The Debates, Arguments, Controversy - Obstacle Race Formats

The Debates, Arguments, Controversy - Obstacle Race Formats

The format of obstacle course races is an often debated and sometimes controversial issue.  OCR is such a young sport it's inevitable that there will be different views on how best to structure a race, the rules for competition, and even on the core reason why an event is run in the first place.

So let's take a look at some of these views, and address some of the arguments involved.

Competitive vs Fun

Before we get to the different race formats, an often divisive topic is whether an obstacle race should be geared towards the competitive runner or just for fun.  I'll touch on this topic further while discussing each race format, but in general I don't believe it has to be either one or the other.

Ideally a good race format should cater for all abilities and types of runner, encouraging participant numbers across the board, at the same time as providing a fair but challenging platform for those who want to run competitively.

After certain races where I believe they have got the format wrong (and consequently skewed the competitive vs fun balance), social media will be ablaze with "OCR used to be fun, now it's too serious", "the race wasn't fair", "I spent hours stuck at obstacle X", etc.  It's a shame that anyone feels like this after an event, but it certainly doesn't have to be like this.

Everyone takes part in these events for different reasons.  For the sport to continue to grow, encouraging new people to take part and not alienating any existing runners, the race formats must cater for everyone.  With that in mind, let's take a look at some current formats:

Mandatory Obstacle Completion

This format comes in a few different guises, the most traditional being that each runner is given a wristband at the start of the race.  If you fail a mandatory obstacle then your wristband is cut, and you can no longer place in the race.  It's almost always the go-to format for championship events, like the UK, European and World champs.

OCR wristbands

The aftermath of those who failed to complete a mandatory obstacle.

There have been some tweaks in different events, e.g. you are given a wristband after completing each mandatory obstacle, retry lanes so you can keep attempting the obstacle as long as you want, or multiple wristbands so you're not completely out after one obstacle failure, but someone with 2 wristbands would always place higher than someone with 1 wristband.

The latter (multiple wristband) approach was recently used in the UK champs, and I'm not sure you could exactly say it was a success.  Not one woman (including elite women on the world stage) finished the race with both wristbands intact.  When literally someone could have won the race by walking the course in a dryrobe, carrying hot water bottles to stay warm, stopping for lunch, just as long as they completed all the obstacles... I'm sorry, but it's not a suitable format for a race.

However you spin it, this format always leads to the same thing:

  • Large queues at difficult obstacles, subsequently making it unfair for later waves.
  • Misery and tears for many competitors as they try then fail, over and over, to complete a certain obstacle.  (There are always a number of people who literally spend hours trying valiantly to conquer one obstacle!)
  • Misery and tears for the marshals as they have to brutally take wristbands from people, shattering their hopes for the race.
  • Puts off existing runners, and new potential runners, from entering subsequent events.

I've yet to hear a convincing argument for wristbands and mandatory obstacle completion.  I think for some it's about pride and being able to boast that you kept your wristband.  I've heard others say "it's a Championship event, all the obstacles should be mandatory!", and feel very strongly about it!  I can certainly appreciate the sentiment of this, as I'm typically fairly good at obstacles, but not a particular strong runner.  However, I don't think this holds any weight when it's at the expense of enjoyment and fairness, and leads to misery for many.

Another argument that comes up is: without mandatory obstacle completion, then the better runners (as opposed to those better at obstacles) have an unfair advantage.  Again, this definitely doesn't need to be the case as we'll see in some of the subsequent formats.

Fixed Penalty on Obstacle Failure

This is simply when a runner fails an obstacle, they have to complete a fixed penalty (e.g. burpees, sandbag carry, or run an extra penalty loop).  The most well known event that uses this format is Spartan Race, where if you fail one of the mandatory obstacles then you have to complete 30 burpees.

It's a great format for reducing queues at difficult obstacles, as participants typically only get one attempt.  It also removes the misery of "one failure and you're done".  Instead you forget about the obstacle failure, complete the penalty as quickly as possible and get going again.

Burpees after failing the spear throw

A common sight next to any Spartan spear throw (aka the Burpee maker)

The problems start when the penalty isn't equivalent to the length of time it would take to complete the obstacle.  I've seen cases where it was either sandbag carry switchbacks (taking about 5-10mins) versus a fixed penalty of 30 push ups (taking about 30s).  Or going the other way, back to Spartan Race, if you fail the spear throw (takes seconds) you'll be faced with 30 burpees (taking a few mins).

It can also be difficult to marshal these "X number of exercise" penalties.  It's very easy for someone not to do the required number of reps, unfortunately sometimes purposely cheating, but also accidentally.  When you're exhausted 1-2hrs into a race, getting to 30 without losing count isn't a straight forward task!

No Mandatory Obstacles, No Penalties

Going to the other extreme, this is when there are no penalties or consequences for failing to complete any of the obstacles.

It solves the issue of queuing at obstacles, it's easy to marshal, and there is no stress about failing an obstacle.  However, it's now too far in the opposite direction.  This format is fine for mud runs and challenges, but not when there is any form of competitive aspect.

For a "fair" race, there must be some governing rules to reduce the scope for cheating (accidental or otherwise).  Even if nobody actually cheats, if there is the perception that it would be easy for others to do so, then I think it detracts from the race.

If an event is hoping to cater for both competitive runners as well as fun runners, then I don't think this is a suitable format.

Fast Lanes, Easy Lanes and Tailored Penalties

Pioneered by the Toughest Race series, this is almost a hybrid of the previous race formats.  At each major obstacle there is a choice of a fast (more difficult) lane or an easier option, and the basic premise is:

  • Choose and successfully complete the fast lane = you get to skip the next small obstacle and continue on.
  • Choose and successfully complete the easy lane = you have an additional small obstacle to do before continuing.
  • Fail either lane = you have to complete a penalty loop relevant to the obstacle, and then also the additional small obstacle.

It's a fantastic format.  It keeps queues to a minimum, acts as an equaliser between those who are better runners and those who are better at the obstacles; and it removes the stress and misery of mandatory obstacle completion.

It also provides an additional risk/reward tactical element: at each major obstacle you need to decide whether you want to risk the more difficult lane with the hope of saving some time by getting to miss out the subsequent small obstacle.

Another box this ticks is that it is accommodating of all abilities and levels of participant.  You have the world's best obstacle racers running the same course as weekend warriors and first timers, and everyone has an equally great time.  The racers can tackle the technical and difficult fast lanes, and those who are less confident or able can complete the easier lanes.

The format works brilliantly, and ensures a fair and exciting race, with the better all round obstacle racers coming out on top.

What are the drawbacks?  I assume it would be more work (and cost) for the race directors to set up multiple obstacle variations, as well as tailored penalties and proper testing of each one.  It also potentially sounds a more complicated format at first than it is actually is, which may put some people off.

It might not completely appease those stuck in the mandatory obstacle camp, but in my opinion it's the fairest, most competitive, and most enjoyable format that any event has offered up so far.


A key aspect that race format has a profound impact on is obstacle racing as a spectator sport.  For OCR to further grow in appeal and be taking seriously as a sport as well as a hobby, it needs to be exciting and interesting to watch, as well as participate in.

With the traditional mandatory obstacle - wristband format, it's not exciting to watch.  Instead it's painful and depressing.  Watching someone try and then fail, over and over, becoming increasingly more dejected and upset, is not pleasant viewing.  The same can be said with queues at obstacles (take a look again at the featured photo for this post, from the UK champs last year).  I doubt sights like this will inspire or motivate other people to want to take part!

When the race format does lend itself to spectating, OCR can be just as an exciting sport to watch as any.  Take any episode from the Toughest Elite series for example:

The Future

Unfortunately, I doubt the wristbands are going anywhere anytime soon, particularly for championship events.  I hope that this isn't the case, and events move towards something more akin to the Toughest format.  Or at least adopting the approach of penalty loops/obstacles tailored to the specific obstacle.

A few big race companies have went into liquidation recently due to lack of participant numbers, so I think the last thing the OCR world wants to do is put potential new people off by sticking to the brutal and already archaic mandatory obstacle - cutting of the wristband.

OCR as a sport is increasingly being shown in the media (World's Toughest Mudder, Spartan World Champs, etc).  So let's move away from the negatives and misery that some race formats result in; and instead have this coverage highlight the best of OCR: the amazing athletes, the challenge, and the enjoyment.