In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
It's a sweltering summer afternoon and I'm pushing a weighted sled across the length of a cracked concrete floor in an industrial warehouse. I'm soaked with sweat; my lungs are burning and my legs are begging me to stop. However, DMX keeps demanding I "bring it," so I keep grinding that sled – back and forth, back and forth – until the timer finally sounds, bringing to a close five minutes of hell. And so ends the first round of my hour-long conditioning class at Pursuit OCR, a 10,000-square-foot obstacle-course training centre in the west end of Toronto.
Obstacle-course racing has become a fitness phenomenon over the last few years, with huge events such as the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder attracting competitors from around the world. In response, indoor facilities offering racers access to year-round training have popped up across Canada, from Pursuit and Alpha in Toronto, to OCR Academy in Ottawa, to Calgary's COR Fit. It's no mystery why this sort of training has become so popular. Running, climbing, jumping, crawling – it harks back to the days when we were kids on the playground and being active was a way of life. In an attempt to recapture an essence of my fading youth, I scheduled a general training session at Pursuit and then had at their indoor course.
Painted on a wall inside their training centre is a platitude of sorts that could very well serve as the mission statement for Pursuit OCR: "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." Their group classes focus on training the skills needed to excel at obstacle-course racing in a social and supportive environment. Think fitness and fun are mutually exclusive? Think again.
What to expect
There is a variety of classes offered at Pursuit, all aiming to recreate the spirit of grade-school gym class while whipping you into shape. The obstacle course itself is always open; it operates as a separate entity from the classes. I was one of six participants in the afternoon general conditioning class, where bodyweight movements (push-ups, pull-ups, jumps) and "functional" exercises (kettlebell swings, medicine-ball slams, sled pushes and pulls) reign supreme. Movement coach Anya Taraboulsy led us through a series of time-based circuits that, despite being mildly torturous, were indeed a lot of fun to perform, due in no small part to the frequent cheers and high-fives from my classmates. The beauty of time-based training is that you're competing only with the clock. You don't need to worry about performing as well as the person beside you; your only job is to fill in the allotted time with as much work as possible, taking breaks whenever you need. It's a great way to build self-efficacy in those new to high-intensity training.
I was wiped out by the time the hour-long class drew to a close, but I still had one last challenge to conquer: the obstacle course. It's an impressive, custom-made design housed in its own area away from the training floor. Neon lanterns and fluorescent black lights add a cool vibe and also increase the challenge; you need to really focus on what you're doing when you're hustling through a dimly lit space. All of the qualities that define fitness – strength, speed, endurance, agility, mobility – are called into action, though there is an emphasis on upper-body strength. Not everyone can hoist themselves over wooden walls and swing across a giant pit of rubber balls; but unlike a traditional weight-lifting workout, if you fail here, you don't have to worry about being crushed by a metal bar.
The conditioning class was intelligently programmed, with an extra emphasis placed on the postural muscles – glutes, hamstrings, lower back, rear shoulders – that often get ignored. One thing Taraboulsy did an excellent job of was offering modifications to the more difficult exercises. Take pull-ups, for example. A lot of people struggle to perform even a single rep with good form. For these folks, resistance bands and elevated platforms are there to add a helping hand.
As someone with no previous exposure to the world of obstacle-course racing, I can't speak to the quality of the course at Pursuit other than to say it was a lot of fun and I will be going back. One word of advice: Try to avoid running the course solo. Having a friendly foe to square off against would have definitely enhanced the experience.
I'm someone who loves lifting weights, but my favourite exercises – sled pushes, farmer's walks, medicine-ball slams – are often impossible to perform at standard gyms. With all the cardio machines and benches, there's simply not enough room. It's different at Pursuit. What they offer, what really sets them apart from a training perspective, is the floor space. There are no elliptical trainers or treadmills. There are no squat racks. Instead, there's an obstacle course, climbing ropes, pull-up bars, tumbling mats, kettlebells and sleds. It's minimalist training at its finest.