Words by Shona Hampel
I signed up for Tough Mudder without a second thought. There is nothing I wouldn’t try on account of it being too challenging (though being a mother stops me doing anything that is life threatening or dangerous). I’m not in any way exceptional or brave, yet I am part of a rising trend of women who favour extreme challenges and exercise. Why?
Tough Mudder is a “seriously gruelling” 12 mile hill, mud and obstacle course designed to drag you out of your comfort zone by testing your physical strength and stamina, as well as your mental determination and resilience. The event was founded by a British former anti-terrorism agent (surprise, surprise) and there have since been over 200 events in 6 countries. The obstacles include scaling walls, crawling through mud tunnels, jumping into icy water and dodging hazards. Furthermore there are over 10,000 people with Tough Mudder tattoos - a testament to its cult following and ‘badge of honour’ status.
You might be thinking that life is hard enough without going out of your way looking for hazards. Why on earth do a Tough Mudder, or any gruelling endurance activity? But I think that is exactly the point. These obstacle courses push you past your usual mental and physical barriers, and that’s something that can then be translated back into your life.
Fitness challenges are as much about the mental benefits as the physical ones; maybe if I can handle Tough Mudder, I can handle all the everyday life problems that I have to deal with on a daily basis. Life is demanding and unpredictable; it doesn’t always turn out as you planned in all sorts of ways. Any extra help I can get on the resilience front, well, bring it on. When the going gets tough, as it always does at some point, you’ve got to be tough enough to handle it.
Completing an endurance course like Tough Mudder is a controlled and safe way to increase your physical and mental stamina while having lots of fun. It really is great being waist deep in mud, and the team spirit and camaraderie around the course is seriously motivating. There is a real feeling of everyone being in it together, not just with your own friends or team-mates but with all participants.
More than 2.5m people have earned the coveted orange headband and helped raise well over £5m for Help for Heroes (UK) and Wounded Warriors (US/Canada), charities that give practical and direct support to wounded, injured and sick soldiers/armed forces personnel. Amazing. Add to that the feeling of post-race euphoria, the sense of pride and achievement, a reinforced belief in the human spirit, the value of teamwork, and well, we are talking a serious dopamine hit.
In terms of physical benefits, getting outside your comfort zone is crucial as variety makes the results of exercise most effective. If you do the same thing all the time, such as running at the same speed for 30 minutes every other day, you will burn calories but you’ll also hit a plateau very quickly, whereby your strength and fitness levels will not increase. You would need to increase speed, incline, distance or add a HIIT element if you wanted to keep making progress.
In order to increase fitness, you need to keep your muscles guessing and strengthening by activating different muscle groups in different ways. An obstacle course like Tough Mudder has a variety of challenges which pushes you out of familiar territory and forces your body and mind to try different things. It increases all areas of fitness, including strength, coordination, balance and endurance. Another benefit is that signing up for a challenge like Tough Mudder acts as a motivating target to keep you on a training regime, particularly if you sign up with friends in a group. It holds you accountable.
We know scientifically and empirically that all human beings experience positive physical and mental benefits after exercise. Endorphins, self respect, pride, increased energy and confidence, to name just a few. With an arduous challenge like Tough Mudder, this is all maximised. You feel amazing afterwards, like a badass ninja human who can accomplish or achieve anything. You feel hardcore and invincible. I wish I could feel like that everyday – don’t you?