OCR training: how to find the balance between strength and running

If you’ve been bitten by the obstacle course racing (OCR) bug, you’ll know that to enter a series like the Warrior Race competitively, you need to be able to trail run for anything from 15-21km, and have the strength to overcome 30 demanding obstacles in between. You may be frustrated (and stiff) at the moment and find yourself striving to juggle a running programme with strength training. Leading OCR athlete Greg Avierinos finds himself on the Warrior podium regularly, and reveals all you need to know about finding that OCR training balance.

Obstacle Course Racing, OCR, Greg Avierinos, strength

The fearless Greg Avierinos at SA’s biggest obstacle course racing series, the Warrior Race. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

Discovering the multisport lifestyle 

For as long as I can remember I’ve always been a rather competitive athlete. I started off racing quad bikes around the age of five, moved onto bicycles, and then discovered to the multisport lifestyle of adventure racing (AR). I loved the combination of cycling, running and paddling while navigating along finely marked check points. I competed in my first few AR’s with my dad, but joined a team with a friend when I turned twelve. There was no turning back after this point, AR had really stuck! We even landed up taking on a couple of the longer races and we’d be out there for 40+ hours of non-stop racing. As much as I enjoyed that, I really battled to keep myself awake through some of the night racing sections!

Entering Warrior and starting from the bottom

OCR, Obstacle Course Racing, The Warrior Race, strength, running

Greg Avierinos tackles the Mud Monstor. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

In 2013 we came across obstacle course racing. I discovered the Warrior Race on Facebook after they’d just had their first event. It looked really cool! I entered from either the third or fourth race, and although it was lots of fun, I technically didn’t actually finish any of them due to my lack of upper body strength. After the first Warrior in 2014, I realized that if I wanted to be able to do this stuff I’d have to put in some form of strength training! So yes, I started from the bottom. I do feel it’s a bit easier coming from a running background though than a strength training background as 70% of the race is mostly running.

The struggle to balance strength training with running

There is a good chance that many of you are reading my story and find yourselves in a similar position at the moment, asking how to combine running and strength training, or how often to focus on each?  It’s all going to depend on what you want to achieve, but if you’re trying to go from running or even CrossFit into OCR, then you have to find time for both kinds of training and even combination sessions of the two.

When I started with strength training I was fairly strong, generally, but had never really gymmed much at all. I began with five full days of strength training a week, focusing on specific muscle groups, but also focusing on mostly body weight and calisthenics type sessions. Looking back, I think that was good because it not only gave me a general foundation of strength that I could build on, but also prevented me from developing injuries.

I did my other training sessions, which involved running and cycling, on top of that. It helped me to do slightly more strength sessions to begin with, but for someone who has a fair amount of strength already, 3 strength sessions a week is more than adequate to prepare yourself for OCR.

It’s often hard to find the OCR strength / running balance as every race organiser has designed different routes with varying obstacle difficulty. Some races like the Impi Challenge have more technical trail running with longer carries (obstacles where you have to carry an object for a portion of the route), and other races are shorter and have more technical obstacles. The Warrior Race has recently introduced a sprint course, for example, which is only 400m long with ten obstacles. If you want be an all-rounder and don’t want to specialize in a certain type of race, you will have to find a balance.

How I train for obstacle course racing 

Balance:

Greg Avierinos, OCR, Obstacle Course Racing

Greg Avierinos in his element on the obstacle course. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

I will usually do my OCR training sessions on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday so that I give my muscles time to recover. I then do my specific running sessions like intervals, hill repeats and long runs on the days in between and over the weekend if I don’t have a race. To weigh up whether you need more running/ strength is difficult, as it differs from person to person and is often discovered through experience. But I’d say that running is more important as you’ll be doing that for about 70% of the Warrior Race and being better at it can help you get to each obstacle sooner.

If, however, you don’t have enough strength (like I did initially) then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to complete certain obstacles (completion is mandatory in the elite category so that won’t bode too well for you). On the other hand, if you’re neglecting running, then you run the risk of getting too big / strong and becoming heavier and slower on the runs.

You need to have that balance. Personally, there is nothing quite like escaping into the mountains to go for longer runs in the Berg, or exploring some kloofs and ensuring my GoPro is as tough as they say it is! At the end of the day, you have to keep your pursuit of adventure exciting and make training fun.

Yancy Camp:

I currently have an OCR coach from America, Yancy Culp, who’s got an online training platform called Yancy Camp. He gives me three OCR type sessions per week where I get my strength training from. This is what I’ll typically do on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday depending on my races. These sessions have improved my racing ability to a huge extent! It’s really helped me maintain a higher speed as I enter and leave an obstacle, and allowed me to get back into my running rhythm sooner. The cool thing about these sessions is that are always different; they vary from almost a CrossFit type workout with weights, to more functional sessions with sandbags or tyres. Most sessions involve a bit of running, or spinning/rowing in a gym.

Grip Strength:

OCR, Obstacle Course Racing, The Warrior Race, Greg Avierinos

Greg Avierinos tackling the Farmer’s Carry. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

For OCR in South Africa, you want to try incorporate quite a lot of grip strength to get through some of the tougher obstacles. Stuff like dead hangs (hanging on a pull up bar), farmer’s carry (carrying heavy obstacles for a certain distance), and hanging hip slaps (from hanging position release one hand at a time to touch your hip and return to starting position) are a crucial part of training.

These simulate obstacles that you would do during the race without having to access an obstacle course itself for training. The hip slaps, for example, would be similar to a section of monkey bars, and the longer you hang will obviously benefit you more in the technical obstacles.

For a more advanced movement, do hangs on your gym towel by throwing it over the pull up bar and hanging vertically. This makes it a lot harder to grip and preps you for things like the hanging poles / numb chucks.

Another good exercise to do is one of the Yancy Camp endurance tests. It is a 10-100 pull / hang test where you set an interval timer for ten seconds. At the start of each interval you do a pull up and then hang for the rest. Do this for max reps with ten reps being the benchmark.

Greg Avierinos, OCR, Obstacle Course Racing, strength

Greg Avierinos shows the kind of strength that obstacle course racing requires. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

Greg’s training programmes

After recently graduating from Sports Science at the University of Pretoria, I have started a functional / OCR gym in the Cornwall Hill Estate, Centurion, called Jokes Aside. I give morning classes on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I have also recently started giving classes on a Tuesday and Thursday morning at Brooks Gym in the Brooklyn / Waterkloof area. I have a few athletes who I coach and provide a full training programme for; I really enjoy contributing to the development of obstacle course racing and look forward to what’s to come!

Active recovery and rest

Jonah Young is currently an Intern Biokineticist and physiologist of the South African Rowing team. After gaining valuable experience as an OCR athlete and placing in the top ten of the Black Ops Elite category in 2015, he offers some crucial advice about training, and the importance of active recovery and rest:

“I think a lot of the time the running aspect of obstacle course racing is overlooked – as the majority of the race is running. If you are stacked for time and unable to get in longer runs, high intensity interval training (HIIT) can be effective in preparation. These sessions, however, will often take more of a toll on the body than say a longer, less intense run and therefore require more recovery time.

HIIT has been shown to elicit similar adaptations as steady state (long slow distance) exercise. Longer intervals that stress the aerobic system adequately will have a greater impact on endurance performance. However, it is important that high intensities are reached (90-95% heart rate max) during HIIT style training. I recommend that at least one longer, more steady state run is achieved a week – this will also develop mental fortitude!

Resistance training will also provide great benefit to an OCR athlete. Not only will resistance training improve strength, but it has also been proven to improve running economy. It is important that a strength endurance approach is taken (between 8-15 repetitions for 3-4 sets) as this will carry over best into obstacle course racing performance. Functional fitness methods such as Crossfit are  great ways to improve overall fitness and strength in preparation for an OCR race, but it is very important not to neglect the running aspect.

Now rest…

Greg Avierinos, OCR, Obstacle Course Racing, running

Greg Avierinos having a blast at the Warrior Race. Photo: Terence Vrugtman / AdventureLife SA.

Active recovery is a low-risk, low-cost recovery modality that may provide the much-needed mental and physical break between tough training sessions. It can be used both acutely (an active cool down for 5-10mins post-training), or over a longer term (periodising active recovery days into a training programme).

Acutely, it facilitates the transition from exercise to resting state in a gradual manner. It can reduce muscle soreness and stiffness after training or competition by increasing oxygen delivery to previously working muscles, and prevent venous pooling by clearing metabolic waste. It also improves blood flow to the recovering muscle groups with the premise of reducing residual fatigue within the muscle.

Scheduled active recovery days would include aerobic exercise using large muscle groups at lower intensities and lower volumes. Examples would be going for a hike, light bike ride or an easy swim. Swimming is a really effective cross training modality as it is low impact and therefore not so hard on the joints!”

Running and strength training on the same day

Lead researcher, Kenji Doma, PhD, of James Cook University, spoke to Runner’s World Newswire about how runners should arrange their workouts in an article titled “How Best to Combine Strength Training and Running.” He gives some advice about how to schedule strength training sessions in a way that will still allow an athlete to get the most out of their running sessions:

“Don’t schedule a hard running workout later in the day of a weight session. Running at maximal effort is impaired six hours [after] lower-extremity resistance training, and therefore trained to moderately trained runners will need more than that to recover for running sessions set at high intensities.

In addition, running at maximal effort is still impaired 24 hours after lower-extremity resistance training. Therefore, in the case of trained and moderately trained runners undertaking high-intensity running sessions after lower-extremity resistance training, they may need more than one day to recover.

I have found that running performance at lower intensities was unaffected by the weight workouts. Runners could undertake strength training and running sessions on the same day six hours apart as long as the running session is set at submaximal intensities.

If possible, try to arrange your schedule so that on days that you run and lift, running comes first.”

If you have any questions, are interested in getting into the obstacle course racing scene, or just looking to improve your strength then contact Greg on social media. You can also sign up for his Yancy Camp workouts, which can be adjusted to suit your fitness level.

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