Will Dean, the founder of endurance event Tough Mudder, speaks with James Cooney about the fitness appeal of ice baths, electric shocks and tear gas.
Everywhere you look people are doing functional fitness activities. Whether it be boot camps on beaches or push-ups in parks, people are moving away from the barbells and using their own bodyweight to workout. CrossFit, hot yoga and old school calisthenics training have all become quite common and so have obstacle course endurance, races like Tough Mudder.
This year in Australia alone between 30-50,000 people will be participating in Tough Mudder races. And the brain behind the events, Will Dean, reckons it’s got a lot to do with being part of something bigger than yourself. “CrossFit, Zumba and boot camps are very much about being part of a team — and I think this, combined with functional fitness, is what are making them and Tough Mudder so popular.”
What inspired you to create the Tough Mudder challenge?
Years ago I did a triathlon and as I was coming off the swim leg, I turned to the guy next to me and asked him if he could help me with my zipper, which had jammed. I asked him if he could pull on it and he said no. I thought it was weird because it was a non-competitive event and this guy didn’t want to spare three seconds! I wanted to create an event that was more about team and where the race element was almost irrelevant; create something that’s a challenge, not a race. I’m not normally a subscriber to pop psychology, but if you are the sort of person who holds the door open for people, you’re statistically likely to be a happier person. These small acts of kindness make people feel good, and people feel good for being helped. It’s the same with Tough Mudder; everybody helps each other.
Why do you think there’s been a shift towards more functional forms of fitness over the last few years?
Things like CrossFit have become very popular because people are not only concerned about looking good, but being healthy, staying healthy all their life and being injury free. The other big shift has been towards group fitness. People want to feel part of a team when getting healthy.
What do participants get out of Tough Madder that they may not get out of going to the gym or playing a team sport?
Tough Mudder is something to get yourself in shape for. It’s fun but it’s also about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself – it’s quite a cool thing when you’re on the train in Germany and somebody sees your Tough Mudder backpack and says hello. People do Tough Mudder because they [want] to challenge themselves. Afterwards they feel like they can take on other challenges in life. We have put literal obstacles in front of them but it’s kind of a metaphor for life itself.
How big is Tough Mudder in Australia and how fast is it growing?
This year we will have between 30-50,000 people doing our events hem in Australia – per capita, Australia remains our strongest market. Australians sign up later than everybody else for events. The Germans do it months beforehand. We’re really pleased to have new venues this year and completely new set of obstacles.
Do Australians take a different approach to the events?
The teams are bigger here and more people wear fancy dress. I think it’s because Australians take sport seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously Aussies laugh the whole way around. Also, more women do it here than anywhere else. Maybe they are just hardier or more sporty in Australia.
How do you train for it?
The most important part of preparation is building a good team. It’s not the physical preparation, it’s getting the people together that will get you through. The bigger the team, the better. You need to be in decent shape – being able to run 15kms helps. You need to have functional fitness and be flexible.
How do you come up with new obstacles?
It’s a cool process. We have a lab in Brooklyn where we come up with most of them. We want an obstacle that is challenging physically, mentally and that has a ‘wow’ factor as well. We do a lot of testing on all of them. This year we’ve got a tear gas obstacle – but we’ve obviously built it in a way where you feel OK shortly afterward.
What would you say to somebody who is not entirely sure they will he fit enough?
You don’t need to be an elite athlete. You just need to be in reasonable shape. We’ve also put together a training program online which you can follow. Nearly anyone can do it.