In recent years, mud runs and obstacle races have exploded in popularity. With names like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, these races encourage participants to push themselves to—or beyond—their breaking points to prove their mental and physical toughness. Although these races have traditionally attracted male participants (one race is called “Tough Guy”), many women are getting into the game, too, eager to prove that they can be just as tough as their male counterparts.
Naturally, the upswing of participation in these extreme sports has led to an increase in related injuries. Some of these are not particularly relevant to orthopedics, although potential racers should certainly be aware of them. The Spartan Race, for instance, famously features obstacles that give participants multiple electric shocks causing cardiac events, burns, strokes, and head injuries. And many races that include water and mud obstacles have the nasty side effect of outbreaks of diarrhea due to norovirus, E. coli, or other feces-borne viruses in the mud. More seriously, at least two people have drowned in water obstacles, even though they were strong swimmers.
At Piedmont Orthopedics, our primary concerns are the injuries that muscles and bones sustain when their owners put them through the rigors of obstacle-course races (OCRs). Most frequent among these are knee and ankle injuries resulting from rough and uneven terrain. On rough trails, it’s all too easy to roll an ankle or torque a knee. To avoid such injuries, make sure to wear good trail sneakers and practice trail running before the actual event; road or treadmill running will not prepare you! We also frequently see strained shoulder and upper body muscles, especially from obstacles that require lifting, throwing, or dragging heavy weights. Again, the best way to prevent such injuries is to prepare for the obstacles. Whenever possible, read obstacle information well in advance of the race, and do your best to simulate the kind of obstacles you’ll be facing.
Unfortunately, there are some events that are almost impossible to prepare for, and these are the ones that can be the most dangerous. Many courses feature obstacles like rope swings, fire jumps, and “plank walks” that involve a 15-foot drop into a muddy pool. There just aren’t many places that give people the chance to practice their timing and technique on these types of obstacles, so the first time runners actually face the obstacles is during the race itself. And while in theory, runners can go around an obstacle, most people don’t want to. For one thing, there is often a penalty involved, like doing jumping jacks, push-ups, or burpees. Furthermore, the adrenaline pushing runners through the race often clouds their judgment; they’re all pumped up, surrounded by other runners facing the same challenges, and they think they can do things that they might otherwise skip.
If you do choose to challenge yourself with one of these extreme races, the most important thing is to know your own limits. Don’t be afraid to walk instead of run, to go around obstacles instead of through them, or to take your time to avoid falling. Wear appropriate shoes. Land on both feet. And remember that it’s supposed to be fun!