© Esben Zøllner Olesen/Red Bull Content Pool
If you follow the sharp end of obstacle course racing, you’ll be familiar with the name Ida Mathilde Steensgaard. A formidable force in OCR for the last decade, Danish athlete Ida is the current OCR World Champion (3K) and holds the title of OCR European Champion for both the 15K and 3K events. World and European Championship titles aside, Ida has more than 100 OCR podiums to her name!
Specialising in short-course OCR, the 32-year-old Red Bull athlete is known for her technical skills and impressive grip strength, making light work of even the hardest rigs and obstacles. And in 2022, Ida used this covetable skill set to take on an immense rope climbing challenge with Red Bull. Climbing a 28m rope from being fully submerged in the water, she set two new world records: the longest rope climb by a female and the longest rope climb from water. She’s also dipped her toe in the world of hybrid sports, competing in two Hyrox events – more of which later!
In this Q&A, we cover Ida’s training, race day prep, 2023 goals and more. Thanks, Ida!
Were you a sporty child growing up in Denmark?
I was always very active during my childhood with many different types of sports. I’ve done handball, which is the national sport in Denmark, volleyball, football… I had a very short career in gymnastics. Handball’s the one I did for the longest – for around 7 to 8 years in school.
You found OCR around 10 years ago. What was your fitness level like at the time?
When I did my first race in 2013, my fitness level was very regular, meaning I could run 5km in around 25 minutes. Back then, I thought that was quite fast! I could do maybe five push-ups, but I couldn’t do any pull-ups. I went to fitness training about 2-3 times a week and maybe ran once a week. So in general, I had a very basic fitness level.
Short-course OCRs are your speciality. What kind of run training does this involve?
Yes, short course races are my speciality. After I broke my navicular bone (a bone in the foot) in November 2020, I had to be very aware of load management and the time I spent in my running shoes. Since my injury, my running focus has been doing 2-3 harder sessions a week, with threshold sessions and a minimum of one interval session during a week. I often do a 3-4km warm-up jog and then have mid-sections when I do my threshold runs. I’m usually in my threshold zones for around 30-45 minutes, so around 10 x 3 minutes with a one-minute or 45-second break. Then for my intervals, it’s a bit less because the pace is harder, and I have longer breaks.
I have a Swedish running coach called Ulf Friberg, who’s helped me a lot. He’s a middle-distance coach who specialises in shorter courses from 1500m to 5km, and since I changed my focus to short-course races, he’s really helped me. So I’m now training to be fast in 3-5km events instead of longer distances like the half-marathon, as I did previously in my training.
Do you include any elevation in your run training?
As I live in Denmark, I honestly do not do that much elevation. However, I do some trail running for my longer runs at the weekend. It varies a lot, but in general, a lot of my running is flat.
You’re known for your technical obstacle skills. Do you dedicate time specifically to grip strength training and rig practice, or does this come naturally through activities like bouldering?
I love the technical obstacles! This is often the part in OCR where I think it’s the most fun, and yes, I do dedicate specific sessions during the week to grip strength training. Many people go bouldering, which is ideal if you don’t have a specific rig training facility to practice on. Sometimes, I go bouldering, but in Copenhagen, we have facilities where we can train on obstacles, so I like to do this at least every second week. It doesn’t have to be the most technical big rig every time; I might go for a session on a military course where I just train walls and being speedy on some of the balance obstacles. And then, in other sessions, I’m very focused on rig/ninja stuff or training one specific skill – for example, maybe working on lache or connecting lache (also known as the flying monkey). I try to vary these sessions depending on where I am in the season and what races I’m preparing for.
Besides these technical sessions, when I’m in the gym, I have sessions that just focus on building my grip strength. It could be hang time and different movements on the bar, farmer’s walk, or hand clenches – heavy loading of the forearm muscles to enhance that grip. As soon as my off-season training is done and I’m into pre-season training, I implement more of these grip-specific strength sessions in my regular weekly training.
Last year you set a double world record climbing a 28m rope from the water – congratulations! What did your preparation for this incredible achievement involve?
Yes, I still find it unbelievable that I set a double world record in rope climbing! Of course, part of my preparation was to spend a lot of time on ropes. But besides implementing a bit more grip training than usual, for this rope climb, it was also a lot about the technical skills – how you lock with your feet on a rope, how you lock with your legs on a rope, how you crawl up a rope when you can’t use your legs much anymore. Because what was unique about this world-record rope climb was that I had my own mountain safety harness, which was attached to the rope I was climbing up, meaning that I had to push my safety rope up the rope as I climbed. Therefore, it required a very different rope climbing technique from a regular OCR rope climb. I had to go in the gym with the safety harness on, try to add the safety equipment to a regular 5-metre rope and then train specifically, mimicking this different kind of rope climbing technique.
You also had to swim out to the rope and start the climb from being submerged?
The element of water was really interesting. One thing I did train for was jumping from a 3m bridge down to the water and then climbing up a rope to try to experience what it was like swimming to the rope and climbing when wet. A lot [of that preparation] was testing that I had good shoes that didn’t slip too much, and I also wanted to figure out whether to use gloves or not. On the rope I used, I found it was best to have as much bare skin as possible and then wear some grippy shoes with graphene grip. I used my inov-8 X-talon Ultra for the climb.
Do you have any mental strategies that motivate you and help during races and training?
I think it’s important to align with why you’re trying to do what you’re doing. There are a lot of sacrifices that come with being an elite athlete; there’s a lot of energy, a lot of focus, and a lot of saying no to other stuff to really be on this journey and have these goals. Therefore, it’s important you know this is what you want to do. For me, it was an obsession with having that OCR World Championship podium – it was something I really wanted to work hard for and sacrifice a lot of things for. So I think it’s important to have a clear mindset.
And then, of course, you have tough moments during races. I’ve done a lot of work with a mental trainer from the Red Bull Performance Centre, who has helped me with different techniques for when I’m in the moment racing. I like to be very minimalistic when I race, just thinking about breathing, thinking about the next thing – not overthinking the whole 50 obstacles, but taking things one at a time. I also like to have some very specific pre-race routines, specific music, and a specific warm-up routine. I’ve worked with my coach, Thomas, on having a very specific, standardised way of doing my warm-up, so I don’t have to think too much on race day.
What helps you feel prepared and confident ahead of a race?
I spend a lot of time with my OCR coach the day before a race, walking around the course, looking at the obstacles and mentally visualising, okay, how will I attack the different obstacles? Where is it I feel more specialised? If I don’t want to push hard from the start, where might I want to make a breakthrough? So I make a little tactical plan. I also like to be aware of where my strengths and weaknesses are in a course, so that when I’m in it, I won’t get frustrated. So, for example, if there’s a steep climb, but I know there are some technical obstacles coming up afterwards where I can make up time, then I’m not going to be mentally discouraged if I see people overtaking me on the climb. It’s all about being prepared for what race you’re racing.
What does a typical week of training look like for you now?
At the moment, I’ve finished my off-season block, and I’m going into the pre-season block, which is the block leading up to race season. Here, I do a little less strength training and a bit more speed strength training, adding in some plyometrics and explosive work. As I said, I also do more grip training now, with grip-specific gym sessions. I’m also training on obstacles more now, whereas, in off-season, I might be focusing more on bouldering and fewer technical sessions. I’m now starting to look at what races I have coming up and what obstacle requirements they have, so I will think about things I might need to fine-tune going into them.
My running also gets a bit more specified, but I’m still not in season yet, so there’s a little more focus on build of speed now and less volume in my running. Overall, I maybe have 15-20 hours of training a week; 10 focused on running or cardio and the other 5-10 working on the strength, grip, technical, and speed elements.
You’ve competed in two Hyrox events. What do you think of this emerging sport, and is this something we might see you do more of?
I have completed in two Hyrox, yes [laughs]. I think it’s a really fun sport, very cool and has a great atmosphere. I do like Hyrox a lot. I was a little bit naive going into my first event, thinking that I was quite strong and quite a fast runner, but I found it was more strength-demanding than I expected. I hoped to combine it alongside OCR, but the Hyrox elite pro wave that’s emerging now is very, very strength-focused, so for me to be competitive, I would, unfortunately, need to change my training a lot. I do want to do more Hyrox events, but I think that as long as I’m still competitive within OCR, that will remain my primary focus in training. Hyrox, I will maybe do for fun. I’m considering doing mixed doubles in the fall season because I think that could be super fun.
Last year’s achievements must be hard to top. What are your hopes and plans for 2023?
Honestly, 2022 was such an incredible year – all my miracles were somehow reached. I finally won my World Championship title, set a double world record, and even took [gold in] both distances at the European Championships. It was such an unbelievable year. And, of course, that has made me feel real gratitude that all my hard work has paid off, but it’s also left this big hole. It’s kind of like if you had a mission for many years to climb Mount Everest, and you achieve it, and then there’s this big vacuum afterwards with ‘Then what?’ What do I actually want to do now? Do I want to go back and do it again?
I’ve done so much within OCR, so I want to take this year to really figure out which events are fun and make me super-excited, so I’ve chosen to keep my 2023 calendar a bit more open than usual. Instead of trying to hit all the OCR series or races, it’s about doing races which are exciting and different and can be combined with travelling, which I really love. I’m going to do the OCR European Championship again and will try to defend my titles as best as possible. I’m also excited because this is the first year there will be a federated OCR World Championship, which is significant for OCR as a sport and is pushing it in a more standardised but professionalised direction. I’m excited to see what the federation (Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles – FISO) see as the ideal course for the world championship event in Belgium. My primary focus for the 2023 season is to win the first-ever federated OCR World Championships.
What are your favourite items of kit, and who are you sponsored by right now?
Starting from the bottom, I am sponsored by inov-8, and I truly love their shoes. I’ve been racing for many years in their X-talon models. They also launched an X-talon Ultra shoe, which I used for the harder-packed trail races and longer distances in the World and European championships. I also really like their Terra Ultra, which I sometimes use for races which include some pavement. And if it’s really muddy, I go for my inov-8 Mudclaws.
Besides this, for clothing, I use Virus clothing. I’m really stoked that they’re focusing on bio-ceramic compression tights, which are really good. I usually race in shorts and a sports bra, and I feel like their clothes just stay where they should, they fit well and are really comfy. I’m loving racing and training wearing them.
For tracking, I use Garmin, who I’m also sponsored by. I have the Fenix 7, which is such a good watch. The Garmin Connect app makes it really easy for me to track different things, from mood to menstrual cycle to sleep. These things keep me focused on my training levels and how I’m progressing. My watch connects to my Training Peaks, so I can track all my training, and it uploads to Strava. Everything talks to each other!
And, of course, I’m also with Red Bull, my biggest sponsor, which is amazing. Red Bull help me a lot, and my performance allows me to visit the Red Bull Athlete Performance Centre in Austria, where they do all different types of testing to help progress and improve your athletic performance. Drinking Red Bull also energises me for my training sessions – when you train a lot with back-to-back sessions, it’s good to keep your energy up, especially during hard interval sessions. I love to mix Red Bull with water, and then I’m just going for a time.
I also have some local treatments centres in Denmark. I have an osteopath at Klinik Kropsvaerkstedet, who I’ve used for many years, and a sports masseuse called FixYou Sports Clinic who helps keep my body injury-free. Then there are my coaches: I’ve been working with Thomas Johansson, my primary OCR coach, for many years, and then Ulf Friberg for my running coaching. The Red Bull Performance Centre also helps provide a mental coach and dietitian. I’ve got a very solid setup, which I’m very grateful for – and it’s probably a reason why I’ve done so well for many years!
To keep up with Ida’s training and racing, you can follow her via her social media: www.instagram.com/idamathildee, www.facebook.com/idaMathildeOCR and Tiktok: IdaMathildee, or visit her website: www.Idamathilde.com.