The rise of OCR: Why are Obstacle Course Races becoming so popular?

Obstacle Course Race

The rise of OCR: Why are Obstacle Course Races becoming so popular?

Obstacle Course Races (OCR) have sky-rocketed in popularity in recent years, with the likes of Tough Mudder, Mud Run and Spartan Race leading the charge. In fact, this year saw record numbers of people participate in, and spectate at Spartan Races; the most recent event weekend at Windsor saw more than 20,000 spectators and racers from all over the world descend onto the muddy fields and get involved.

So what is it?

While there are lots of different brands hosting these events in their slightly differing formats, the basic premise of the course is the same. You have to get between obstacles, plunging through muddy ditches, crawl on your belly underneath barbed wire, climb ropes, jump over walls and carry sandbags until you eventually pass the finish line or pass out. Sound like hell? Well to a lot of people it does, but strangely all these brands have had huge, and increasing success over the past years. So to a growing number of people it sounds like a weekend well spent (it also costs anywhere from £50 to over £100 for these events.. so you have to pay for the privilege of getting muddy, bloody, sweaty and tired.. but at least you get a medal at the end..).

The two types of people who do Obstacle Course Races ‘The Casual’ and ‘The Timekeeper’

For the most part, people fall under two categories.

‘The Casual’

There are those who simply want to complete the course for a challenge, often with a group of friends or colleagues. Here there is camaraderie and team spirit, these people will queue at the obstacles and help each other over, under or through them and cross the finish line with their hands held together. They will undertake the challenge together and complete it as a group, or with the other people around them.

‘The Timekeeper’

The other category is those with the sports watch on their arm, months of solitary training under their belt and a goal in mind. The goal is not just to complete the next few hours of hell, but to match or beat their target time, or their previous best time. These people will jump to the front of the queue (welcomed by the groups, which is an odd thing here in the UK), hurdle the wall and sprint off to the next obstacle.

Obstacle Course Race

Why has OCR become so popular?

This is why, I think, the popularity of these OCR courses has risen so much – in part because of TV shows like Ninja Warrior and Total Wipeout putting obstacle courses on the TV screens and online, with big budgets showing spectacular and elaborate obstacles ultimately making them look hugely entertaining and fun; however I also think a big factor is the dual approaches of completing them. You can either get a bunch of friends together, have a laugh, take your time in attacking each obstacle as it comes, helping each other; or you can take it as a lone venture to push yourself as hard as you can, finishing as fast as you can. There is personal pride in receiving the medal at the end no matter which method you took to complete the course. So really your fitness level is irrelevant, it’s a challenge to take no matter where you’re at with your personal fitness goals.

These obstacle course races are nothing like a 5k run or a marathon, the terrain is constantly changing, you have to use your whole body to attack each obstacle and they’re all different; the variety is key to keeping people interested and excited. Making something ‘experiential’ is key to it being popular now, this is shown as young people are spending more money on experiences than materialistic items. These types of obstacle course races nail both of these extremely well, you pay for the experience of the race and then receive your finishers t-shirt and medal at the end of it. Every time you wear that t-shirt or see your medal it reminds you of your experience and should fill you with that feeling of satisfaction – no matter how large or small.

What is the future of OCR?

Obstacle course races show no sign of slowing down, and with more and more people doing them it will increase the budget and attract bigger brands, so we have yet to see the biggest and the best they have to offer. Could obstacle course ‘retreats’ or holidays be on the table, with new courses and different challenges everyday be appealing to consumers? I think so.. Not only will they appeal to the solitary athlete like a marathon runner, they will attract a new crowd – one that is interested in camaraderie and shared experience. After all, it is well documented that the social pleasure of shared experience outweighs the joy of doing something extraordinary on your own. (Study by Psychological Science)