Mud Runs vs Obstacle Course Races: What’s the difference?

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What’s the difference between a Mud Run and an Obstacle Course Race?

As a genre of running-based events, obstacle course racing is wild. There’s a massive amount of variety from one event to the next…

Obstacle Racers New Zealand

Distances of races differ, and terrain and obstacles used in races vary even more so. You’ll find that some events emphasise running for time, while other events don’t even have a timing system at all. Furthermore, some events see crowds of people running in outlandish costumes, while other events see ripped athletes crowding the starting line.

What all obstacle events have in common however is providing a shared experience for participants to collectively push past their comfort zones through undertaking physical challenges, which usually involve running, creative obstacles, mud, off-road terrain, and even more mud.

How can you tell what sort of event you’re getting into?

One way to help is to distinguish obstacle events into categories of ‘mud runs’ and ‘obstacle course races’.

What is a mud run?

  • Mud runs often place an emphasis on the fun of running the course, more so than the competitive side of running.
  • They often focus on teamwork and camaraderie, encouraging participants to help each other over obstacles.
  • They often encourage participants to run in costumes, with prizes awarded for the best dressed participant or team.
  • Their courses often emphasise getting dirty, with multiple mud pits and water crossings.
  • Their obstacles are often designed to be physically tough but still achievable by most people. Examples of common obstacles are cargo net crawls, tunnel crawls or low fences and natural features such as hills, mud, and water.

Viking mud run

What is an obstacle course race?

  • Obstacle course races (OCRs) often place an emphasis more on the challenge of completing a course and on the competitive side of running. In this sense they can often be described more as “races” (while mud runs could be described more as “fun runs”).
  • Their courses are often harder than mud runs, with multiple steep hills or technical trails sometimes included.
  • Their obstacles are designed to be physically tough and to challenge the skill of runners. Examples of common obstacles are tall walls, rope climbs, sandbag carries, accuracy throws or elaborate monkey bar variations.
  • They sometimes include a competitive or an elite heat for runners wishing to run competitively.  In these heats the runners usually aren’t allowed to receive any assistance on obstacles, and successful completion of obstacles is enforced with penalties given to runners for failing obstacles. Common penalties are imposed exercises, time additions, or ineligibility for prize giving .
  • Open heats are also included in which the majority of runners participate. In open heats the rules are less rigid and runners are allowed help each other over obstacles, and are also usually allowed to modify penalty exercises if they’re unable to complete the strict version.

Monkey bars

Which type is right for me?

It’s often the view the OCRs can be too daunting for new runners, while mud runs can not be challenging enough for a runner who’s already experienced a few obstacle events. But both can be extremely rewarding. While OCRs can be daunting, it’s often the reward of stepping outside one’s comfort zone that is the appeal of these sort of events. And while mud runs can be easier, they provide a space to meet new friends and be physically active in an unconventional way. Both are mass-participation events with everyday people running the course and, infact, the popularity of both has surpassed that of half-marathons and marathons combined, leading some to label them as “the fastest-growing sport in history”.

The distinction between mud runs and OCRs is more of a spectrum than a clear line – with some events leaning more towards the competitive runners and some events leaning more towards the fun runners. Most event, however, fall somewhere in the middle – with runners being timed and awards given out, but with courses being designed to encourage anyone of any athletic ability to be capable of overcoming it enjoying the experience. So it’s not really a decision of entering one type of event or the other as there’s a large cross-over between the two types.

Obstacle events tend to produce passionate runners, with both types of events having their enthusiasts. Perhaps the best advice is to listen to your gut and for your first event enter the type of experience that appeals to you more. After your first event, why not try another event from the other end of the spectrum to fully see what type of event experience you enjoy more.

How do I tell the difference?

You’ve decided to try an obstacle event (you have decided to commit, right? They can be scary, we know, but they’re also a ton of fun),  so then how do you tell if an event is a mud run or an OCR? Here’s a few guidelines:

Look at an event’s marketing. The language chosen by an event on their website, flyers, copy etc is a prominent sign of what they’re aiming to be. For example the inclusion of  ‘mud run’, ‘fun’, or ‘casual’ in an event’s writing can often be a giveaway that an event may be more on the mud run side. Whereas the inclusion of words such as ‘warrior’, ‘battle’ or other military inspired language can be a giveaway than an event may be more on the OCR side. The images chosen by an event can also be a sign of what an event is aiming for. Does an event include a team dressed in costumes, smiling and covered in mud on their poster? Or does an event include people struggling with determination and pain on their faces to overcome a particularly difficult obstacle on their poster? The use of photos can inform a larger picture of what an event is aiming to be. Be aware of what marketing you’re reading however as events sometimes produce very different marketing to target different audiences, for example one poster may be distributed to sports clubs to target athletes while another poster may be distributed elsewhere else to target the non-athletic person so an event may appear to be one type when really, overall, it’s not.

Look at an event’s ‘features’. What elements does an event have included in their race? If there’s an elite heat, it can indicate an event is more on the OCR side. If there’s prizes for best costume, it can indicate an event is more on the mud run side. What about the obstacles? If there’s plenty of mud, and not may obstacles, promised, it can be a sign an event is on the mud run side. Or if there’s multiple obstacles requiring upper-body strength and perhaps specific training, it can be a giveaway an event is on the OCR side.

Look at an event’s participant generated media. Obstacle events are inherently social, and people produce a lot of social media out of each event. Looking at the user generated media can be a good way to bypass an event’s marketing and instead get to what an event is really like. You could search google, youtube or social media for photos, race reviews, and first-person footage from the course. You could also ask others who’ve already participated. Ask around your gym or friends, or most event’s also create their own event pages on site’s such as Facebook with open commenting features where participants can interact.

How do I learn more?

You’ve read this article, you’ve checked out ORNZ’s comprehensive calendar of all OCRs and mud runs in New Zealand (you have haven’t you, we hear it’s an awesome resource), then we next step is to attend a race and get involved! Beyond this, you can follow ORNZ on Facebook and subscribe to the ORNZ newsletter.  You can also join the Obstacle Course Racing (New Zealand) group on Facebook.


  • Obstacle Race Training, by Margaret Schlachter

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