The wall is a staple of any obstacle course race. Whether you’re running a Spartan Sprint, a Tough Mudder, Bonefrog, or competing at the OCR World Championships, you can pretty much guarantee that at some point, you’re gonna need to climb over a wall!
So how do you make that happen? There area few ways to get it done, and my approach to the wall varies based on a few things. So let’s dive in a little.
What Kind of Wall is it?
There’s a lot of variations. The standard issue 6’ tall sheer vertical wall, a wall with a rope to climb, an inclined slippery wall, an overhanging wall, the list goes on. Broadly though, I’d break it into a few types:
- Flat walls
- Overhanging walls
- Walls with something to climb
I’m also including walls less than vertical in this category, but basically this is your standard-issue “someone put a thing in the way of my trail run” situation. There’s nothing to climb up except perhaps the top of the wall itself, and you’ll just need to use your feet on the surface. If you’re trying to get over a 6-ft, 7-ft, or even the fearsome 8-ft vertical wall, the techniques to use are similar. There are a few ways to go depending on how much upper body strength you’ve got, and how fast you’re looking to move.
I usually try for at least a few powerful steps, then one big jump right next to the wall. Plant a foot on the surface and use your leg as a pivot. Don’t try to “run up” the wall, just throw that foot out in front of you and use the grip on your shoe to keep the foot planted while you pivot upwards to get your hands up to the top of the wall. Keep your momentum! As soon as your fingers can reach the top PULL HARD and try to “bicycle” your feet on the wall to help your upward momentum. At this point a few things can happen – if you’re strong enough to do so, pull your chest up to the top of the wall and get your shoulders over the front, the more you can get your body over the top of the wall the easier it will get. Fling a leg to the side and you’re over! If a wall muscle-up isn’t happening for you, you’re going to need to get your feet and legs involved a lot more. As soon as you start running out of pulling power, lean back and to one side, and throw one of your feet up to the top, hooking your heel on the top of the wall. Then you can pull with your leg and arms together to rock your body up and over!
The dismount from the wall can be facing the wall, facing out, facing sideways, or flipping (yes really), but whatever you do I’d suggest not spinning while landing – save those ankles! If the wall is less than vertical, and especially if it’s less than vertical but slippery, momentum becomes king. You need to hit these walls with SPEED and keep running upwards. Don’t overpower the grip from your shoes, and try to keep your heels low (flex your ankles!) and “nose over toes”. If you try to get your feet too high in front of you, or too far behind you, you’ll skid out and slip back to the bottom. Eyeball the top of the wall and keep running until you get there – don’t short-change the wall and reach for the top while your feet are too low! When you lean forward the angle of your leg will cause your foot to go up on your toes, reducing the amount of your shoe in contact with the wall and making you more likely to slip.
I’m including anything like the Overhanging Wall or Bender from Spartan Race, or anything else where you’re climbing up and out behind you in this category. Your main problem here is that the entire time you’re on the obstacle, your weight is on your arms/hands and you’re on the clock. You’ve only got so much time before your grip runs out so move with a purpose! I try to size up these walls from below and then blast through it as quickly as I can once I’ve got my path planned out. Keep your hips in close to the wall to keep as much weight on your feet as possible, and try to hang on straight arms instead of bent ones when you can. Once you climb your way up to the top, it becomes similar to the flat wall as far as technique – get that leg over the top and muscle your chest over! Once you get even a small amount of your body over to the front side of the wall it becomes much easier.
One problem here is that as soon as you fling yourself up and over the top at all – you can’t see your feet! You can quickly get spooked, especially if your feet come off of whatever holds they were on. Relax, breathe, don’t panic. Keep worming your way forward, twist to the side, and get a leg over the top. Once a full leg is over the wall you’re good to go!
Walls with Something to Climb
There’s a few of these lurking out there. Walls where you need to climb a rope or a set of rungs to get over it. These are usually in some sort of “T” or inverted “L” shape, where to get to the top you have to abandon the relative safety of the vertical surface and launch out onto the rope or rungs across the bottom surface. Similar to the overhanging wall, once you head out onto that rope you’re on the clock as far as running out of grip, so move fast! If there’s enough of a rope to wrap your legs on, get those legs around that rope like it’s your job! Legless rope climbs are impressive but inefficient. Use the “J hook” or “S wrap” technique, whichever you’re used to, and get that rope locked in. If there’s not enough rope, you’ll need to use your hands on the rope or edge of the wall, and get a foot up and onto the top (seem like a familiar theme??). Once you’ve got a foot over the top and your body a little bit sideways, use your leg and arms pulling together to get yourself up and over the top of the wall.
Don’t fall for the “sucker” trap of reaching way back over the top to that far away pipe or thing to hold onto! If you do that, you’ll end up with the wall edge cutting into your stomach, your feet dangling, and your grip fading fast. If you do find yourself there, your priority is getting a foot or even a knee up and to the side enough to get on top of the wall.
If you’re looking to move quickly through various walls, the name of the game becomes moving your center of mass no higher than is necessary to clear the wall, and keeping your forward momentum. How do you do that? Consider two athletes approaching the same 6 ft wall at the same time. Athlete 1 stops at the bottom, jumps vertically, does a glorious strict wall-muscle up to a fully extended arm position, with the top of the wall down at their waist and their head several feet above that, then gets one leg over, then the other, then drops. Athlete 2 doesn’t break stride, uses a foot on the wall to pivot upwards on their leg, barely sneaks their head over the wall, but throws their whole body out sideways as far as they can. Athlete 2 clears the wall fully horizontally, the highest part of their body from the wall is their shoulder blades. Athlete 2 uses the momentum from this pivot to complete a spin (before landing!) so they can land facing outwards and continue running. Be athlete 2.
Another advanced option is a front flip over the wall. I don’t necessarily recommend this as I think it’s more risky and can actually be slower than the “sideways roll” technique, but it’s an option if you’re feelin’ dangerous. The front flip is something I DO recommend for clearing cargo net obstacles such as any variation on the A-frame cargo net. Flip over that bad boy then roll sideways down the far side.
So that was a few thoughts on walls!
Get out there and practice because, spoiler alert, there may just be a wall or two to get over at the upcoming Aevitas Obstacle Course Race!