Being fit and healthy has different meanings to each and everyone of us, fitness corresponds directly with your lifestyle. For me, fitness is having a healthy body and mind whilst being adaptable in an ever-changing world. With this in mind I believe it is important to not only feel comfortably fit in our own environment (e.g. walking to work, carrying shopping) but also to challenge our bodies using new techniques and unfamiliar surroundings.
"...obstacle racing is random, full of unexpected challenges"
Stepping up for a new challenge makes exercise exciting and guarantees an increase in fitness levels, whether it is strength, the efficiency of our respiratory system, flexibility, core-stability or all of these! As obstacle racing is new to me, and with friends and colleagues raving about the atmosphere, I decided to sign up for the Nuclear Races 'Onslaught' - a 12km course which boasts over 50 obstacles. Preparation for a race is key, whether it is for fun or the thrill of competing, so after hearing great things I drove down to The Wild Forest Gym, Essex - 'Skills Master class', for some tips and techniques from owner Michael.
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What is Wild Forest Gym?
A 20+ acre forest gym filled with a variety of challenging obstacles from rope climbing to scaling walls. Along with 28 race sized obstacles there is a separate section dedicated to 'Natural Movement Fitness'. The natural movement course features a 346m trail including 32 technical log jumps, that force your body to move dynamically with an emphasis on balance, coordination and flexibility. As obstacle racing (OCR) is random, full of unexpected challenges - your body is continually forced to adapt becoming fitter and more skilful at managing your own bodyweight and this is exactly what Wild Forest Gym offers.
"...we each have our own style of completing the obstacles"
Technique over Strength.
After a brief chat with Michael and the other regulars we headed out on the trails. What became apparent very quickly into the session was the strong emphasis on technique while conserving energy as you overcome each obstacle. Following a steady run through the woods we began a very specific warm up, which reminded me of controlled, flowing exercises used in tai chi. Starting with finger movements, flexing and un-flexing the hands, the key is to slowly progress into the arms and then torso, before stretching and widening the leg stance while the upper body continues to flow - a great dynamic routine to stretch out your limbs and engage your core.
The first obstacle we tackled was the 'parallel bars', similar to the bars used in gymnastics but about 4m long and placed strategically over a mud pit! Working on using a sideways body swing and sliding our hands along the bars, Michael showed us different methods of mounting the bars. After watching others in the group climb onto the bars in a variety of different ways it really showed the difference between all of us with our technique. A mixture of different heights, weights and fitness levels - we will each have our own style of completing the obstacle, and this is what makes OCR so exciting. There is no specific 'form' you should use for each challenge, no right or wrong technique - whichever is the quickest whilst conserving energy, can be used for the best results.
Gorilla bars and rope climbing.
Moving from one obstacle to the next, Michael showed me how best to adapt my own style with expert tips and minor corrections so that each exercise was completed quicker and with minimal effort. The toughest challenges can be surprising within OCR and especially dependant on where each obstacle is placed on the course...
"...what good is conquering an obstacle rapidly if you can't run swiftly to the next?!"
The rope climb was one of the last we attempted, a 4+ meter rope hanging from the canopy. Here I began to fully understand the consistent emphasis on technique, my first few attempts slow and exhausting. Using mainly my upper body I used a 'pull-up' style technique to hoist myself upwards, arms and lats burning as I climbed. Although I made it to the top, sliding back down was hard to control, my biceps and forearms aching and fatigued. Landing on the ground, Michael quite quickly highlighted that to continue in a race straight after the climb into a run, would be a struggle - given that I had used up most of my energy. Rope climbs are regularly found near the end of Obstacle races and so it is vital that you have an efficient technique that doesn't rely on pure strength, you physically won't be able to!
A less exhausting technique Michael showed us, relies on leg strength, the upper body used to a lesser degree. Wrapping one leg over the rope and locking it in place with the opposite foot, you have a secure foothold to push with your legs as you move your hands upwards. Sliding the feet up the rope in this way conserves energy as the larger leg muscles then support your bodyweight as the feet relock. I was reminded of the need to think further and further ahead when focusing on each obstacle, moving quickly over them while using minimal energy - for what good is conquering an obstacle rapidly if you can't run swiftly to the next?!
The Gorilla bars are a set of monkey bars which force you to swing from one to the other, 'gorilla style', while ensuring your grip remains strong enough to keep you from falling to the floor. Interestingly the bars were staggered at an incline and decline which added a new element of physicality - controlling my body swing as I climbed upwards and downwards trying to ignore the burn in my hands...
Total body control
Trying out these new exercises pushed my body physically whilst challenging my flexibility and coordination in a whole new way that I was used to. I was taken through 'The twister' obstacle with Michael after the training session, a random mix of upright wooden logs all set at different heights and distances apart. The twister, shown in the pictures below, is used to develop coordination and control, the aim being to crawl from one point to another smoothly, whilst holding your body steady. Just another fascinating piece of equipment used in Wild Forest Gym, and one which required flexibility, calculated hand positioning and good core strength. Overall an exhilarating experience, expert coaches and one unique gym I'll definitely be training at again!