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Toughing it Out

If a fitness goal with emotional benefits that can be achieved with family and friends sounds too good to be true, think again.

Up for a challenge? They don’t come much tougher than modern-day obstacle courses that were all the rage before the pandemic. The good news is, they’re all set to make a storming comeback as we emerge into a brave new world.

Whether you want to test yourself in a variety of environments, be they muddy, stadium, urban, short, long or ultra, there are plenty of choices to meet your ability and goals. Local events both in Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia are convenient options, although Covid-19 has put them on hold recently. But while they shape up for a grand return, just like on the marathon circuit, the chance to train for and compete in an event that you can combine with a holiday in some far-flung location, is also an exciting option.

The Spartan Sprint is a first stop for many. Tackling 20 obstacles over a five kilometre course combines a relatively easy trail amid off-road terrain with mud and water as an ever present as you climb walls, crawl under wire, traverse monkey bars, throw spears and more. Beyond the Sprint option, there are Stadium, Beast, Ultra, Super, Trail and kid’s races to suit your ambition and condition.

In the sprint category, nearby options include a Putrajaya trail (originally scheduled for August 28th but now unsurprisingly postponed, to be rescheduled) and a March 25th date at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium in Johor next year. If you fancy that air-travel option to launch your post-pandemic jaunts, September alone offers 2021 Spartan events in Vermont, Washington, Florida, California and Indiana. Dates are also lined up for Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands and more in 2022.

Tough Mudder is another similar race host and organiser, with races planned for the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA, throughout this year and next.

Although the events are races in name, like marathons, the vast majority of participants are only racing against themselves. More common however is to train and compete in groups to encourage friends and family to get through the trial together. Some have even been known to compete in fancy dress.

Singaporean John Wilkinson is a 42-year old performance coach who’s competed in such races alongside his wife and clients, whom he’s helped get in shape for the big day.

“My experience in obstacle course races have been ones of real enjoyment,” he told me, emphasising that you they are only going to be fun, if you’re in shape and have prepared yourself for the variety of challenges.

“Once you have your cardio levels in place and have a really good base there, you need to work on the exercises for each individual obstacle. If you can’t become good at tackling those obstacles, you really won’t look forward to the race itself or the challenges that lie ahead.” 

That means your preparation time in The Gym Pod needs to be tailored to the obstacles you will expect to take on. 

“Very few people enjoy burpees, but to become more than competent at them is incredibly important,” said Wilkinson. “Body weight exercises in general are always tough but well worthy mastering, especially for the Spartan races, because becoming good at them will get you out of trouble.”

Mandy Allen, who is a Brit in her 50s, trained with a back pack to simulate carrying sand bags – a requirement for an event she did in Singapore four years ago. In all she’s done three events in the Lion City, one with a team of other women but the most recent two were on her own, where she finished in the top three for her age group and top 20 for females of all ages.

“I loved the Spartan and the buzz was amazing. I feel it’s totally safe for women,” she said. 

“You can dig deep and do amazing times. But the hardest for me was the rope climb. We mastered it in the gym but on the day it was slippery and much thinner than when we’d practiced.”

Having competed in a Bukit Timah event and while hoping for one in Bintan, she trained with a female buddy for another Spartan race in Sentosa. Her friend was of a similar fitness level she said, which makes team preparation smoother.

“The hardest obstacle at Sentosa was the monkey bars,” she said, underscoring the need to train with exercises where supporting your bodyweight is essential.

After several successful outings, Spartan had planned a return to Sentosa in March 2020, for what was billed as Asia’s first ever night sprint, seeing athletes supplied with headlamps to \ guide them through the dark. Postponement has only fuelled the pent-up energy of those who have already tasted this kind of race excitement. For those who are obstacle-race virgins, the pandemic provides ample time for some ‘pre-season’ training and The Gym Pod Academy has programmes in their smart mirror and on their website which is well-placed to set you in motion. Treadmills and stationary bikes can develop that base cardio, then strength training will help manipulate your body through, up, under and around the obstacles in your way.

The Spartan Race Singapore Facebook page has over 47,000 likes and anticipation for its return is obviously keen, especially after a May 2020 event in Vietnam was also postponed.

Wilkinson sees the whole event as a day out to be enjoyed with family and friends but also one that provides an emotional release. Importantly he stresses, these challenges are not just about the physical challenge: “Mentally, do not expect conditions to be to your liking. Give up that control and more than anything, make sure you celebrate every obstacle you conquer.”
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