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Courtesy of Freeletics
Vanessa Gebhardt was an intern at Freeletics in 2013 when she developed a passion for bootcamp-style workouts. Five years later, she utilizes many of the same training methods to stay in top shape for her latest passion: obstacle course and ultra-endurance racing.
The idea of running a 24-hour survival race may sound far-fetched to even the most dedicated runner or gym rat, and it definitely would’ve sounded far-fetched to Gebhardt a few years back. But after running a 5k Spartan Sprint with some colleagues and clocking the second-fastest women’s time in 2015, she was hooked. Since then, she’s built an impressive record of podium placements and wins in Spartan races of every distance and 24-hour-plus Survival Runs. Most recently, she won Survival Run Canada in August 2017 and Survival Run Nicaragua in March 2018.
We got the Munich-based athlete and content manager at Freeletics, a training and nutrition app that gives subscribers access to bodyweight workouts and nutrition guidance, on the phone to find out how she gets in shape for the grueling races, what she loves about them, and how she got started with such a physically demanding hobby.
Courtesy of Freeletics
M&F Hers: How did you get into endurance racing and obstacle course racing in the first place?
Vanessa Gebhardt: I ran my first race when some colleagues of mine asked me to run one with them. I probably wouldn’t have done it by myself because I didn’t know if it was something I would like, but everybody was asking, so I went and it was more of a group thing. But in the end, my time was the second fastest for the girls and it was like, “Oh, that’s pretty great, I didn’t know that I was that good.” So my friends were like, “Next year you have to win it.” So in 2016, I ran in the Elite and I actually won the race.
After I won, I thought, “Okay, let’s try one bigger one.” So I tried a 13k and I got on the podium. At that race, I met my current boyfriend, and he sort of teased me and said, “Yeah you shouldn’t just run 13k, you have to try a 25k.” I ran that and ended up on the podium, then he told me to try a 50k in the U.S. I did that and got to the podium again, and he was like, “Oh no, you have to try this 24-hour race in Nicaragua.” So I did, and that’s more or less how I progressed.
What was it like to run a 24-hour race for the first time?
At first I didn’t know if my body could last 24 hours. I knew I was a fit girl, but this was still something I hadn’t done before, so I just wanted to see when I’d hit the wall. I went into the race prepared, I had my food with me, and I was just set on getting to and completing every challenge. That was last year, 2017, in Nicaragua, and I did pretty well. But then there was the slingshot task—we had to hit a target with a slingshot, and I missed it twice, then they told me I couldn’t continue. That’s the only reason I didn’t finish the race last year, because I didn’t hit the target with the slingshot. After that, I knew that I could do this and that I’m good at it.
And what’s your training like ahead of a big race like a Survival Run?
I actually train a lot with my own body weight, so that’s really what my base is daily. I do run, but not as much as I do bodyweight workouts. It’s a lot of burpees, pushups, pullups, and some sprints here and there. I really like that style of training, and it helps me to find new ways to challenge myself. I do a lot of mobility and yoga as well, because that’s really important. I have my big training sessions more on the weekends, so that’ll be two to five hours of training—it could be a hike, a big workout, and just running—it depends on what my weekend looks like.
I also do a lot of weight training to work on things like my grip strength. I do squats to strengthen my core and my spine, which of course is really important. Deadlifts and weighted pullups are also important parts of my training, but weight training like that is something I do about once a week or once every second week.
When did you realize that you were passionate about training?
A guy I went to school with got me into the idea of Freeletics because they started up close to my home. He told me about it, and the next day I was there. It was mostly guys I trained with, and I had so much fun because we would train outside, doing things like burpees. In the three months we tried to train together I got so good that a lot of the guys didn’t even want to train with me I because was really good at the challenges—better than some of the guys.
I really got hooked because even though I wasn’t able to do any pullups or anything in the beginning. With more of those workouts I got better and better in just three months. Then every year, I added a few new skills to my skillset. But even when we have team training in the office, it’s sometimes it’s like, “Oh no, I don’t want to train with Vanessa, it’s easier if she doesn’t train with us.”
Are there any specific measures you take to prevent injury, especially with a high-volume training schedule in preparation for such long races?
Yes, you have to make sure your body is well-rested. While working out and training to push your limits, at a certain level or are at times when you’re just feeling really motivated, you’ll have some training sessions that don’t exhaust you as much as you want them to. It’s important that afterwards, you tell your mind that it’s enough, and you’re fine. Even if it’s just a yoga session and you don’t feel that exhausted after it, it’s still good for you and you shouldn’t keep pushing yourself to total exhaustion. I also try to be prepared for every workout and get the best rest I can afterward so my body isn’t working on my recovery while I’m on my next training session.
Courtesy of Freeletics
What’s your approach to diet and nutrition?
Everybody always asks me what I eat the day before a race, but that’s not actually what’s important. In reality, what you eat the week before the race—really, the whole year before, but still the week before—is what’s really important to make sure your body is fueled properly. So I eat just really healthy, including lots of protein and vegetables.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I also don’t eat a lot of meat, so I eat a lot of vegetarIan Food and bowls. Bowls or healthy shakes are my favorite in the morning or before a workout. I like to throw in berries, some healthy protein—not your typical whey protein powder, but maybe pea protein powder, for example. Nutrition before the race is just a lot of protein in good forms and I get lots to eat. I don’t eat less to get in shape right before the race, because I want to be sure that my body has enough to work with. I burn so many calories during those races and over the entire race weekend that I don’t need to check the calories on anything.
What are your absolute essentials that you couldn’t do without on race days?
The most important thing to have on race days is the right mindset. It helps you so much during every challenge and everything that you’re doing, because you’ll find yourself at a point when your mind tells you that you’re just fast, not fast enough, that it hurts, or something along those lines. It’ll come up. But you have to tell your mind to be in the moment and not race somebody else’s race or get ahead of your game. That helps me a lot because during the 24-hour races or any time I struggle with a challenge, I push out negative thoughts. They won’t help you at all, so they have to go, and that’s what I do with them when they come. I practice that a lot every day, and good meditation.
Most people would probably find these races too challenging or downright miserable. What about them do you love so much?
My favorite part is that I really get to know myself during every race, since there will always be something new and something that I haven’t experienced before. During one race, I had troubles with my stomach, for example. I couldn’t eat for a few hours, so I had to drink my calories. Even though that happened and it wasn’t ideal, I really tried to be in the moment and not get lost. But you get to know yourself better with every race, and that’s really exciting because you never know what your mind will do or what you will do, and that’s why I really like them—it’s all about you and the race and nothing else.
You run both ultra-endurance survival runs and OCRs. Which do you prefer, and why?
I love the Survival Runs because of the aspect of the unknown. In an OCR, you’ll know you have to be able to climb and can work on your technique, or you know it’s going to be monkey bars so you work on better grip strength. I really do like them, but my heart is more in that adventurous, 24-hour survival racing. In a Survival Run, you do tasks that, for example, Nicaraguan people on the island have to do on a daily basis. There were things like climbing a coconut tree, chopping wood, or swimming through lakes with the bamboo or something totally unexpected. That’s more exciting and adventurous for me, which is why I really like them and why you can’t really prepare. Of course, you can prepare by working on your fitness, but you can’t prepare for any special challenges because you never know what’s coming.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in OCR racing but are too intimidated by the idea to actually do one?
Get some friends together and do it together. In my opinion, a group thing is always a good start. It helps you to experience something new and something that you might like—and even if you don’t and feel like it was the worst idea ever, you did something new and know yourself better now. No matter which race it is, or which sport it is, just get some people together and try it together because it’s always easier if you don’t have to suffer by yourself.