Extreme Team Building

With more organizations sponsoring teams to participate in extreme obstacle challenges that test participants' mental and physical toughness, experts say HR leaders should be prepared for the likelihood of accommodating injured workers. But training for the events can help forge bonds across organizational boundaries as well.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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Nearly three dozen employees at Vancouver, Wash.-based Nautilus Inc. recently completed a race in which they jumped into ice-filled dumpsters, crawled under barbed wire, waded through waist-high mud and ran through a curtain of dangling electrical wires -- all with the full approval and support of the fitness company and its director of HR.

"What's great is that we have employees from every department at this company participating -- people from accounting, product development, sales and HR," says Danika Stallman, Nautilus' HR director. "I've always loved these events -- you get people on teams together who ordinarily wouldn't interact during the course of a normal workday but, through training together and supporting each other, become friends."

The event the Nautilus group participated in -- a Tough Mudder obstacle race, organized by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Tough Mudder Inc., which donates part of the proceeds from its events to the Wounded Warriors Project -- is part of a fast-growing trend of extreme obstacle challenges that test participants' mental and physical toughness. Mudder started with three races in 2010 and has grown to include 54 events worldwide this year. Approximately a dozen "obstacle event companies" have sprung up during the past three years that organize events that, in addition to Tough Mudder, include The Spartan Race and Rugged Maniac, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012, about 1.5 million people entered 150 U.S. events -- that compared with just 41,000 participants in only 20 such events in 2010, according to Outside magazine.

Many of the people participating in these events are doing so with their coworkers and the full support of the organizations they work for, says Maria Mazursky, founder and CEO of, an Atlanta-based wellness company.

"There are a lot of leadership traits that can really show up when you compete in events like these," says Mazursky. "It gets you out of that stale office environment, forces you to check your ego at the door and lets you find leaders among your employees that you never knew you had."

Training for the events can forge bonds across organizational boundaries, says Chris Cruz, an employee at the Chandler, Ariz.-based National Academy of Sports Medicine who recently completed a Tough Mudder along with a number of co-workers. "You get to meet a lot of people in your company whom you ordinarily wouldn't talk to during the day," he says. "It improves the office atmosphere." 

Participating in these events isn't without risk, naturally. Injuries are a regular occurrence and people have even died: Earlier this year, a man drowned while competing in a Tough Mudder race in West Virginia; at least four people have died during extreme obstacle races since 2011, reports the Baltimore Sun.

While deaths and serious injuries are rare given the sheer number of participants each year, HR leaders at companies that sponsor employees in these events should be prepared for the likelihood of accommodating injured workers, says Keith Gutstein, a partner at Kaufman Dolowich and Voluck in New York.

"Be prepared for the fact that you may have to provide someone with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act," he says. "And, depending on the scope of the injury, the employee may warrant protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or the state and local equivalent."

Workers compensation should not be an issue, says Gutstein -- unless, of course, a company mandates participation in these events.

Office workers can be especially prone to injuries, but their chances of getting hurt are reduced when they train as a group, says Erin McGill, NASM's director of training and design.

"When you sit at a desk all day, certain muscles get very tight and others get very weak," she says. "It puts you at increased risk of knee injuries, lower back pain, headaches and shoulder injuries when you start training for these events without easing into it first."

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People training for an extreme obstacle course, a marathon or even a 5k run need to start slowly, says McGill, and implement "corrective flexibility training protocol."

Depending on the event, companies should assign a team leader to oversee the employees' training, she says. That person should research best practices in preparing for the particular competition, write up a plan to support the entire group and set up structured times to work out together.

"Many people don't like doing the necessary things like stretching and deep-tissue massage, but if the entire group is working toward this together, they're more likely to follow through," she says. "It will also help out from a team cohesion perspective."

At Nautilus, injuries aren't uncommon among its "highly active" workforce, says Stallman.

"Being a fitness company, we have a lot of employees doing crazy things, like climbing Mount St. Helens," she says. The company required the employees  participating in the Tough Mudder -- who asked the company to sponsor them -- to sign a waiver releasing it from liability, she adds.

Stallman says she was inspired watching the employees train and support each other for the six months prior to the competition.

"One of the gals participating has lost 40 pounds," she says. "You see them working out four nights a week, going for Friday night runs, and it's motivating to me, personally. I couldn't commit the time to train for this, although I did complete a 5k. I'm very proud of them."

Extreme obstacle competitions have the potential to instill greater self-confidence, says Alison Levine, a consultant and motivational speaker who's served as the team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition, and skied across the Arctic Circle to the geographic North Pole.

"You learn that you have the ability to push through a lot of pain," she says.


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