Ever since I started mentioning to friends and colleagues that we were creating this site, I've had dozens of people respond "Oh cool, adventure racing! That's like, Spartan races and mud runs, right?"
No...but that's a common misconception.
While there are some similarities (including, but not limited to the fact that they both attract individuals who thrive on playing in the dirt and pushing through self-inflicted pain) they are in fact, two totally different sports.
I can confirm from my own personal experiences.
You see, what feels like a million years ago, I was a hardcore Spartan racer who constantly sought the painful thrill of a rolling through mud and rocks under barbed wire fences, or gasping for air while carrying 40 lb sandbags up double black diamond ski slopes because, well, why not?
(Type 2 fun, ammiright?)
Back then, bloggers, journalists, and well meaning friends would constantly (and mistakenly) refer to obstacle course races (OCR's) as "adventure races".
Fast forward a decade. I've traded my Reeboks and neon green Ultra Beast sweat band for a pair of well fitting bike shorts and a waterproof map case and become an adventure racer. And now, I'm writing a post about the similarities and differences of adventure racing vs. obstacle course racing...but from the other side.
Life: it really does come full circle, doesn't it?
Are Adventure Racing and Obstacle Course Racing the Same Thing?
In short, no, adventure racing and obstacle course racing are not the same thing. Adventure racing incorporates four main disciplines - navigation, foot travel, mountain biking, and paddling - across an unmarked, unspecified route.
Obstacle course racing is an endurance sport in which athletes cover a specific, marked course on foot, while completing physical challenges or overcoming various obstacles place in their path.
While the term "adventure racing" is often mistakenly used as an all-encompassing term for any sort of off-road endurance event, it's actually a very specific sport in and of itself. As is obstacle course racing.
In fact, both adventure racing (AR) and obstacle course racing (OCR) have their own governing bodies in the United States (USARA and USAOCR), National and World Championships, lending to the credibility and uniqueness of each separate sport.
What Does Adventure Racing Involve?
Adventure racing is traditionally a team sport, that requires participants to navigate their way to check points and transition areas, switching between at least two disciplines at various intervals.
While foot travel (trekking), mountain biking, and paddling are the standard disciplines, other sports - such as rope climbing, rafting, skiing, and more - may be involved.
GPS or other technology is not allowed in adventure racing. Rather, racers must use a map, compass, and navigational skills to find their way from the start line to the finish line of unmarked courses. Along the way, racers and/or teams will be on the hunt for checkpoints, in order to collect points towards their finishing score.
The team who gets to the finish line with the most amount of checkpoints collected, in the least amount of time, will win the race.
Adventure races can last anywhere from 3 hours, to 10+ days, depending on the event. There's no set distance for an adventure race, because the route each team takes based on their navigational choices will vary.
Want to learn more about Adventure Racing? Head over to the post: "Get Lost (on Purpose) with Adventure Racing"
The History of Adventure Racing
While running, cycling, and paddling have been around for centuries, the sport of adventure racing is fairly new. There are a handful of events that originated in the early 1980's that are all often credited as the origins of adventure racing. Some of those events include:
- 1980 Alpine Ironman (New Zealand) : A 3 day event including skiing, trail running, & kayaking.
- 1981 WildTrek (Australia): an event in which 2-person teams competed in Nordic Skiing, orienteering, wild water kayaking, mountain, and road cycling.
- 1982 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic (Alaska, USA): The first expedition-length adventure race, a week-long event that allowed only wilderness travel and no support teams. Less than 30% of the original 150 mile route was on actual trails.
- 1982 Coast to Coast (New Zealand): 150 miles (243 km) race that involved running, cycling, and kayaking from the West coast to the East coast of The South Island, New Zealand.
- 1989 Raid Gauloises (New Zealand) : The Raid included all the modern elements of adventure racing, including mixed-gender 5 person teams competing in a multi-day 400+ mile race.
What Does Obstacle Course Racing Involve?
Obstacle course racing is a running (single discipline) event that takes place on a pre-determined, pre-marked course, and requires athletes to overcome obstacles and challenges along the way.
These obstacles may be literally overcome - such as climbing up and over a wall, through a deep pit of mud, or across monkey bars.
Other obstacles may be challenges that need to be completed before the athlete can move on, such as an atlas stone or sandbag carry, or even throwing a spear into a bail of hay.
Obstacle course racing is a predominately solo sport, although many of the obstacles do require teamwork in order to overcome them. For competitive athletes and/or those racing as "elite", there are often penalties for not appropriately completing obstacles.
For example, in the Spartan Race series, if an athlete fails an obstacle, they must complete 30 burpees before moving on. In the Savage Race series, you may retry an obstacle, but if you are unable to complete it, must surrender your timing chip and lose your ability to place overall.
Ultimately, an obstacle course race is won by the athlete who is able to cover the set distance course in the fastest amount of time.
Obstacle course races are primarily shorter course events, covering anywhere from a 5K to a 50K course. The World's Toughest Mudder is currently the longest obstacle course racing event, in which participants cover a 5 mile course as many times as they can within a 24 hour period.
Is an Obstacle Course Race and a Mud Run the Same Thing?
While there's no technical definition that distinguishes obstacle course races from mud runs, my observation over the last decade has been the following:
- Mud runs are typically 5K or less, involve obstacles that are designed to be "fun" rather than physically challenging, and feature NO shortage of mud. In fact the mud might just be the highlight of the race. Mud runs are typically accessible to participants of all ages and fitness levels, who are out to have a good time. As such, they are rarely timed.
- Obstacle course races are often longer than 5K in length, and tend to have moderate to difficult obstacles, with the intentions of truly challenging participants, physically and mentally. Obstacle course races tend to be more competitive, with timing chips, and elite heats.
The History of Obstacle Course Racing
Much like adventure racing, the origins of obstacle course racing is often credited to various organizers/events. In fact, military organizations world wide have been using obstacle course runs as a means of training soldiers for centuries.
However, when it comes to modern day OCR, here's a few highlights:
- Most people will credit the "Tough Guy Competition" as the origins of modern day obstacle course racing. In 1987 a former British Army soldier named Billy Wilson, (aka "Mr. Mouse") put on an endurance challenge that claimed to be the world's most demanding one-day survival ordeal, held on a 600-acre farm in the English village of Perton, Staffordshire. Tough guy continued through 2019, with upwards of one-third of participants failing to complete the course each year.
- In July of 2009, Warrior Dash launched their first obstacle course race.
- In February of 2010, Will Dean brought the concept of "Tough Guy" to the United States, launching the Tough Mudder series.
- Also in 2010, the Spartan Race series and Rugged Maniac series were launched.
- Shortly thereafter, endless obstacle course racing events hit the endurance scene, and the sport quickly grew in popularity.
5 Similarities between Adventure Racing and Obstacle Course Racing:
There is no doubt that there are plenty of similarities between adventure racing and obstacle racing. Here's five big ones:
1. More Than Running Fitness is Required
Unlike traditional running events - whether it's a road 5K or a trail 100 mile ultramarathon - both adventure racing and obstacle course racing require participants to have a fitness base that allows them to do more than just run.
Both sports typically require athletes to have upper body strength -whether it's to paddle double digit miles in a kayak, or to pull your own body weight up an obstacle. And in the case of some adventure races...you may need to do both.
2. Man Made Obstacles or Challenges
In both adventure racing and obstacle course racing, participants may face man made obstacles or challenges.
For example, in adventure racing, athletes may need to climb up or rappel down ropes. Depending on the event, there may be added challenges such as a Tyrolean traverse or a zipline.
In most obstacle course racing events, almost every obstacle or challenge is man made. From cargo net climbs to wooden walls, rope climbs to monkey bars, and more.
3. Varying Event Lengths
Both adventure racing and obstacle course racing offer events of varying lengths.
Common adventure racing event lengths include sprint courses (2-6 hours), 12 hour events, 24 hour events, multi day events (36-48 hours) and Expedition races (3 to 10+ day events).
According to World Obstacle, the most common obstacle course racing events include the100 m (sprint), 3 km (short course), 5 km (international), 12-15 km (standard), 21 km (long course) and 50+ km (ultra) events.
4. It's Expected That You'll Get Wet/Dirty/Muddy
Neither adventure racing nor obstacle course racing are for those who are afraid to get their shoes muddy.
And adventure racing? As anyone who watched the Eco-Challenge Fiji race on Amazon remembers the insane amount of mud teams had to wade through during one of the bike legs. Swamps, ponds, rivers, and mud are not off limits.
5. Both are Niche Sports, With a Hardcore Group of Followers
Both adventure racing and obstacle course racing are smaller niche sports, compared to more popular endurance events like running or triathlon.
Both sports seemingly had a fast and fierce rise to popularity, and have
5 Major Differences between Adventure Racing and Obstacle Course Racing:
Now, let's look at the major difference between adventure racing and obstacle course racing, which ultimately distinguish these sports from one another.
1. Navigation vs. Set, Marked Course
Obstacle course racing follows traditional endurance events, in that there is a set course for participants to follow. Yes, it may be through the wilderness and knee deep mud pits, but it's a marked route that race organizers expect participants to follow.
Adventure racing is a navigational sport. There is a set starting line and finish line, and race directors will provide set check points and transition areas for participants to visit. However, how they get their is entirely based on navigational skills.
It's not uncommon for race directors to mark certain areas or routes that are "out of bounds" or required, usually for safety reasons. And it's not uncommon for multiple teams to take the same general route, especially on linear, multi day or expedition races. However, when it comes to check points, there is no set plan of attack or marked course. Adventure racers will use their navigational skills and experience to get there.
Thus, the navigation aspect of the race is arguably the biggest difference in adventure racing vs. obstacle course racing.
2. Paddling & Mountain Biking
Paddling something - whether it be a kayak, canoe, pack raft, paddleboard, a Bili Bili, river boarding, etc. - is almost always a discipline included in an adventure race. Whereas, paddle sports are not required in obstacle course racing.
Similarly, mountain biking is another one of the main disciplines in adventure racing, and is not found in obstacle course racing.
At least not yet. I spent a good bit of time with Joe De Sena during my Death Race days, I'd never put anything past him.
Now, there certainly are adventure races that don't involve mountain biking OR paddling (a local one that comes to mind is the 5 hour Uwharrie Adventure Race ). However, the fact that an AR involves at least two different disciplines - where as OCR is just running - and another major diference in adventure racing vs. obstacle course racing.
3. Team vs. Solo
Adventure racing is traditionally a team sport. Now, many races do offer a "solo" division for athletes who want to race by themselves. But the majority of participants will be racing as a team. Teams must stick together the entire time, and must finish together.
Obstacle course racing on the other hand is a solo sport. Yes, you can show up to an event and race WITH a team. Back in my obstacle course racing heyday, I proudly called myself a member of the New England Spahtens team.
But, whether you show up with a team or not, you finishing time and placement is ranked by your individual results.
4. Adventure Racing Requires Strategy
During an obstacle course race, you rely on your physical fitness to get you from the start line to the finish line as quickly as possible.
Sure, there's an element of strategy in knowing when to pace yourself, or taking in nutrition and hydration during longer events. But for the most part, you don't need to think about how you get from the start to the finish, as the route is set for you.
Adventure racing requires a strategic approach. In addition to deciding on what route to take, you and your team may also need to strategize what order you will collect checkpoints (if race rules do not mandate that you collect them in order, orienteering style), and which checkpoints are not worth trying to collect (especially if they are worth varying points, rogaining style).
5. Thinking On Your Feet
Related to the above point, adventure racing absolutely requires that you stay mentally present, and have the ability to think on your feet (or butt, as the case may be in a boat or on your bike).
While in obstacle course racing you may mentally zone out and just get the work done, while adventure racing, the navigational aspect means that you have to pay attention. You may need to constantly count bends in the river and match them to your map while paddling, or counting the number roads you pass before making your turn.
For example, during the 2021 Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race, our team zoned out during a later bike leg, and completely blew past a turn, and then a check point. When we realized our error, we really struggled to back track and figure out where we were.
Another example of being able to think on your feet (butt) is being able to make mid-race decisions. For example, recognizing how much time is too much time spent searching for a CP. Or, if you're a competitive team, making decisions about when to rest and when to push hard in order to try and beat your competition.
Why Do People So Frequently Confuse Adventure Racing and Obstacle Course Racing?
It's definitely easy to understand the confusion when many events, in the past, have overlapped in disciplines.
For example, the Muddy Buddy, which ran from 1999 - 2010, was the first national OCR series in the United States emphasizing man made obstacles and mud. However, it didn't consist of solely foot travel, as it also included a bike leg.
Further, there's certainly crossover between athletes, and even race organizers. Spartan race co-founder Joe De Sena was once an avid adventure racer himself, who has been quoted many times saying that he created Spartan because he wanted to bring the challenge of adventure racing to the masses in a more accessible event.
Those who tuned in to the 2020 Eco-Challenge Fiji expedition race on Amazon might have recognized two of the members of Team Canada Adventure - Ryan Atkins and Rea Kolbl - who are both accomplished elite obstacle course racers.
And then, of course, there's the fact that there are dozens of other off road, multi-sport endurance events that may lend to the confusion. Things like
Adventure Racing vs. Obstacle Course Racing: Which One is Better?
Having spent several years deeply immersed in the world of obstacle course racing, taking a long break to pursue ultrarunning, and now building my resume in the sport of adventure racing, I can confirm that they are both fun and challenging in their own way.
Admittedly adventure racing has a few more barriers to entry than obstacle course racing. For the sport of AR, you need to have cycling, paddling, and navigation skills. While map and compass work just takes time and experience, being able to adequately train for the cycling and paddling disciplines of AR undoubtedly include a financial and location aspect.
Bikes and boats can be expensive. Further, not everyone has access to a river, lake, or other body of water to practice paddling. Whereas, you can run almost anywhere.
That said, you can absolutely borrow those pieces of equipment for your first sprint adventure race - don't feel you have to make these big purchases at first!
Ultimately, adventure racing is an incredibly challenging and rewarding sport. I love that it both pushes me physically, but also forces me to cognitive skills as well, making adventure racing about more than simply being physically strong.
In short (ha, like anything I ever write is short), no, adventure racing and obstacle course racing are NOT the same thing. But if you are an OCR athlete, I highly, highly recommend giving adventure racing a try.