7 training habits of a 5-time World's Toughest Mudder winner
From wood chopping to ice-climbing, we asked obstacle racing champion Ryan Atkins to spill the secrets of his OCR badassery.
World's Toughest Mudder isn't for the fainthearted. 24-hours of running as many 5-mile laps as possible, each featuring 21 obstacles, in the Nevada desert – to call the event insane would be doing it a disservice. And one man who would know, having won it five – yes, we'll repeat that – five whole times, is Ryan Atkins, who covered an incredible 110 miles and approximately 462 obstacles last year.
When the ultra-runner and obstacle course champ isn't risking it all by hurling his body across various walls and rattling the monkey bars, you'll find him honing his strength, endurance and impressive grip on gnarly trails, icefall climbs, vertical mountains and snowy pistes. Plus, the occasional gym trip.
Here, the Canadian shares the training habits that have helped him become a repeat winner.
1. Hitting the mountains hard
Atkins hits the mountain trails regularly, and the pace is unrelenting. “I like taking a climb of 30 minutes to a few hours and running it as hard as possible. Sometimes running back down fast afterwards or going out and searching for big vert,” says the man who holds a number of major trail FKT (fastest known time) records. “I typically spend 12-16 hours a week playing in the mountains when I have access to the big hills. When I’m at home, that number drops to about 12 hours, but I still make use of the elevation and terrain on a daily basis to build fitness and resilience."
2. Going far when prepping for events
Last May, Atkins attempted the FKT for running Canada’s Bruce Trail, covering 400km in five days until he got sidelined by a blood infection. “Attempting the Bruce trail record, together with running well beyond the marathon distance over 15 times last year, gave me the confidence mentally and physically to race the World’s Toughest Mudder,” explains Atkins who favours technical running routes. “I seek out unstable, wet, technical footing and trails. They’re the most fun!"
3. Switching to fat biking or MTB to recover
At least twice a week Atkins likes to carve up a trail on his mountain bike or, in winter, head out on his fat bike: “Using the mountain bike as a tool for cross-training provides good aerobic training while allowing my running muscles a little break", he says. "If I’m going to ride, it’s usually for recovery from running, but then I search out fun, technical, steep descents to get back. All my riding is done on technical trails."
I love the mental aspect of ice climbing. It’s like a big puzzle that you have to solve, one swing at a time."
4. Building his grip strength with ice climbing
Ryan credits climbing and ice climbing for the steely grip that sees him sail through super-technical OCR rigs, and this winter he nailed several lead ice climbs, including Mount Washington, Ice-O-Lation in Ontario, and Multiplication Gulley in the Adirondacks. “Ice climbing is great grip strength training. The way you hold your ice tools is similar to a lot of rig configurations. Except you’re holding on for 10-45 minutes at a time, instead of 10-45 seconds!”
Seeing through an ice climb is a mental game that can transfer to race day. “The mental focus to pull through a sketchy, unprotected area prepares you for any challenge you might face in a race,” says Ryan. “I love the mental aspect of ice climbing and the physical challenges. It’s like a big puzzle that you have to solve, one swing at a time."
5. He uses skimo to build leg strength
“Using skis as a tool to travel in the mountains is the best, and skimo [otherwise known as ski-mountaineering] is very physically demanding,” says Atkins. “Going up steep trails builds massive leg strength, and it’s very low impact, allowing your body to recover from a season of running. It’s a great cross-over sport and builds and maintains fitness well."
To build a "massive" aerobic base in the off season, Atkins also looks to cross-country skiing, which is a lot flatter than ski-mountaineering. "Most of my XC is done ‘skate-style’ at groomed ski centres, where I’ll ski for around two hours and cover 30-35km on hilly terrain. Canada’s Gatineau Park is my all-time favourite place to Nordic ski as there are just so many trails!"
6. He chops (a lot of) wood
Although he admits that ‘sometimes you need to hit the iron!’ Atkins prefers taking his strength work outside. “If I can get my strength training in by climbing and carrying things or chopping wood, I prefer that over gym sessions.” Sometimes it’s as simple as throwing on a backpack.
“I also like to hike with a heavy pack which is great strength training," he adds. "I supplement this with some heavy lifting, but usually it's sandbag-based and involves intervals up hills,” he explains. Earlier this year, Atkins spent 10 days skiing across Canada’s remote, snowy Algonquin Park, pulling a 100+lb pulk behind him. “That was fabulous strength training and a lot more fun than going to a gym!"
7. He’s partial to the occasional HIIT workout
When he does hit the gym, Atkins opts for a mix of high intensity sessions and strength work. “I do HIIT sessions and CrossFit-style workouts a few times a week. Usually, after a hard workout and the focus is on maintenance and injury prevention. My favourite sessions involve core training, hang-board sessions, pull-ups, and some heavy leg, high-rep work done in a circuit style,” he says.