Photo Credit: Magnus Egger
One of the biggest names in obstacle course racing, Karin Karlsson is a multiple Toughest Race winner, third in the world at last year’s OCR World Championship 15km course and second in the 3km event. The Swedish osteopath is one of the first athletes I saw compete in OCR and is known for her skill and strength on technical obstacles (I remember watching a Toughest Mini Tour final on my laptop and seeing her breeze through every obstacle. It was amazing.)

Here, Karin talks training, grip strength and goals for 2017.

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Can you tell us about your sporting background – were you pretty sporty growing up?
I was sporty when I was growing up, but most of all I was very active. I loved to play, jump, try new sports and just be outdoors. I did gymnastics until I was 11 years old, but thought it was too serious and I wanted to play more. When I was 9 I found football and I loved to train and develop as a team. After finishing high school I travelled and snowboarded for 4 years before moving back home where I started to work out at a gym and do group sessions, building a solid strength base.

You did your first OCR race in 2014.  What made you sign up for it?
My first OCR was a small 5km city race, “Borås action run”. After spending two years in the gym and trying different sports I wanted a challenge. I wanted to do something more than just a running, swimming or bike race; that was when I found OCR, which was a new sport in Sweden in 2013. I saw right away that this was something for me.

Did you find there were any areas you wanted to improve on following your first OCR?
Running! During the race I felt very confident on the obstacles – I was good at adjusting and figuring out how to do them. The running was the thing that held me back and after the race I started to add running into my training.

You’re known for your skill on technical obstacles. Did this come naturally to you from the start?
The technical obstacles that didn’t demand too much grip strength came very naturally to me. In gymnastics you hang on bars, creating movements and balance, which created a good base for me as a child. [My] snowboarding experience challenged my courage every day to try new jumps, tricks and drops. With this and two years of general training and a few climbing sessions, I had a good base to figure out the obstacles.

Photo Credit: Andrea Leijon

You competed at this year’s OCR European Championship in Holland. How did it compare to the OCR World Championship?
The OCREC was a completely flat race where the organizer had decided to really give the athletes a challenge. The carries weren’t that heavy, but really long – the sandbag carry was 2.4km long. The obstacles were really technical and a lot of them straight after one another. I like when it’s [this format with] mandatory completion of the obstacles, it makes the competition less complicated and there’s no need to be tactical – you ‘just’ need to complete the obstacles. I liked the race which was very different from all the obstacle races I’ve done, so a fun challenge.

At last year’s OCR World Championship you raced on consecutive days. Did the effort you put in to 3km event on Friday tire you for the 15km the following day?
During the rest of the season I mainly race the Toughest race series, which is a tour where all the races count [towards your start position in the final]. In the final race, there’s a chase-start format which makes all the races during the year very important and leaves no room for mistakes. So for me competing at the OCRWC one week later [after winning the Toughest Tour] was such a relief. I felt less pressure and I didn’t really think too much!

I felt that a short course format should be to my advantage, due to my obstacle skill, so I was happy it was the first race. After doing that race well I felt even less pressure at the 15km race, which loosened up my body. About 7km in to the Saturday [15km] race it crossed my mind that I couldn’t really feel that I’d raced the day before, but I quickly pushed that thought away, so not to jinx it! But I think you use different muscles during the 3km and 15km race. 3km it’s all-in effort, while the 15km you need to pace yourself and get into a more ‘comfortable’ pace. But of course it affected it somehow. I just tried my best not to think about it.

During the team race [day three of racing] I definitely felt it, though. I couldn’t run at all as fast as I wanted to, but then it was okay; the individual races are more important.

A lot of elite racers have rigs or climbing holds at home – do you have any to practise?
I have one campus board at home, but my boyfriend uses it more than I do! I like to go to the gym or climbing centre to workout. But I like having it at home so I can train if I want to.

Your upper body strength is awesome. What kind of strength training do you do?
During off-season, November-April, I do classic gym training and/or crossfit once a week to build strength, and I climb once a week. At the gym I do exercises like bench press, pull-ups, dips, shoulder press and so on. During the season I try to do more bodyweight-only exercises like pull-ups, dips muscle-ups and climbing.

Gothenburg, where you live, is pretty flat. How do you train for elevation?
Yes, it’s pretty flat. During all my distance sessions I try to run in hilly terrain – the hills we do have! Then I still snowboard a lot during the winter, so I run in the morning in the mountains and snowboard in the afternoon, or the other way around. Also during vacations I travel to mountains to run and hike; I got my boyfriend involved in my passion.

How do you balance running with other OCR disciplines such as strength and grip strength?
My main focus is running so that always comes first in training. But I try to do one strength and one climbing/grip strength session a week as well. I try to organise my training according to how my week looks like with work, travel and family.

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Your grip strength is obviously very strong. Do you still take time to train it?
It can never be too strong. I work with my hands and forearms as an osteopath so I try not to train it to much due to the risk of overuse injury. My favourite exercises for improving grip strength are:

  1. Climbing! It’s fun, social and easy to do at all levels.
  2. Different pull-ups and toes-to-bar. All strength exercises really, where you need to hold on to something using your grip.
  3. Different hangs: dead hangs, locked hangs using different objects: bars, rings, nunchucks and so on.

Do you wear gloves to compete?
When it’s raining and I know it will be slippery, I do. I think it helps the grip a lot.

Do you do any plyometrics work in your training, such as box jumps or other jumps?
Not so much because it takes longer to recover than I usually give my body, so the risk of overuse injury becomes high. Also I don’t feel that I need to do it that much, but I try to do it once in a while.

Do you ever train specifically to improve your balance?
Not really as a goal to why I do stuff, but it’s a big part of a lot of activities I do. I slackline maybe 1-2 times a month, but more as a social, fun, in-between-training activity. I love to be outdoors and play around. Snowboarding demands really good balance as well.

Photo Credit: Jacques Holst

What kind of running do you tend to do and how far do you run each week?
Around 40-60km a week. I mix it up a lot since the races I run are very different from one another. I tend to focus on longer intervals since that’s my weakness, but I also do shorter ones – hills and so on.  I do 1-2 intervals a week, one long run and 2-3 sessions in distance pace, mostly in hilly terrain. I rarely ever train on tarmac; most runs I do are on terrain or dirt roads.

What’s a typical week of training look like for you?
Right now I travel and train very irregularly but sort of like this:

Monday: High intensity strength training.
Tuesday: Distance running 10-15km. Climbing/grip-strength and core workout.
Wednesday: Flat-intervals. Mobility.
Thursday: REST
Friday: Distance running 10-15km.
Saturday: Longer intervals or hill intervals. Core workout
Sunday: Long run 15-20km or 90-180 minutes. Mobility

Every day I also ride my bike about 10-20km and walk my dog.

What do you usually have for breakfast before a race and how do you fuel your events?
Eggs, bread (or porridge), avocado, spinach, juice and coffee for breakfast. Usually when I run races under 10km, I don’t eat anything during the race. When I run longer than that, like the OCRWC, I eat gels. During training I usually bring a banana or a bar when the run is likely to be longer than 2 hours.

Do you get nervous before obstacle course races?
I get really nervous, always. I try not to get stressed about it, rather I like to think that it’s there to get me focused, ready and pumped up. So I try to think positive and use it to my advantage. No real rituals, just trying to stay calm, positive and to warm-up properly. In the past I had the tendency to not warm-up properly because I was too nervous to think.

Obstacles are your strength. Do you have a favourite?
I love obstacles where you swing and use your momentum, like rings and monkey-bars. Also obstacles like Platinum Rigs or traverse-walls where you need to find your way when you’re on the obstacles – problem solving in a way. The salmon-ladder has become a favourite as well. After looking at it for two years without trying, it’s a really cool feeling to complete it in a race.

Carry obstacles aren’t really a favourite. At Toughest races the carry obstacles aren’t that long, more fast and explosive, so I’ve trained for that, but can always do it more. Other than that I like obstacles!

Are you quite a high-energy person or are there times you don’t feel like training?
I think I’m both. There are definitely times where I don’t feel like doing the hard work. Then I try to think of why I feel that way. If it’s due to a lot of training lately I try to listen to the signals and take an extra rest day. Sometimes it’s just due to lack of motivation, then I try to figure out what I need to do to get motivated. Most often the company of a friend will solve that problem and with friends I can really be that annoying energetic person!

On your social media you post a lot of mobility work. Is this an important part of your training?
Yes and no. I do it after or the day after a hard strength or interval session to loosen my body up. I also do it at work when I need to get up and get moving; it’s a nice way to get the circulation going in my body. And of course I do it to maintain my flexibility. Also it’s educational for me in my work.

What are your goals for 2017?
After last year’s season I sat down thinking of what really made me happy about the season. Was it all the podiums or what was it that made it so much fun!? I realized that, yes, the podiums are a big motivator but it isn’t what makes me happy in the end. What makes me happy is to go out there and really do my best, have fun during training, competitions and meeting all the amazing people on the way. With that, good results will come naturally, but winning is far from my main goal. I can only affect my own training and competitions, and me winning is, whether I like it or not, dependent on the other girls’ performance. So goals for 2017: go out there, do my very best and have fun while doing it.

Have you any tips for completing the final ramp at Toughest?!
Try to run for as long as you can. Many people – including myself when I fail it – try to jump the last part up to the edge, but it’s so much better to try to run for as long as you can before reaching for it.

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What are your favourite can’t-live-without items of kit for training and racing?
I love that you don’t need that much kit in obstacle racing, but also that it makes you choose carefully. VJSportshoes have the best grip out there and are really comfortable as well. My Garmin watch to calculate how far I’ve run, how many metres of elevation, pulse and so on. The weather isn’t the best here in Gothenburg, so a thin wind jacket that I can bring in my waist belt or bag pack from WearColour is a must. When sunny outside I need my radar sunglasses from Oakley. Also, not to forget, a great pair of sports socks to avoid blisters. I use socks for cyclists from VOID cycling – they’re a bit higher at the ankle and stay in place.

Racing and training can be expensive – who are your sponsors?
Main sponsors are Garmin and WearColour, without them I would not be able to compete at all.

Also Toughest race, VjSportshoes, HokaOneOne, Void Cycling, Oakley, Aktivitus, Brucepass, MikesGymMarbella are important sponsors to me.

Keep up with Karin’s OCR training and obstacle course racing via her social media accounts: and