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Introducing our new OCR training and fitness columnists Faye Stenning and Jessica O'Connell

When Get Out There decided to run a column on training for obstacle course racing (OCR), we went straight to a Canadian legend, Faye Stenning, one of the top competitors of all-time, who held the number one ranking in the world in 2016. 

Now, every month Stenning and her partner in Grit Coaching, Jessica O’Connell, will be writing a column and highlighting videos on how to train for OCR. It’s not what you think. And it’s also training that can be utilized by everyone.

But first, let’s meet our new contributors.

When Stenning first started competing in smaller obstacle course races in her hometown of Calgary and across Canada, she won. A lot. She promptly relocated south of the border and found some tougher competition but also many athletes who could have been beating her but weren’t. 

 OCR legend Faye Stenning

Why? Stenning had the strength and skill to do the obstacles, but she could also run. And, she was fast. 

She could see that the top reason for the disparity within the OCR community was that competitors didn’t really know how to run well or were simply more interested in cross-fit to bother with the basics. Cue the light bulb. Why not parlay her years of elite experience and success and start a training service specifically for obstacle racers?

“I was doing all these Canadian races and winning by like 20 minutes and was thinking what the heck this isn’t right. I know I’m a talented athlete, but come on,” Stenning says. “I wanted to show these athletes what to do. But if I was going to do it, I knew I had to partner with someone that is, A, smarter than me and, B, can run faster than me.”

It just so happens one of Stenning’s good friends from her Calgary high school days is Jessica O’Connell who is one of the fastest 5,000-metre runners in Canada and has been on 18 national teams and competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

“I was like Jess is perfect. She runs faster than me and I have Kinesiology degree but she’s an exercise physiologist with her Master’s, so she checks all the boxed,” she says. “And we’re good friends, so obviously we had to do this, we’d be crazy not to.”

 Canadian Olympic runner Jessica O'Connell

Stenning teamed up with O’Connell to form Grit Coaching, which specializes in training athletes for OCR in addition to strength and fitness training for running and other sports.

“There is a huge gap in the coaching in OCR,” O’Connell explains. “We just saw a lot of common mistakes that Faye’s peers and friends were making that we could fix fairly easily. We were like, man they just think its Ninja Warrior and it’s all high-interval training and no miles.”

According to Stenning,  people usually overdo the strength and the cross-fit and really underdo the running.

“I think if they liked running so much they would just be running marathons,” Stenning says. “But to be good at anything, sometimes you have to work at some things you don’t particularly like but you need.”

When an athlete first works with Grit, they are assessed for running and strength. Usually, the running is an issue, but there are myriad of common opportunities for improvement such as OCR specific fitness including grip strength because unless you’re already running obstacles or maybe come from a climbing background you aren’t working out your forearm and finger muscles. 

“The majority of the Spartan races are between three and up to 12 plus miles,” Stenning explains. “It is an endurance event so having a high VO2 max, aerobic capacity all that is more important than the strength element.”

Now, when athletes are assessed they work with O’Connell on a run program that usually begins with a slow and steady increase in mileage more akin to 10K or half-marathon training, than high-intensity, short interval work of cross-fit. 

Stenning will assess the strength using very simple functional strength tests such as pull-ups and deadlift and create a program to either maintain levels and add OCR specific training or in some cases start at a more foundational level.

Grit Coaching operates all online and works with clients through phone calls, email and video. 

“We touch base about once a month on the phone and we use an app,” says O’Connell. “We’ve taken videos of ourselves doing all the exercises we’re prescribing them so they can see real runners doing the exercise. We find it works well.”

Stenning says, some of their elite athlete clients need more attention, and for them, they talk multiple times a week, give pre-race and post-race chats. 

“You can be as far removed from us as possible or we can be your on-call coach and you can contact us whenever you want.”

Since beginning in 2017, Grit has expanded beyond just OCR racers, although that remains the core of their business. In fact, the team just started working with the two-time Spartan women’s champion. 

“We have a diverse clientele, and this column will be for everyone. Some of our clients are just thinking about racing, some just want a fitness program, and some are elite marathon runners heading to the Olympic trials and everything in between.”

Some topics in the coming months will include:

    ·    OCR specific strength training
    ·    Run specific workouts including tempos, fartleks, and track work    
    ·    Run training with tempo
    ·    The keys to OCR success
    ·    The importance of mindset in racing and training
    ·    Building up that aerobic base!!! what is this? and why do we need it! 
    ·    How to taper properly
    ·    The little things such as proper warm-up, mobility

Stay tuned, Faye and Jessica will be back with their first training session, soon! 

Lead photo: @experimentalexperience 

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