The Latest Fitness Fad: Playing Dirty Sports

Get dirty, drop pounds

by Debbe Geiger
Photograph: Illustration by Shout

“No way,” I told my trainer after she suggested I enter a team mud race. Running through soggy trenches, swimming in muddy water and crawling under debris did not sound like fun. But as soon as I got more dirt on the details, I realized this oddball event could in fact be a great opportunity to shape up, make friends and just let loose. My trainer, Janine McGann, had organized teams of four fearless forty-something women to compete, so I signed up. This fall, after 16 weeks of training, we will report to the starting line at a National Guard training center in Columbia, South Carolina. Then we’ll haul ourselves up 10-foot walls, swing across mud pits and wade through slop as we tackle the four-mile obstacle course.
We’re not the only ones getting down and dirty. Across the country, women are embracing their inner Pig-Pen, participating in muddified versions of sports such as volleyball, dodgeball and cycling. The number of women slogging through the highest-profile event, the World Famous Mud Run at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California, has increased by as much as 30 percent over the past few years, according to race director Anthony T. C. Carson. “We see women in their forties, fifties and sixties come back,” he says. “They use the event as a benchmark and aim to get better each year.”
Training provides an intense anti-aging workout that helps you lose weight. “These sports are a great way to work on the balance, flexibility and strength that decline with age,” says Jessica Matthews, of the American Council on Exercise. Preparation also offers a fun break from a gym routine.
During our workouts, we scale eight-foot fences in a park, run—fully clothed—in the local pool, do Spiderman-style crawls on our lawns, and rock climb on an indoor wall. But even all that endurance and strength training won’t fully prepare us for the resistance we’ll encounter on race day, when we’ll haul our bodies through mud. “Mud is not like water,” says Chris Wooten, a former Marine, of “You work extra hard to lift your feet,which gives your hip flexors a real burn.”
The payoff is more than just physical. “Playing in mud makes you feel like a kid again,” says the ACE’s Matthews, who gets muddy when she plays flag football. And then there’s the thrill that comes from flouting the rules of feminine behavior. “We’re socialized to be clean and neat. When we let go and get dirty, it breaks social mores,” says exercise psychologist Michelle Segar, PhD, of, a motivation site.
For me, another benefit is the social aspect (many women’s teams turn the Camp Pendleton race into a girlfriend weekend) and the supportive “no man left behind” attitude. Knowing that my teammates have my back makes me feel more confident and more determined to do whatever it takes to finish.
The sports also provide a powerful mental workout. “At some point you’ll want to give up, but you’ll tell yourself, shut up, I’ve got work to do,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. And that mind-set can help you plow through almost any difficult period, one obstacle at a time.

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