Vanessa Gebhardt’s training is no joke. It couldn’t be, because participating in Spartan Ultras and Survival Runs is a taxing hobby that demands unique skillsets on top of nearly superhuman endurance.
In fact, Survival Runs are her specialty. Whereas an obstacle-course race (OCR) typically features a familiar set of tasks—rope-climbing, monkey bars, and the like—Survival Runs feature a far greater range of challenges. At the Nicaragua 2018 Survival Run, Gebhardt had to tackle day-to-day tasks that Nicaraguan natives do every day, Gebhardt told M&F Hers—”things like climbing a coconut tree, chopping wood, or swimming through lakes.”
“That’s more exciting and adventurous for me, which is why I really like them and why you can’t really prepare, she says. “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.”
And because of those random tasks, it’s especially important to be in the best shape possible come race day. Gebhardt does lots of bodyweight training, mobility work, and a fair amount of lifting and running to stay in top shape for whatever the next unexpected task may be.
“There’s not just one exercise that will prepare you for this, but the most important is always the burpee because you’ll use your whole body during the movement,” Gebhardt says. “You have to prepare your entire body, but the burpee is good for endurance, for strength, and also will help you with a lot of other tough exercises. Burpees are tough, and pushing through them will ensure that your mind is as prepared as your body.”
One of Gebhardt’s go-to bodyweight workouts is from the Freeletics app, a training and nutrition app that focuses on bodyweight movement and HIIT training. Check it out below, and follow Vanessa on Instagram at @for_the_life_of_me to keep up with her latest training and races.
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Adventure-Racing Champion Vanessa Gebhardt Talks Intense Training, Her Nutrition Strategy, and Pushing Her Limits
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.
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In this behind-the-scenes look at his cover shoot, the IFBB Pro League men’s physique star talks about training and living a fit and healthy lifestyle.
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There are enough dating apps out there to fill the entire home screen on your phone (and probably more, TBH). You could swipe for all eternity…
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Karo van Tonder broke records by becoming the fastest windsurfing woman in Africa and the only woman to complete – and win – an 80km windsurf race.
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Want clear skin? It is possible to improve the appearance of your skin after acne, rosacea and sun spots. Here’s the full run-down…
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At her wit’s end, this woman booked herself in for a gastric bypass – a serious procedure that carried significant risks…
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Imagine money is no object. Imagine you wield absolute control over the scientific community and can direct it to run whichever study you desire. If you can dream it up, they’ll get the subjects, produce the money, and make it happen. All you need to come up with is the overarching design. What would you choose? What do you wonder? What questions do you want answered once and for all?
Here’s what I’d choose:
Omega-6 From Seed Oils vs. Omega-6 From Nuts and Seeds
Linoleic acid isn’t linoleic acid. In nuts and seeds, the fragile omega-6 fats have a home. They have cellular walls and antioxidant compounds protecting them from these oxidative stressors. In theory, eating nuts is far different than consuming an equivalent amount of omega-6 through seed oils.
In a seed oil, the omega-6 fats are adrift like storm-tossed sailors, subject to oxidative stressors like heat, light, and oxygen with little protection. To make matters worse, the refining process often strips them of what few endogenous antioxidant compounds remain. They tend to arrive in your kitchen already oxidized and rancid, and if they aren’t, cooking finishes the process. Consuming these oxidized fats makes your LDL particles more vulnerable to oxidation, and oxidized LDL particles are strong candidates for primary progenitors of heart disease.
What’s more, we’re eating (well, maybe not us so much as the average Westerner) more seed oils than ever before. In observational studies, the two sources are conflated. Omega-6 from nuts might be perfectly safe and healthy, and I suspect they are, but we just don’t know. A study pitting the two against each other over a period of 6-12 months would be among the most important for public health.
If you wanted to really isolate the effect of the fatty acids alone and eliminate the variables, you’d give the seed oil group a vitamin/mineral/micronutrient supplement replicating the nutrient content of the nuts. But I don’t think this is necessary, and it may even be counterproductive; people don’t eat seed oils with complicated nutrient complexes to replace the missing nutrients they’d otherwise get from nuts. They just eat crappy refined oils. The simpler study pitting nuts against oils would be more realistic and applicable to how people actually eat.
Track: Bodyweight, lipids, oxidized LDL, inflammation, liver health/fat.
Strict Keto vs. “Keto Zone”
While staying strict when you first embark on the Keto Reset journey is highly recommended, if not downright mandatory, not everyone remains so. Hardcore keto eaters are often lifers, figuring if it worked better than anything else they’d tried early on, there’s no reason to think the benefits would slow or reverse. That may be true. But I like flexibility. I like being able to drift in and out of ketosis as needed. And from what I can tell, the beauty of going strict keto is that it unlocks and enhances your fat-burning machinery and ability to obtain energy from fat—so that you regain the metabolic flexibility to shift between sources of energy.
That’s the keto zone I often talk about—that range of macros where you have the necessary metabolic machinery to shift back and forth between ketosis and straight-up fat-burning based on the number of carbs you eat. A sweet potato doesn’t “knock you out” of ketosis for days; slipping back in just happens because you’re so accustomed to it.
I call it the keto zone because it’s exactly that: a range of carbohydrate intake that causes you to drift in and out of ketosis without even realizing it. For most, the keto zone might correlate to consuming between 20-120 grams of carbs per day. Less one day, more the next. More ketones today, fewer tomorrow. You’re constantly on the verge of either leaving or entering ketosis, and it’s okay.
Is strict keto superior to the keto zone, where you drift in and out of ketosis transiently? I have my biases, but this study would let us find out for sure.
Participants would all start on strict keto for two months, after which they’d split into two groups. One group would stay strict keto, the other would drift into the keto zone. This portion of the study would go for six months.
Track: bodyweight/composition, physical and cognitive performance, inflammatory markers, lipids.
Grilled Meat vs. Gently Cooked Meat: Long Term (5-ish Years) With Health Outcomes
I’ve written about the apparent benefits of gently cooked meat compared to high heat grilled meat. I’ve also dug into the research implicating high heat grilled meat and various diseases, and found it wanting. This would get to the bottom of it.
Except for how the meat is cooked, the diets are identical. The fatty acids are identical, so the differential effects of polyunsaturated vs saturated fat on meat carcinogenicity don’t enter. Each diet has adequate calcium, since low calcium appears to be a prerequisite for “meat-induced” colon cancer. The meat sources are identical; everything is grass-fed (or not). You compare a burger patty grilled over charcoal to a burger patty lightly simmered in some water. A pork chop over fire versus the same pork chop in the pressure cooker.
Track: Incidence of cancer (and related biomarkers), diabetes, heart disease, and everything else they say meat will inflict upon us.
Battle Of the Carnivores: Muscle Meat Carnivore vs. Whole Animal Carnivore (e.g. organs, bones, skin) Over 5 Years
Many zero-carbers are adamant that beef muscle meat is all one needs to thrive. They’ll eat steak and nothing else. Ground beef and nothing else. They’ll drink water and sometimes coffee. They’ll salt their food, but pepper is a stretch. Obviously, there’s something to this. Meat offers nutrients you simply can’t get anywhere else, and in the most bioavailable form around. Eating a bunch of it is probably better than eating none of it.
I suspect that a whole animal carnivore would be healthier, one who ate organs, bones, skin in addition to the muscle meat. This provides a wider range of nutrients, particularly by eating nature’s multivitamin (liver). It balances the methionine (from muscle meat) and glycine (from connective tissue), a ratio that plays a role in the lifespan according to animal models. It’s also more evolutionarily congruent than discarding everything but the muscle meat.
That said, we don’t know for sure. The anecdotes are persuasive. I’d argue that their results are preliminary, and we don’t know if the effects will persist 3, 4, 5 years out. This study would give us a good idea.
It would be cool to throw in another meat-based group who also ate leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables.
Track: Lipids, body composition/weight, metabolic health, inflammation markers, physical performance, strength, endurance, health endpoints like mortality, diabetes, cancer.
Three-Year Study Of Keto In Anaerobic Athletes (e.g. basketball or soccer)—Enough Time For Full Adaptation
Even skeptics admit that getting fat adapted can help endurance athletes excel at their sport, but what remains to be seen is if keto is good for athletes who perform above the anaerobic threshold. Traditionally, going anaerobic means burning glucose. If you don’t have glucose, either because you’re not eating it or your metabolism isn’t optimized for its utilization, your performance will suffer. That’s the story, at least. The data so far is spotty, mixed, and plagued by the fact that the perfect study hasn’t been done.
My intuition is that the keto team would do better than expected. Maybe not better than the other team, but better than the skeptics would assume, and perhaps equal. After all, fat-adaptation extends your anaerobic threshold. You can go longer and harder burning primarily fatty acids than a “normal” athlete. This should preserve glycogen for when you truly need it. And certain “intangibles” might be better in the keto team, like teamwork/cooperation/morale (from improved cognition) and injury rates (from lower inflammation).
A fun wrinkle would be to add a third team that does “keto zone.” They’d start with a strict keto adaptation period, after which they’d cycle carbs in for workouts and games. I suspect that team would be the most successful.
Track: Performance at regular intervals, both team and individual. W/L ratio, points scored, defense, overall success, injury rates. Player attributes like speed, stamina, power.
Those are the five studies I think would be the most illuminating. What about you? What would you like to investigate?
Let me know down below. Thanks for reading, everybody.
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