Obstacle Course Races: Their History and Future

Obstacle course races were first run in the United States around 1950. The events became popular after Michael Jordan and Greg Norman started competing, and they have since spread across North America. They are now a staple of summertime life for many Americans and foreign visitors alike because of their cost-effectiveness, relative safety, entertainment value, camaraderie
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The obstacle course race is a type of physical endurance event that is becoming more and more popular. This article will explore the history of obstacle course races and their future. Read more in detail here: how to train for obstacle course races.

Wwii obstacle course soldiers vintage.

For the last several years, it’s been difficult to go through your Facebook feed without seeing some of your friends uploading images of themselves at the finish line of an obstacle course, particularly during the summer. Warrior Dashes, Spartan Races, and Tough Mudders have all become popular leisure events in recent years.

You would believe that these mud-filled tests of endurance, agility, and tenacity are a recent cultural phenomena, but their origins are far older. Obstacle courses were used as training devices for soldiers, sailors, and marines preparing for combat, as well as civilians interested in strengthening the whole man, before becoming the proving ground for a kind of sport — a challenge for the sake of challenge — before becoming the proving ground for a kind of sport — a challenge for the sake of challenge.

The Origins of Obstacle Courses: Georges Hebert

Georges Hebert history parkour natural method obstacles.

Georges Hebert’s illustration from one of his physical education books (1913).

Obstacle courses, like practically all other aspects of physical culture, have its roots in the military and the development of stronger fighters.

Obstacle courses have been used to train warriors since antiquity, however they were utilized in a less systematic fashion. Roman legionaries, for example, practiced leaping over natural obstacles like hedges and ditches to prepare for war.

Set, purposefully created obstacle courses would have to wait until the nineteenth century. This time witnessed a substantial increase in interest in physical fitness throughout Europe, which coincided with rising emotions of nationalism in the continent’s various nations. Frequent conflicts have shown the need of maintaining people in combat form in countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Various schools of thought arose on how to do so, but the majority concentrated on gymnastics and functional activities, such as jogging, calisthenics, leaping, climbing ropes, and utilizing equipment such as rings, pommel horse, and parallel bars.

Georges Hebert history parkour natural method obstacles climb.

Georges Hebert, a Frenchman, came up with the notion of combining these various workouts into a predetermined obstacle course around the turn of the twentieth century. Hebert had traversed the globe as a member of the French Navy and had been fascinated by the local peoples’ “flexibility, agile, skilful, lasting, [and] resistant” abilities, despite the fact that they did not follow any type of regular exercise routine. In order to build his own fitness philosophy, Hebert took inspiration from this event, as well as ancient Greek and Roman culture, and the work of his physical education forefathers. “The Natural Method” pushed its followers to become strong and nimble in the same manner that tribesmen had done for thousands of years — by travelling through the natural environment and negotiating various terrains and exercising a diversified range of physical abilities.

Georges Hebert history parkour natural method obstacles jump.

Hebert, on the other hand, recognized the utility in training on a permanent obstacle course, where one could deliberately exercise these physical abilities. As a result, he devised un parcours, or courses in which “one walks, runs, leaps, develops quadrupedally [crawls], climbs, walks in unstable balance, rises, carries, and throws.” Hebert’s course, which featured balancing beams, walls, ladders, ropes, and more, was meant to challenge and strengthen a participant’s confidence, bravery, willpower, resolve, and mental toughness as well as their overall fitness. Running the route was not a race, but rather a means for each person to focus on developing and bettering themselves.


Georges Hebert history parkour natural method obstacles.

Hebert started training the French Navy in his technique, establishing combatant parcours on which sailors and marines could practice for war. During and between the two world wars, his work would continue, with his natural technique becoming the standard system of French military physical instruction and spreading to armed forces all over the globe. Citizens liked the notion of using obstacle courses to improve their mental and physical abilities, and his lessons encouraged the creation of civilian fitness trails, forest challenge courses, confidence courses (which have obstacles higher off the ground), and, of course, parkour.

Military Obstacle Courses in the United States During World Wars I and II

During the two world wars of the twentieth century, the notion of obstacle course training for soldiers and sailors would go across the Atlantic and be utilized and adapted by the American military.

During WWI, there were obstacle courses.

While General William Hoge is credited with introducing obstacle courses to the American military in 1941, doughboys had been practicing on them since the First World War.

Obstacle america 1917 copy.

Obstacle courses were included into American army training at the request of Dr. Joseph E. Raycroft, former University of Chicago basketball coach and Chairman of Princeton University’s Department of Health and Physical Education. During WWI, Raycroft was an adviser to the Army, in charge of the physical fitness component of their training camps. His courses were meant to improve a soldier’s stamina and agility, familiarize them with the kind of challenges and physical abilities they’d face in war, and increase their general confidence and resolve.

Wwi world war I obstacle course.

The actual shape and components of the course varied per training camp, but the 1917 Army Field Physical Training of the Soldier handbook advised a 100-yard course with the following obstacles spaced every 12 yards:

  1. a 5-foot-deep ditch
  2. Low a 2.5-foot obstacles in a row
  3. The top bar of the bar fence may be adjusted from 3 to 4.5 feet.
  4. 4.5-foot-high sandbag wall
  5. 8-foot-wide shallow ditch
  6. 7-foot-high wall
  7. A 48-foot elevated balancing run
  8. 2.5-foot hurdle

Raycroft wrote a new guidebook after the war called Mass Physical Training, which developed the Individual Efficiency Test. The IET was the first time the Army developed standards for quantifying and testing its troops’ “all-around physical efficiency.” The test consisted of a 5-round battery that included a 100-yard run (in 14 seconds or fewer), a running broad jump (12 feet), a wall climb (8 feet unaided), a hand grenade toss (30 yards into a 10′ diameter circle), and a timed Obstacle Course Run (OCR). (While the “R” in OCR has since become associated with “Race,” because troops competed against the clock rather than each other, the events were referred to as runs rather than races at the time.) This OCR “was the first known usage of an obstacle course to gain quantitative measurement of functional fitness,” according to West Point professor Whitfield B. East. The course was 100 yards long, contained five obstacles, had to be completed in 30 seconds, and was run as follows:


“Sprint 10 yards to a three-foot hurdle; sprint 15 yards to a smooth wire entanglement 10 feet wide (arms must be folded while crossing the entanglement; hands may not be used); sprint 15 yards to a ramp 5 feet high immediately joining a trench 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep; sprint 15 yards to a plank bridge 1 foot wide (over a shallow trench 20 feet wide); sprint to finish.”

Physical fitness is constantly at its peak in the military and in the civilian population during conflicts, and then declines between them. As a result, the Army’s emphasis on troops’ physical strength declined throughout the interwar years of 1919-1939, and the Individual Efficiency Test was abolished from the military’s training program in 1928. While obstacle courses were no longer timed and utilized as part of the IET, they were still in use at the start of WWII as a general training and fitness device. However, the Second World War would change them into something more intriguing, demanding, and diversified.

WWII Obstacle Courses

WW2 training.

“All troops are expected to do fundamental actions such as running, leaping, vaulting, climbing, and crawling. They’re also good for increasing endurance, agility, confidence, and self-reliance. The greatest way to learn and practice these fundamental skills is on an obstacle course.” –Basic Field Manual on Physical Training, FM 21-20, 1941

The military had to adapt to a more mobile and stamina-demanding form of battle after WWI shown that static, trench warfare was mostly obsolete. However, when conscription was implemented in 1940, close to half of the millions of men who were drafted were deemed to be physically unfit for duty. Colonel Ted Bank, the Army’s head of athletics, bemoaned the fact that:

“So many of our young men are being sent into our armed forces without the ability to swim well enough to save their own lives, without the leg strength to jump combat obstacles, without the arm and shoulder strength to pull themselves up over ledges, or save their own lives by climbing up or down ropes and rope ladders…and without the agility and skills developed through competitive sports, which would increase their chances of surviving.”

Obstacle courses were, of course, the ideal method for correcting these flaws. However, the kind in use by the Army at the outset of the war was much too gentle for the job.

FM 21-20 1941 WWII obstacle course.

The OCR recommended in the 1941 version of FM 21-20 (the Army’s physical training handbook) was rather gentle; its intensity would be improved and heightened throughout the war.

And it’s here that Lt. Col. William Hoge comes in. Hoge, a West Point graduate, WWI soldier, and MIT graduate, was appointed to lead the Engineer Replacement Training Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in 1941. His soldier-engineers would be forced to create roads and bridges, remove and erect barriers, and rig demolitions once sent to the front – physically demanding labor. Hoge intended to prepare his soldiers for the duties ahead, but space was limited due to the camp’s location on a peninsula. He’d heard that the Germans, whose training was still inspired by the “natural way,” were utilizing difficult obstacle courses that forced the guys to practice sprinting, climbing, crawling, swinging, and leaping in a limited area. As a result, he set out to create a new OCR for American troops that was more difficult than those previously employed by the military.


In addition to traditional obstacles like hurdles and walls, Hoge’s course included a horizontal ladder (monkey bars), crawling through concrete pipes and through barbed wire, hanging over ditches, and balancing on a log to cross streams. Hoge was always toying with how to make the hurdles more difficult and adding new ones, such as scaling an unstable cargo net and climbing a 20-foot fireman’s pole. When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall viewed the course at Fort Belvoir, he was so pleased that he ordered comparable OCRs to be implemented throughout the nation.

Obstacle course training was also implemented, modified, and adapted in all other branches of the military.

WWII 1940s fort benning army rangers cargo net.

At Fort Benning, Army Rangers are undergoing training.

Navy training.

The Naval Air Technical Training Center in Jacksonville, Florida, has an obstacle course.

Navy exercise.

Obstacle course at the US Navy Pre-Flight School in Athens, Georgia.

Marines training.

An OCR is used to teach the Marine Raiders, the first US Special Operations team to create and experience action during WWII.

Obstacle course training became popular not just in the military, but also in civilian society. Universities around the nation attempted to prepare their male (and sometimes female) students for military duty by instituting required physical education programs.

Obstacle course wwii princeton 1943.

In 1943, as part of the university’s summer fitness program, Princeton students negotiate an obstacle course. A pair of races were staged between undergrad track athletes and members of the school’s ROTC; the track stars won on the course their coach constructed, but lost on the military-grade course that the cadets usually practice on.

Male students at the University of Michigan, for example, were forced to undergo a physical training course consisting of three 90-minute sessions each week. Calisthenics, track and field, team sports, boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and, of course, an Army-style obstacle course were all part of the curriculum, which began in 1941.

University of Michigan students tackle the obstacle course built on Ferry Field during the war.

Students from the University of Michigan take on the wartime obstacle course created on Ferry Field.

The program was designed to “toughen the bodies and cultivate the competitive spirit of America’s future soldiers and sailors,” according to Coach H. O. Crisler, U-Director M’s of Athletics and Head Football Coach. (As an aside, it’s fascinating to highlight the importance of college football at the time; Michigan’s head coach had time to serve as both the sport’s head coach and the director of sports, as well as manage a university-wide physical fitness program!)

Vintage 1940s wwii women obstacle course WAAC WAVES.

Even the women got into the obstacle course mania during the war. The University of New Hampshire was the first institution in the US to establish a men’s ROTC-style program. The program required 3 hours of training each week, including an obstacle course run, to prepare female seniors who wanted to join the WAAC, WAVES, or other armed forces auxiliary following graduation. The OCR was the same for women as it was for males in FM 21-20, and they did it in the snow, in shorts no less.


Obstacle course training was used not just for college students, but also for high school students. From engineering to physical fitness, the Victory Corps program taught kids the abilities they’d need to serve in the military. The Victory Corps guidebook recommended that students practice on a difficult military-style obstacle course.

1940s boy scouts vintage obstacle course.

Plans for a DIY obstacle course are examined by Boy Scouts.

The Boy Scouts promoted obstacle courses as well, urging young men to create them in their backyards and during summer camp. In a 1942 edition of Boys’ Life magazine, the author advised that readers create the simple course below to “help toughen up every Scout in your Patrol and Troop”; maybe it will inspire you to build your own backyard course!

Vintage boy scout 1940s obstacle course.

Starting from the top left and working your way clockwise: 1) Make a turn from the starting line and then roll. 2) The crawl rack is 12 feet long and 5 feet broad. If the loose cross bars are knocked down, you must replace them and try again. 3) The balance rails are 14′ long and consist of 2″ by 4″ sections. You must restart if you fall off. 4) The logs should be 14′ to 16′ length while crossing the water danger. A creek might be a natural stumbling block. 5) Construct a 7′ to 7.5′ high, well-supported scaling wall. Scaling the wall is a test of personal strength. No assistance is authorized! 6) The stepping stones might be circular wood blocks or unevenly sized stones.

Vintage boy scout 1940s obstacle course.

7) Create a 7.25-foot-wide leaping ditch. A tiny ditch may seem to be an obstacle, but a large ditch appears to be one. 8) The length of each overhead ladder is 10′ to 12′. Because each course contains two of these ladders, participants will have to complete them both times. 9) The scaling ladder is eight feet tall. Climb ladders with your front to them and down with your back to them. 10) Crawl through one barrel in the culvert and leap over the other. Competitors alter their plans. 11) The blowdown is the aftermath of a storm or a blast. You’ll get there faster if you take it easy. 12) The height of the fence vault is 3.5 feet. Competitors leap over it and sprint to their teammates, who then begin running.

Obstacle courses were retained as part of the armed services’ basic training regimens after WWII, and they are still a mainstay of the boot camp experience today. However, following the war, the general population’s interest in obstacle courses plummeted. Physical education requirements for pupils were maintained, if not augmented, at high schools and universities. However, many schools have widened their choices for meeting these standards to include low-key intramural sports like bowling and badminton, as well as leisure activities like canoeing, skating, fishing, and bicycling. Obstacle courses brought up memories of the war, which the nation sought to forget. With a few noteworthy exceptions, OCRs as a fitness-training tool went out of popularity, and courses throughout the nation were abandoned, waiting to be found by a new generation interested in putting their toughness to the test.


Obstacle Races as a Weekend Diversion, Competitive Sport, and Intentional Challenge

Spartan race barbed wire crawl.

Image Credit:

Obstacle racing as a competitive activity may be traced back to the steeplechase, when being the quickest wasn’t a matter of pride or passing a physical fitness test. The event was first held as a cross-country race at the University of Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was later standardized and moved on a flat track.

Obstacle racing, on the other hand, is basically a modern-day invention in terms of running a nasty, diverse, military-style course.

The origins of the craze are usually traced back to a Tough Guy event in the United Kingdom. The 15-kilometer obstacle course was founded in 1987 by eccentric former British army officer Billy Wilson — as Mr. Mouse — on a farm near Wolverhampton, England. Wilson created the course with the intent of inducing dread and suffering, as well as pushing people to their absolute limits.

Tough guy challenge ice.

Tough Guy has had two deaths in its history, and it is held in sub-zero conditions throughout the month of January. Up to a third of contestants fail to complete the race, and even those who do, including the champions, often succumb to hypothermia.

Will Dean, a British Harvard MBA graduate, founded the Tough Mudder obstacle course in 2010, which was inspired by — and some claim stolen from — the Tough Guy challenge. The inaugural Spartan Race was conducted two weeks after the first Tough Mudder. The Spartan Race differed from the Tough Mudder in that it was timed and competitive, whereas the Tough Mudder was centered on camaraderie and the simple goal of finishing the course. It was founded by endurance athlete Joe De Sena, who had been holding grueling challenges on his farm in Vermont for several years prior. The Warrior Dash, which completed what is now known as “the Big 3,” began a year earlier but took a different approach than its toughness-flouting rivals — it marketed itself as a shorter, less rigorous event with a greater focus on having fun.

Over the following several years, the obstacle race and mud run industry grew, with hundreds of OCRs joining the Big 3 in their quest to draw both the athletic and the inquisitive to their events. The concept of climbing through barbed wire and scaling walls for pleasure and recreation quickly became widespread, but the boom had some troubling effects.

Some races pushed to develop too quickly, staged shoddy events, and eventually folded. The larger events grew crowded, with lengthy queues and corporate sponsorships, as well as commercialization. To appeal to a wider range of potential participants, some courses were watered down in terms of both the number of obstacles and the quality of the obstacles; obstacle course organizers are faced with a dilemma: how to make their courses tough enough to feel like a challenging experience without scaring away too many potential customers. The poor retention rates of many OCRs reflect this conflict; for example, just 20% of people who complete one Tough Mudder go on to do another. When the novelty wears off, a feeling of having been there and done that sets in, leaving individuals with less desire and incentive to engage in something both costly and physically demanding.


Another issue that large-scale OCRs face is the possibility for long-term profitability. While the Big 3 earn millions of money (Tough Mudder has made at least $100 million since its start), each event may cost as much as $400,000. On top of that, the firms spend millions on marketing to entice new participants. De Sena has been candid about the challenges of generating money in the OCR industry, stating that Spartan Race has yet to turn a profit, but intends to do so by 2018.

Aside from logistical and financial issues, OCRs have been chastised for shady ethical practices such as tacking hidden fees onto already high registration costs, exploiting volunteers (who are sometimes overworked for a pittance of a donation), and obscuring their charitable affiliations; their marketing makes it appear as if the company donates money to a non-profit, whereas they actually contribute nothing.

Overall, the present OCR environment isn’t precisely what Georges Hebert envisioned when he felt obstacle course training might help people develop better moral character.

Obstacle Racing in the Future

Conquer the gauntlet obstacle race peg board.

Obstacle races’ future may lay in smaller, regional competitions. Conquer the Gauntlet, a series centered in the middle of the nation that does pretty much everything right: fair rates, well-organized, fewer crowds, plenty of hard obstacles, and plenty of healthy competition, is, in my opinion, the greatest OCR in the country right now.

Will obstacle course racing be a passing craze or a long-term part of modern physical culture?

Their growing popularity reflects both some attractive and other not-so-flattering aspects of contemporary society.

Part of the attraction of OCRs is undoubtedly our insatiable drive for novelty, as well as our natural narcissism. People were searching for something fresh and thrilling to try after road races had gotten stale. The fact that the event provides such easy Facebook and Instagram fodder just adds to the allure.

But, even now that the novelty has worn off, I believe interest in OCRs will remain — if not at the current high level, then in some form. Because I don’t believe that thrill-seeking or a drive to brag fully explains the OCR phenomena. I believe that people are really unhappy with their comfortable, easy lifestyles, and that they genuinely desire to challenge themselves and participate in activities that stretch their boundaries and cause them pain. Because modern life does not come with many built-in challenges, we must seek them out on our own. So, while there’s something patently ridiculous about people paying good money to crawl around in the mud and lug sandbags uphill, I prefer to live by the “something is always better than nothing” principle, which states that doing something physical outside is preferable to sitting on the couch watching football on television. When I’ve participated in OCRs, it comes to me that they’re essentially our contemporary hairshirt – the way we punish ourselves for living such a lavish lifestyle. And a little penance is due, I think; in participating in an OCR — at least an actually difficult one — we make a physical offering to our ancestors, a pledge that we’re trying to do what we can to walk in their footsteps and not be a complete blob.


To put it another way, OCRs will probably survive as long as civilization is generally free of physical problems. We’ll stop running obstacle courses for enjoyment and personal challenge…and start doing them to prepare for an external challenge once a genuine, suffering-inducing catastrophe strikes! Because, no matter how you slice it, no training tool comes close to energizing the full man — increasing strength, stamina, agility, confidence, and all-around toughness.

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The “warrior dash” is a type of obstacle course race where participants run through a series of obstacles. Their history and future are discussed in this blog post.

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