Inside The Tough Mudder Obstacle Innovation Lab

At Run247 we’re always very interested in levels of female participation in sport and obstacle course racing seems to be one sport which over time has developed a more even split of men and women at events. Interestingly the Tough Mudder Obstacle Innovation Lab happens to be an all-female affair (though not purposefully). We had a chat with them to find out more about how they come up with their ideas and then design obstacles and how the changing demographic of the athletes taking part in events has affected that. We spoke to Rachel Norris, Tough Mudder’s Senior Manager.

Tough Mudder
Rachel Norris of the Tough Mudder Obstacle Innovation Lab

Can you tell us a bit about the work you do in the Obstacle Innovation Lab?

We work collaboratively across Operations, Product and Course / Construction to create new obstacle ideas, from concept through to implementation. Innovation is at the heart of Tough Mudder, with continuous improvement being a key focus across the business as a whole. We’re constantly monitoring each obstacle and looking at ways we can improve the design, build and customer experience.

How do you decide on new obstacles? Do you research what athletes want or do they tend to come from ideas within your team?

Ideas come from a variety of sources, we run annual obstacle design competitions both internally and externally to provide some great inspiration – sometimes these evolve as we look at the viability of build, scale, process & budget, or we combine elements of different ideas together to create a new concept. Our meeting rooms walls are covered in drawings of ideas, some more successful than others!

We also encourage feedback from our repeat customers as to ways we could look to improve their experience. We incorporate Alpha versions of simpler obstacles into live events to assess how these perform before determining whether they make it onto the obstacle menu.

How do you test new obstacles and is there a criteria to make the obstacles as accessible as possible for men/women/taller/shorter athletes etc?

There are several stages an obstacle goes through before making it onto one of our courses, from initial concept & viability, to experience and value. We work through the concept to understand the likely complexity of the build & safety measures, and then test build to gain insight into what works well / what doesn’t from a build, safety and experience perspective. For more complex structures, we have a dedicated build for testing these and invite obstacle testers to come and try and out to provide feedback on their experience. We’ll often test several different materials or processes to determine what the optimum is that ends up as part of the obstacle. Some of our most favourite obstacles have come from discovering a key change during testing that was different from the initial concept (eg. Blockness Monster was originally designed for participants to run across the blocks but the experience of working as a team to spin and climb over them instead was discovered to be much more enjoyable during testing, and remains one of our most popular obstacles).

We definitely recognise that our customers are not all the same shape, size or level of fitness, and work to design our courses and obstacles to take this into account as much as possible without becoming too skewed in a particular direction. The introduction of Level Up lanes this year has allowed us to really evolve away from a ‘one size fits all’ model and create obstacles that offer different levels of challenge depending on your ability or how much you are looking to test yourself. We have evolved from being a purely male dominated event, with obstacles to match, to a wider demographic – and our obstacle design has evolved as well. Handily, we have several members of TMHQ who are able to help benchmark what is a suitable reach for the tallest and shortest among us!

Tough Mudder
Tough Mudder continually come up with fiendish new obstacles!

What are the main challenges you face in finding sites, then building the courses?

Striking the right balance between location, space, access, layout and terrain is the main challenge in finding suitable sites. We have different limitations / opportunities at each of our sites that we try to work with as effectively as possible, for example the ground conditions at some sites make digging extremely difficult, or we have to bring in extra resources to create the ‘right’ kind of mud for our events, whereas others have almost too much mud! So not all obstacles work at all sites and it’s understanding how we make sure the overall experience remains as consistent as possible.

Do you have any exciting new obstacles planned for 2019 races?

We’ve rolled out perhaps our biggest suite of new and updated obstacles ever this year (at least 10 new or updated obstacles on our Classic courses), which is over a third of the menu. It’s been a huge amount of work from all of the team to implement all these changes and new obstacles, but the overwhelmingly positive feedback so far has been really encouraging, and we’re not stopping there. We have several concepts we’re working on at the moment we will be aiming to incorporate into events later in the season, and are making changes event by event to existing obstacles to tweak and improve the experience wherever possible. Expect to see more new obstacles feature at 2019 events yet to come.

As an all-female team of designers do you think that changes the way you look at obstacles and courses?

We don’t necessarily consider being all female as the defining feature of our team – but I’d say it’s indicative of the evolution of our events that our obstacle innovation is now lead by a team of females with suitable experience in the event and construction world. In terms of ways of thinking, we are tasked with making sure we are providing a suitably testing, challenging and fun experience for our customers, no matter who they are. I do think we were probably too heavily skewed towards upper body strength obstacles based on male proportions for too long whilst our customer demographic changed and we started to see more females and those of different levels of fitness take on the challenge. We’re not looking to make our events easier, we’re recognising the shift in our demographic and making sure we’re considering that in our obstacle design. It’s not just about degree of difficulty though, we also consider the type of obstacle in terms of the kind of challenge it presents (teamwork / personal accomplishment / courage) and have looked to incorporate a balance across our courses to add to the variety of challenge.

Tough Mudder
Tough Mudder Obstacle Innovation Lab at work

The introduction of shorter-format (5K) and more elite endurance (Tougher and Toughest overnight format) events has allowed us to engage with a wider audience whilst retaining an appropriate level of challenge for different abilities – beginners and the fittest alike.

What are the rates of participation on men vs. women?

As previously mentioned, our demographic has evolved and we’re now approx 50-50.

Find your next Tough Mudder event HERE. 

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