How to Survive Your First Tough Mudder

Tough Mudder survival guide

How much do you really know about yourself if you’ve never tried to run a 10-mile-long obstacle course, complete with mud pits, greased up monkey bars, live wires and hypothermia-inducing water?

Most people would say they’re content without going through this kind of physical and mental anguish to acquire a deeper level of self-understanding.

Those who enter the World’s Toughest Mudder competition held every year in late fall, on the other hand, would not. They’d say they need to push themselves to the brink over and over again and they wouldn’t rest until their work was done.

There are few events in the world that test your body and mind as much as the Tough Mudder. You’ll need strength, endurance, speed, and perhaps most importantly, your teammates, to overcome the challenges presented during the obstacle course held throughout the world.

Whether it’s the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa or Japan, it doesn’t matter because you’ll need every ounce of will and your team’s morale to finish the Tough Mudder.

That’s because the events and obstacles are designed by British Special Forces: the Special Air Service (SAS), the Special Recognizance Service (SRS) and others. It takes a special group to overcome the grueling 10-12 mile race with between 25 and 30 obstacles. Any one person can run a marathon, but it takes a team of Tough Mudders to complete this experience.

Founded in 2010 with three events and 20,000 participants, Tough Mudder will see 35 events and 450,000 participants by this year’s end and raise close to $4,000,000 to help the Wounded Warrior Project. The event is gaining traction each year, but it’s not getting any easier to actually complete.

Below are just a few things to remember before your inaugural trip into an abyss of fire, mud, ice cold water, the freezing chill of late autumn or early spring, electro-shocks and 12-foot walls. If you’re not together as a team, you won’t get through the race.

If your team is strong, but you aren’t, you’ll let your team down and fall into the category of those who have to skip obstacles, or simply give in to exhaustion and quit. 22 percent of participants fail to finish. Don’t mess up on apparel, the right Tough Mudder gear, from gloves to socks, is critical too.

With the right preparation, gear and teammates, you too can be a Tough Mudder.

Here’s what to keep in mind before setting off on what may be the most insane adventure of your life.

Tough Mudder Physical Preparation

physical preparation

Contrary to most professional athletic endeavors, this obstacle course doesn’t ask you to lift a ton above your head or sprint like an Olympian. Instead, you’ll be asked to jump in freezing cold water, shimmy past electro-shock wiring or thrust yourself over a 12-foot high wall. That means you’ll be using muscles you didn’t even know you possessed. This is a grueling mental and physical test.

As such, muscle-specific workouts such as simply pounding the bench press or running 400-meter circuits isn’t going to be enough. A P90X workout routine or cross-fit training will be much more beneficial. The former combines all aspects of working out, so you’re not targeting a specific muscle group. Instead, you’re strengthening your entire body, which is exactly what the Tough Mudder requires. There isn’t a specific way to train, so train for everything.

Yoga can also be helpful in the months before you compete. It generally covers all your muscles and provides the flexibility you’ll need so you’re not pulling hamstrings or groins midway through the event. Yoga also preaches proper breathing, stamina and focus, which will go a long way towards keeping your cool on the course.

Finally, you should be able to comfortably run 5-6 miles. Stamina and cardiovascular strength is important for in between the obstacles, where you’ll be asked to run over uneven terrain along root-infested trails and rocky passages and up slippery inclines. If you don’t have endurance, you’ll be at a major disadvantage all the way through the obstacle course.

Tough Mudder Training Regimenes

Here are some of the most popular Tough Mudder training plans for you to sink your teeth into. Whichever you choose, please don’t slack. If you do, you’ll be very sorry come Tough Mudder time.

Tough Mudder Official Training

The Official Tough Mudder Boot Camp Training program is broken up into three levels: Mudderling, Maybe Mudder and Tough Mudder. The one you choose should be based on how fit you are when you commence your Tough Mudder training routine.

Each level consists of the exact same trio of exercise circuits, from push-ups to squats to to high knees to pull-ups, and is designed to exhaust your every muscle by making you switch rapid-fire from cardio work to obstacle course prep.

For any football players out there, it’s basically your worst high school football conditioning nightmare. The difference between the three levels lies in the number of circuits: Maybe Mudder adds a fourth circuit with a unique routine and Tough Mudder adds a fifth, nearly impossible round of physical mayhem.

funky monkey

3-Month Unofficial Training

For those of you who don’t quite trust your abilities to self-motivate and know that it’s going take a little more than downloading and printing an official routine from the Tough Mudder website, you may want to check out Outside Online‘s 12-week, Tough Mudder Training Plan developed by Full-Circle Fitness Training in Maryland.

They’ve coached a ton of Mudders and are completely aware of what it takes to ensure their clients are not among that 20% or so who fail to make it across the Mudder finish line every year. The unofficial program involves vigorously switching between upper body workouts, running sessions and lower body workouts in the early weeks before quickly switching to total body workouts and plyometrics.

Finally, the remaining weeks consist entirely of Tabata training, an insanely concentrated and high-intensity workout that sharpens your body into a Tough Mudder weapon.

1-Month Unofficial Training

If you work out a lot already and don’t think you need to go through a multi-month Mudder-specific program, then Men’s Fitness has the definitive 1-Month Mudder guide for you. As they warn, however, make sure you’ve been working out a lot and are in tip-top shape before choosing this path (which consists of mostly the same exercises included in the Tough Mudder Official program).

It’s by no means a shortcut to success. This tight, strict regime is made up of 5 workout routines that you constantly switch between over the course of four weeks. Workouts A and B consist of squats, push-ups and running. Workouts C and D consist of sandbell and dumbbell workouts. Finally, Workout E is a combination of pull-ups and lunges. During weeks three and four, these routines are jumbled up into a mix-matched recipe for success.

Tough Mudder Mental Preparation

The biggest misconception by far about the Tough Mudder is that any physically fit person can go out and complete the course. This isn’t true.

You will be asked to conquer obstacles that aren’t your run-of-the-mill workouts and you’ll need to convince yourself that you have the wherewithal to do so. Mental preparation is even more important than physical when it comes to this epic adventure race.

More Tough Mudder obstacles are added every year. One obstacle in previous years required teams to crawl through thick, cold mud under threat from electric-shock wiring overhead.

If you get shocked in an obstacle like this, you need to keep going even if your whole body is begging you to give up. The moment you stop, all your teammates behind you and the other participants have to stop. You need to keep moving to get through to the next challenge.

Go in knowing that the more you wallow, the worse you’ll be. The pain of being shocked or dropped into ice-cold water will be a surprise to the system, but the pain you’ll be experiencing is only temporary. You’ll need to keep moving ahead, keep fighting and not think about the fear, pain or exhaustion.

Once you’re stuck thinking about something, you’ll get more tired and cold or you’ll start entertaining thoughts about quitting. Don’t enter this race thinking giving up is an option. Enter prepared to move past the discomfort and never relent.

Tough Mudder Gear – What to Wear

Since Tough Mudder events happen all over the country, weather and race conditions vary. One things for sure, you have to know what to wear for Tough Mudder before you venture blindly into the event.

If you’re competing in Seattle, there will be rain or it will be overcast, so don’t think the sun will save you from the shivering hypothermia that can come about when you’re dunked in ice-cold water two or three times. The proper Tough Mudder gear is important based off geography, but there are some basics important for every climate.

Tough Mudder gloves are discouraged by some, but many former Mudders swear by them as long as they’re tight, allow enough mobility to grip things and have a mucilaginous surface so you don’t slip out of handholds. The gloves will also help you retain your body heat and offer insulation from the cold metal bars you’ll be gripping in at least one obstacle.

They might also be the difference between staying on the rings and falling into the icy water below. Splinters are a problem for some wood-based obstacles and Tough Mudder gloves will save you the often futile process of digging out those shards that slipped into your epidermis without you realizing. When you’re constantly using your hands to push or pull teammates, a particularly irritable splinter could be the difference between finishing or not.

Note that more layers do not equal more warmth in the Tough Mudder; you want to be as close to bare skin as possible when competing. When you get wet, the more layers you’re wearing means longer drying time and more weight to carry. Even if you’re not competing in rainy Seattle, you will get wet. The course is designed to take advantage of competitors that are trying to stay dry.

It’s impossible to avoid the water and the ensuing cold, so it makes more sense to compete in a t-shirt than in heavy, multi-layer sweats that add burdensome weight when you’re trying to boost yourself or a teammate over the 12-foot high wall or run to the next obstacle.  Trust you’ll be working hard enough to make up for the lack of layers.

Aside from a dry, tight-fit short sleeve top, make sure to wear dry fit socks to guard even more against the cold. Tough Mudder socks, ready for the abuse your feet will take, are critical. Traction-heavy soled running shoes will also help you climb any slippery slope.



There’s a reason 80 percent of Tough Mudders go through the rigors of the race with a team. The camaraderie of teams is integral to competing and excelling. You need the support of your group every time you’re faced with a mental, or literal, wall.

The nice thing about the Tough Mudder is there are no rules for how many people can be on a team. Bring a friend, or bring 10 friends; it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re Tough Mudders like you. Complainers and whiners need not apply.

You should know these people pretty well, and have an idea of how they work. Every team will have weak links for certain obstacles, but when you’re the weak link, you’ll realize why having a teammate is vastly superior over going it alone. When you’re attempting to climb a 12-foot high pipeline, those teammates will come in pretty handy.

But it’s not just the physical helping hands that teammates provide. Things are always easier when you can share the burden. If you find yourself stuck, probably in the mud, and your body is refusing to listen to your pleading entreaties to just get through it, that’s when a team or teammates’ exhortations can be the difference between finishing or not.

You can attempt the Tough Mudder all by your lonesome, but before you go for it on your own, try it with a team. The feeling of accomplishment will go up exponentially for every member of your team that’s survived the trials and tribulations of the course. A Tough Mudder is one that doesn’t leave a teammate behind. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds as a collective is the Tough Mudder way.

Hardest Tough Mudder Obstacles

Tough Mudder Obstacles

Tough Mudder obstacles combine water, fire, ice, walls, electric shock and, of course, mud. They dot the course like land mines and you never know when your team will get stuck or hit a wall, figuratively and literally.

22 percent of its entrants don’t finish. That’s almost one in four that pay their entry fee and can’t make it all the way. Enter at your own peril, finish with your own rock-hard will.

If you’re thinking about rising to the challenge, we’ve already detailed how to survive your first Tough Mudder, but we’d also be remiss if we didn’t highlight some of the toughest trials you’ll face.

Here are the five hardest obstacles of Tough Mudder:

Electroshock Therapy

Don’t be fooled: there is absolutely nothing therapeutic about this obstacle. Mud is abundant (you’ll find this is a theme throughout the course), but the mud doesn’t zap you; that’s the job of the 1,000 overhanging wires. Some of them carry up to 10,000 volts of electric shock that will assail you with a bit more than just the tickle of static from your computer.

Some competitors try and avoid the wires altogether, while others barrel ahead hoping to finish quickly, wires be damned. The obstacle course is only about 20 feet wide and 40-50 feet long, but it’ll be the longest 40-50 feet of your life.

Hay bales sit within the mud floor as barriers, so even though the wires hang five feet in the air, you’re forced to be shocked at least a couple times, no matter how diligently you pick your way through the course. Regardless of your strategy, this is a very charged challenge.

funky monkey

Funky Monkey

Remember how much fun the monkey bars were when you were in grade school? Well, this is not grade school.

First, some of the bars (you don’t know which ones) have been greased with butter and mud so gripping them is difficult (though if you read our preparation guide, you’re hopefully wearing gloves, which can add traction).

The bars are spaced 1.5 feet apart, but you start off on an incline and then finish on a decline, so if you’re churning your legs to give you momentum on the way up, you better slow down on the second half.

Do be prepared to slip and fall into the icy pond below. Every body of water in Tough Mudder is freezing.


A half-pipe doesn’t look all that imposing when there’s a skateboarder rolling up it, but the slick quarter-pipe that makes up the Everest challenge requires speed, balance, traction and, most importantly, teamwork if you hope to climb over the monstrosity.

The Everest quarter-pipe is composed of about 3 tons of plywood implacably constructed 15 feet high and 35 feet wide. On the inclined front of the ramp is Fiber Reinforced Plywood (FRP) that’s glossy and smoother than regular wood. Throughout the day, organizers douse the front side of Everest with soap, mud, water, vegetable oil and any other lubricant they can find to make it as hard as possible to reach the ledge.

As we said before in our preparation guide, you really need teammates for this challenge. Most Mudder teams will form a human chain to get their first teammate to the top so they can then help pull the others up. Without a helping hand, the best way to attack the ramp is to provide yourself ample running room to reach full speed leading up to the inclined portion.

At the exact last moment before you fall on your face at the apogee of the ramp, you have to jump to catch the edge. No easy task with a team, and nearly impossible by yourself. It’s called Everest for a reason, and it’s foolish to go it alone.

Arctic Enema

When you pull a muscle, you may use ice to alleviate the swelling. When you enter the Arctic Enema, however, there will be no end to the swelling and cramping your body will experience in its bitter cold embrace. A dumpster filled with ice water is your environment.

You have to paddle your way under the middle plank (which has barbed wire on top so you can’t climb over) and through to the other end of the dumpster before summing up all your remaining strength to climb back out if your team isn’t pulling you.

Between 70 and 80 thousand pounds of ice are used to keep the temperature of the dyed water between 34-35 degrees Fahrenheit all competition long. That’s as close to freezing that water gets. If you try and wade in, your muscles will be paralyzed from the cold and you’ll be unable to swim under the plank.

Hypothermia is not out of the question. Like most things worth doing in life, you just gotta jump in and plunge ahead with the mental fortitude to keep moving. The Arctic Enema is as much a psychological challenge as a physical one.

Mud Mile

mud mile

The Mud Mile might end up being the longest mile of your life. The layout is simple: 1600 meters of waist-deep sludge. Anyone that didn’t think mud would be involved in the Tough Mudder isn’t thinking very clearly. Perhaps they’re mentally drained from trying to grab their now-cemented sneakers from the sticky, dank brown that’s all around them.

At some stretches, on certain courses, participants have to fully submerge themselves in the mud in order to reach the finish. This is sloppy, slippery, repugnant and most likely infuriating mud times a thousand and cloying through it is a physical and mental burden worthy of only the Tough Mudder course.

There you have five of the hardest Tough Mudder obstacles, but there are many, many more. Consider yourself warned.

About the Author

CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
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