Monster” required both a combination of pulling and pushing ability to conquer. Pulling to get yourself over, and pushing to help others get over. Despite the gym popularity of horizontal presses like the bench press, my observation is that overhead and incline pressing are far more useful in the real world. This event was no exception.

In the weeks running up to the event, I had switched up my personal training regime to almost exclusively include huge volume of kettlebell clean & press, pull ups, kettlebell snatches, and kettlebell swings (Pavel Tsatsoline’s Enter the Kettlebell, if you want to try). While this also resulted in an overuse injury that flared up during the event (my fault for overreaching, and I’m still dealing with), I think the program is an excellent tool for preparing to succeed.

Was it necessary to switch? No, my regular programming would work just as well I think. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

Footwear

This is not an event for your average pair of running shoes. Your standard “road tread” is shallow, and immediately gums up with mud, making your shoes even slicker against the slipper mud. By the end, whatever pair of shoes you bring are covered in mud and are absolutely filthy. A lot of the dirty coloring may never come out.

More than a few times, particularly after a successful dash to the top of a slippery hill, I heard a few comments on my shoes. While I’d like to think it was my technique that got me to the top, the shoes probably helped. In my case, I ran the course with a pair of all weather Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II shoes that I picked up about a year and a half a go. These minimalist barefoot style shoes are my primary running shoe, and I use them for both flat roads and running trails at a local park. They also happened to work fantastic for this event. The tread was aggressive enough to work through the mud without complaint, and they were easy to clean to boot.

I did see a few dudes out there running with chunky-treaded military boots, and they seemed to be doing well. I wouldn’t want to deal with that cleanup afterwards, though.

The absolute state of the mud during the running portions.

Cardio Capacity

This event is not really a race. There is no running clock and you don’t receive a time at the end. I say that so that you know that most people running the thing aren’t actually keeping track of time at all, so there’s no pressure to move quickly. That said, if you’re thinking about it like a training event for Scenario-X, you’ll probably want to keep some momentum going on your running.

Now we did the 5k, and a full Tough Mudder is 15k. While there are a few more obstacles in the 15k, most of the difference is the open ground you have to cover between obstacles. With the 5k, the longest stretch we ever went without hitting another obstacle was about half a mile, and it happened right at the beginning. For the most part, you were never more than a quarter mile (one lap around a track) from the next obstacle. Once you arrived there, you were probably going to have to wait, too.

All of that to say that I don’t actually think this event requires a huge amount of cardio endurance. If you can run a casual few miles without gassing out, then you’re already good to go.

The Mental Game

Many of the obstacles were not physically strenuous at all. Instead, they were meant to be more of a mental challenge for certain types of people. For example, one obstacle was an uphill slog through a muddy ditch under a camo net fixed to the ground. Getting through it was simply a matter of holding the net up with one hand, or your back, and working your way to the top. The net’s clearance got tighter as you went on, forcing you to crawl by the end.

The Arctic Enema, with it’s 34 degree water, sucked.

I thought this was easy, if not a bit silly. However, others didn’t see it that way. A surprising number of people around me, including one of my teammates, said this obstacle stressed them out because they all had mild to serious forms of claustrophobia. The obstacle was a mental test to push through discomfort.

Another obstacle, probably my least favorite, is the Arctic Enema. Navigating through it is simple, but not easy. It’s simple because the obstacle entails only a 25-foot (ish) trench of water. Two plywood barriers suspended in the water require you to fully submerge and pass under the barriers before climbing up a cargo net at the end. The catch is that the water is full of ice and sat around 34 degrees (f).

Jumping in the [literal] ice cold water is a shock. You know you can’t linger, or else hypothermia is a guarantee. So you just have to mentally push yourself to keep moving forward, fully submerge under the barriers, and then get out. It sucked to get out of that cold water and emerge back into an already chilly and rainy day, but it was what it was.

The goal is to put you in an uncomfortable position, and then challenge yourself to overcome it. Controlled adversity at its finest.

So How Would I Train?

Since conquering a Tough Mudder requires a more generalist approach to fitness, I wouldn’t actually do a whole lot different than I already do. My typical programming runs 5-6 days per week. Depending on the focus, that consists of 2-4 days of lifting and 2-4 days of conditioning (whichever combo adds up to 6).

The foundation of my strength training is five movements (in no particular order):

  • Overhead Press
  • Pull Ups
  • Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Deadlift

Not every workout has every movement, but these are generally the movement patterns I focus on. Conditioning days consist of either slow Zone 2 stuff, or higher intensity work capacity sessions. The high intensity sessions usually involve sprints, kettlebells, sandbags, or circuits done for time.

Honestly, this kind of setup is about perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.

The “Ladder to Hell” is just your classic military o-course obstacle

BUT…I mentioned that I had switched things up a little in the run up to this event. After nearly 18 months of nothing but barbell work, I took a training detour to try out Pavel’s Enter the Kettlebell. This program consists of three days per week of high volume kettlebell clean & press along with pull ups. Workouts finish with either kettlebell snatches or swings. You’ll find similar programs from coaches like Geoff Neupert at Chasing Strength (I actually prefer these programs, to Pavel’s BTW, and have another detour planned next year to do Geoff’s Kettlebell Maximorum). These are minimalist in nature, requiring very little equipment, yet build high levels of athleticism.

If you’re pressed for time, or equipment, I definitely suggest these other program styles. Their emphasis on mixing quick lifts with ballistics and grinds builds all the attributes you need for success.

Wrapping Up

To close this one out…well, first off thanks for reading. I know the after action reviews aren’t the most popular articles on the site (especially when they’re not even shooting related). Secondly, if you’ve been considering signing up for an event like this, then go for it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that something like a Tough Mudder is mostly about having fun giving yourself a little bit of a challenge alongside like minded people. Everyone who participated was excited to be there, and the staff really do make an effort to “pump you up” and get you excited.

It’s a unique way to put yourself under some controlled adversity while keeping things fun. Something like a GoRuck challenge would be the logical next step up due to the increased hardship and longer duration.

That’s it, now get out there and train!

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Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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