Recently I surprised the hell out of myself and beat 16,659 other people to win Warrior Dash.
With no experience training for Warrior Dash or with any of the obstacles.
I was more surprised than anyone. Who me? I was just having fun!
The funny thing is – I didn’t train for it at all. My 5k training helped a lot but I did no gym exercises or practicing on any type of obstacles. If you’re wondering how I did it, I’ll show you how to train for Warrior Dash without any obstacle experience.
The decision to race a Warrior Dash was born out of a question I’m trying to ask more in life: Why not?! I rounded up my wife and two other friends and we made the trek to southeastern Maryland for the 8:30 start on Saturday morning.
While we had enough time before our wave was scheduled to start, I didn’t adhere to my typical pre-race routine. With only 12 minutes of running before the race, no strides, and a limited dynamic warm-up, I wasn’t confident that I could run fast.
And to be honest, that wasn’t the goal. With a hard 5k the weekend before and a duathlon coming up in a week, my only goal was to have fun and see if Warrior Dash could live up to the hype.
The Warrior Dash Race Report
Any race that has a narrow beginning onto an even narrower trail needs a strategic start. So I weaved my way close to the starting line and got close to the front runners, expecting to be in the top 20-30 of the 500+ runners in the second wave.
When the announcer signaled the start – by enormous flames shooting from the canopy above us – we took off and ran along a narrow trail maneuvering over mud, logs, roots, rocks, and puddles. Less than a minute into the race I stepped onto a slippery log, slipped off and nearly face-planted into the mud.
Luckily, I recovered and somehow found myself in third place. With a quick backward glance I saw a horde of runners behind me splashing through the mud and yelling their warrior battle cries.
There’s no way I’m getting caught in that! Time to maintain my position…
With no real goal to compete in Warrior Dash, I was happy to maintain 3rd place just so I could be in front of most people (who wants to wait in line at the obstacles?). I was probably running about 6:20 per mile – or significantly slower than my marathon pace. My effort was comfortable but the terrain was tough, which made it a little harder.
Soon the trail widened and cleared of any significant roots or logs so I sped up to about 6:00 per mile and passed the two runners in front of me.
Then I realized I was winning. My competitive instincts took over and I quickly established a new goal of winning my wave of Warrior Dash. I thought how crazy I was, laughed it off, and thought it would be fun.
The first obstacle came out of nowhere after a turn: a series of wood barriers that you had to hop over, alternating with a barbed wire fence you had to crawl under.
I took my time, not wanting to get cut by the barbed wire or have my knee destroyed by the wall.
After a steep hill the trail opened up onto an enormous field. This is when the obstacles really started. Every minute or so a new obstacle presented itself:
- a 20 foot high cargo net
- a near vertical wall with just a thin rope to help pull yourself over the top
- truck tires to leap through
- a concrete tunnel to run through
- a horizontal cargo net to climb over
- more steep hills to run up and down than I care to remember
- two lines of fire to jump over
- a mud pit, complete with barbed wire so you had to get down and crawl
The race felt like a fartlek workout: run hard between the obstacles, try not to die climbing twenty feet into the air, jump down, and repeat. Add the Wave 1 runners I was passing for the final 2 miles and it was madness.
And the hills. The damn hills! The course was on an unrelenting rolling course of wet grass, uneven footing, and brutally steep hills that destroyed your quads and burned your lungs. Even though I was going at about marathon pace during the race my effort level felt like 5k pace.
Winding down the final steep hill, across the fire, and through the mud pit, I finished in 19:10 - the fastest time of the two days of Warrior Dash by 1:18. The course was billed as 3.02 miles so the pacing doesn’t make sense – who knows how long it actually was.
Later I realized one unfortunate reality: I accidentally ran around two of the obstacles: a water slide and a series of Motocross-style hills. The water slide would have actually saved me time because I ran down the hill instead of zipping down on my butt. And the rolling Motocross hills only would have slowed me down by about 15 seconds. No big deal.
But… I’m not eligible for an award. While you can skip any obstacle, you’re then ineligible for the engraved steel helmet that goes to the top 3 finishers. That would have been awesome!
Looks like I have to run another one…
This is how you clean off after the mud pit: group shower / hose-off!
How to Train for Warrior Dash
In classic David Letterman fashion, here are the top 10 ways to train for Warrior Dash:
10. Beware the little things:
- The barbed wire is real; slow down and make sure you crawl low enough. Ladies, don’t put your hair in a high bun or ponytail (my friend learned this the hard way).
- Don’t wear loose shorts or they’ll come off in the final mud pit. Or they’ll fall down with the weight of the mud and some onlookers will get a good laugh. Maybe that’s your thing though, so this one’s up to you.
- Don’t wear loose clothing or anything unnecessary – it’ll get caught in the barbed wire or get in the way during the climbing obstacles.
- Assume everything is wet and slippery. See tip #7 below.
- Avoid bulky shoes or Vibram FiveFingers. You want to allow yourself some groundfeel but still protect your feet and ankles.
- Tie your shoes tightly or they might pop off in the mud.
- All of your clothes will likely get destroyed so wear gear you don’t like.
9. Warm-up just like any other race. This is something I didn’t do and regretted it. With crazy obstacles, uneven terrain, and wild elevation in most Warrior Dash races, a good warm-up that has you moving in multiple planes of motion will help you get ready for the demands of the race.
8. Start at the front. Get near the front of the pack before the gun so you’ll have time to get ahead of your competition. Bottlenecks always happen, especially in the beginning when the field isn’t so spread out, so get out fast and ahead of everyone else.
Warrior Dash races use chips to time you, but if there are 400 people ahead of you it’s inevitable that you’ll wait in a line to get over some obstacles. Some people waited for a long time – don’t let that be you.
7. Safety first! Don’t rush over the obstacles. Yes, it’s a race, but you can’t continue if you fall off a twenty foot high cargo net and break your ankle. As one of the runners I coach tells me: Relax…but hurry.
6. Get strong. You’re going to cover the obstacles much more quickly if you’re comfortable doing a few pullups, 25 pushups, a 60 second plank, and 30 body weight squats. General body-weight strength is all you need.
Now with that said, it’s not 100% necessary. I had been neglecting my strength work for at least a month before I won the Maryland Warrior Dash and I was just fine (see tip #1).
5. Be athletic. Crawling up and over cargo nets, hopping over barriers, crouching under wood beams, and jumping over fire means you’re going to need a lot more coordination and athleticism than you need for a simple road race.
Make sure you’re doing flexibility exercises, mobility drills, and dynamic stretches in all the planes of motion to prepare you for a Warrior Dash. Pulling a groin muscle because you can’t lift your knee to your chest isn’t fun for anyone.
4. Make sure you’ve done some fast workouts. With the consistent stops and starts between obstacles, a Warrior Dash feels like a supercharged Fartlek on steroids. It’s incredibly helpful to be comfortable switching gears and running at different speeds. Consider running a few combination workouts that include many different paces.
3. Run hills – a lot of hills. Every Warrior Dash is different and some won’t have any hills. But if it does, bet your ass that they will be ruthless. The Maryland WD had some of the steepest hills that I’ve ever run. If you’re not ready, prepare to walk because they don’t call it Hell’s Hill for nothing!
2. Train on trails! Every Warrior Dash is run on grass, dirt, trails, and undulating surfaces. If you’re not ready for this type of terrain you’ll be caught off guard and mentally insecure in your ability to move quickly over the uneven ground.
The majority of my running is in Rock Creek Park – full of hills, mud, dirt, rocks, roots, and dangerous footing. After nearly four years of running there almost every day I can fly over gnarly trails. It takes practice to get good at it and increase your confidence level. Plus it’s a helluva lot more fun!
1. Run a lot – endurance is always king. There’s a reason I beat over 16,000 other runners in Warrior Dash and it has nothing to do with my strength or agility. I was just a better runner.
If you want a more detailed guide on how to train for (and compete) in an obstacle race like Warrior Dash, check out the full training guide here.
See, Warrior Dash doesn’t attract runners. With a 10+ hour party post-race, Miller Lite tall boys, and a costume contest there are a lot of people who just want to have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s also an opportunity to grab some glory. Train like a runner and you’ll dominate a Warrior Dash.
Scared? Don’t be!
If you’re intimidated to jump into your first adventure race, don’t be. Most people were not runners and are a lot more inexperienced on the race course than you. Warrior Dash is accessible to anyone with even a moderate level of general fitness.
But if you really want to prepare like a champ, I partnered with Nerve Rush to write a definitive Obstacle Race Guide. Warning: this is only for serious obstacle race animals!
And here are a few quick ways to start:
- Run a cross country race. The varying terrain, uneven surface, and hills will definitely prepare you for Warrior Dash.
- Jump into (pardon the pun) a steeplechase race if your local All-Comers track meet has them. Caution: this is a technical and potentially dangerous race. They’re fun as hell, but practice hurdling before you run a steeple.
- A few Parkour classes will help you learn how to run quickly over obstacles.
Warrior Dash is a fun vacation from real road racing. If you’re bored and need a new challenge an obstacle race might be just the cure.
Just remember: runners will always be the first finishers at a Warrior Dash!
Get the Strength Running PR Guide ebook and tips to run faster (without the injuries).