There's a boom in offbeat races—gravel grinders, obstacle-course runs, cyclocross events—so it's never been easier to experiment with a new sport. Here's how to decide which one's right for you.
What: Paddling around in some of the world’s most scenic locales, like North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Why: It’s a day on the water that gets you a workout and a tan. And you don’t even need your own board. Rentals are ubiquitous, and many races offer them on-site.
The Best: Ta-Hoe Nalu (Kings Beach, California; August; tahoenalu.com); Carolina Cup (April; Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina; wrightsvillebeachpaddleclub.com)
What: An hour spent circling a one-to-two-mile off-road loop, with frequent dismounts to hop over logs and hay bales.
Why: It’s Nascar run on a muddy, grassy track, with pit stops to swap out broken or gumbo-caked bikes. Spectators drink, ring cowbells, and heckle participants.
The Best: Cross Vegas (Las Vegas, Nevada; September; crossvegas.com); Providence Cyclocross Festival (Providence, Rhode Island; October; providencecrossfest.com); Cross Crusade Series (Nationwide; crosscrusade.com)
What: A celebration of outdoor sports held at mountain-town festivals.
Why: There are countless events with varying degrees of difficulty, from dog-friendly mud runs to multi-discipline all-mountain challenges.
The Best: GoPro Mountain Games (Vail, Colorado; June; mountaingames.com); Dominion Riverrock Festival (Richmond, Virginia; May; dominionriverrock.com)
What: Mud pits, fire jumps, barbed-wire crawls—like gym class on steroids.
Why: They’re as much a party as a race. The keepsakes for completing them—the orange Tough Mudder headband, Warrior Dash’s fuzzy Viking helmets—come with bragging rights.
The Best: Tough Mudder (toughmudder.com); Spartan Race (spartanrace.com); Warrior Dash (warriordash.com)
What: A race on gravel or fire roads, originally birthed by Midwest bikers.
Why: Miles of backwoods trails on your road bike, with no cars or strip malls in sight and none of the scary downhills prevalent at mountain-bike events.
The Best: Crusher In The Tushar (Beaver, Utah; July; tusharcrusher.com); Dirty Kanza (Emporia, Kansas; May; dirtykanza200.com)