10 Things to Know Before Signing Up for a Tough Mudder

Featured Article, Fitness, News and Advice
on August 6, 2013
What to know before you sign up for a Tough Mudder race.

She was soaked to the bone, covered with scrapes, and so caked with mud that she barely looked human anymore. Her whole body ached. She had just traversed a grueling 12-mile landscape that forced her to plunge into freezing-cold water, scale 8-foot walls, belly-crawl beneath barbed wire, and sprint through a field of live electricity wires.

Roni Noone had just successfully completed her first Tough Mudder event. And she had never felt better. “It was this awesome feeling of accomplishment,” says Roni, a healthy living blogger from Baltimore, Md., and founder of Skinny Minnie Media, LLC. “I felt like I was capable of doing more than I had ever imagined.”

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Roni is one of 1 million inspiring men and women worldwide who can proudly call themselves “Mudders.” Billing itself as “the toughest event on the planet,” Tough Mudder is an endurance event series in which participants bid to complete an extreme 12-mile obstacle course. Designed by the British Special Forces to push participants to their mental and physical limits, the event leaves no fear untapped: From fire to ice to heights to electric shocks, just about every primal human fear is covered. And, of course, there’s mud—lots of it.

The whole concept of Tough Mudder might sound ludicrous—after all, who wants to willingly subject themselves to the torture of electric shocks and ice baths?—but the contagion is spreading. In 2012, over 460,000 people participated in one of 35 Tough Mudder events, making it the fastest-growing challenge event series in the world.

But Tough Mudder is not just a fleeting fitness craze; it’s a way of life. The event has garnered a cult-like following, with individuals traveling all over the country to compete in different Tough Mudders. Roni is one such diehard Mudder: “I’ve competed in four Tough Mudders so far and plan to do five more before the end of the year,” she says.

So what’s the appeal? Alex Patterson, the Chief Culture Officer of Tough Mudder, speculates that people are drawn to Tough Mudder because it allows them to escape from the monotony of modern life and experience something truly exhilarating. “Modern life is so easy. I think people are looking for real, in-flesh experiences,” says Alex. “Tough Mudder is a way to get out of the city and get muddy and dirty and act like a kid again … to challenge yourself in ways you can’t even predict until you’re out on that course.”

So you’re thinking about signing up for a Tough Mudder, huh? Maybe you’re a daredevil seeking an extreme mind-body challenge, or maybe you’ve exhausted the marathon circuit and need a change of pace. Maybe you simply want to earn bragging rights among your coworkers. Either way, what should you know before signing up for a Tough Mudder event, and more importantly, do you have what it takes to get down and dirty?

  1. Go with your gut reaction. Certain personality types are more wired to do a Tough Mudder, says Alex. “We say that there’s a ‘switch’ that goes off in your mind when you hear about Tough Mudder,” he says. “You immediately think either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Ask yourself these questions: Are you the type that shies away from any sort of physical or emotional discomfort? Do you avoid getting dirty or facing extreme conditions? Are you deathly afraid of fire or heights?  If the mere thought of Tough Mudder makes you shudder or cower in fear, it’s probably wisest just to steer clear. But if you’re an adrenaline junkie who thrives on intense experiences—somebody who is fearless and relishes a good challenge—then Tough Mudder might be up your alley.
  2. Brains over brawn. You log hours at the gym, religiously run marathons and make pull-ups look like child’s play. That’s great, but at the end of the day, sheer brawn won’t cut it. Many Tough Mudder obstacles are designed to push you to your mental and emotional limits, so the event is as much about mental toughness and grit than anything else. “It’s more about the state of your mind than the readiness of your body,” Alex says.
  3. Couch potatoes need not apply. Before competing in a Tough Mudder, you should be in fairly good shape and capable of comfortably running four to five miles at a time. However, you also don’t need elite athletic skills in order to conquer the course. “People think you have to be at your ‘peak’ to do an event like this, but that’s not necessarily true,” Roni says. “As long as you’re an active person—somebody who works out on a fairly consistent basis—it’s very doable.” Additionally, basic swimming skills are a prerequisite and all participants should be skilled enough to tread water for extended periods of time.
  4. Train. You might be thinking, “How can I prepare for this event?” After all, many of Tough Mudder’s most infamous obstacles—such as “The Everest,” an 8-foot high half-pipe coated in mud and grease—are difficult to recreate in an ordinary gym setting. All event participants are encouraged to check out the Tough Mudder Boot Camp training programs available on Tough Mudder’s website. These customizable workout programs combine resistance training with high-intensity cardiovascular exercises to prepare you for the challenges you’ll face on a Tough Mudder course. “For every obstacle, we offer some type of recommended exercise to go along with it,” Patterson says. “We recommend following the program 3-5 times a week for at least 3 to 6 months prior to the event.”
  5. Teamwork is key. Camaraderie and teamwork are at the heart of the Tough Mudder ethos, so choose teammates wisely. “Find individuals who are high-spirited and have great attitudes—that’s more important than teammates who are in good shape,” Alex says. “You want people who will go through the course with a smile on their face and pick you up when you slip.”
  6. Don’t compete. The Tough Mudder is not a competition—it’s a challenge. Unlike traditional road races, it is a badge of honor merely to complete a Tough Mudder (only 78 percent of entrants actually finish the course). But in order to cross that finish line, you will need to rely on assistance from teammates and strangers alike. “It’s not about individual accomplishment,” says Alex. “When you do a Tough Mudder, even if you’re doing it solo, you’re never doing it alone. Everybody on the course becomes your teammate and helps you get to that finish line.”
  7. Listen to your body. Know that you’re permitted to skip any obstacle without penalty or shame. Tough Mudder is a “challenge,” not a race, so the main objective is simply to attempt all obstacles to the best of your ability. Don’t get too hung up if you’re unable to do something—just move on. Additionally, anybody who is at risk of electric-related obstacles due to medical concerns or cannot swim is strongly encouraged to skip these obstacles.
  8. Dress properly. Wear normal running shoes (no cleats) and lightweight, tight-fitting clothing. Roni recommends donning a form-fitting spandex tank top and Capri bottoms. “I made the mistake of wearing a cotton tank one time and it absorbed all the water and mud, so it felt like I was carrying around a 20-pound tank top for the whole race,” she says. She also advises wearing gripping gloves. “There are a lot of logs and rough surfaces and you want to protect your hands from splinters.”
  9. Put safety first. From fire to ice to electricity, there are many inherent dangers on the Tough Mudder course, so it’s paramount that you seek immediate medical attention if something goes awry or if you notice another participant struggling. “Safety is the number one priority of our company,” Alex says. “We have third-party medical providers stationed on the course at regular intervals and at obstacles where we perceive there to be potential risk to participants.” Additionally, all obstacles are inspected for safety by third-party engineers the day of the event.
  10. Have fun. Tough Mudders don’t take themselves too seriously. So smile, get muddy and enjoy the ride.