Sunday 18 February 2018

'Working out should be a health goal'

When Ornagh Lee rediscovered her childhood gymnastics passion through CrossFit, the 30-year-old felt she had found a playground for adults. She tells our reporter about coming back from injury, and why exercise for her is more than a six-pack

Life-long gymnast Ornagh Lee. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan.
Life-long gymnast Ornagh Lee. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan.
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

If you are in the market for a little fitness inspiration, then look no further than CrossFit and Gymnastics coach Ornagh Lee's Instagram account @ornagh_morechalk, which provides a dizzying array of bendy contortions. However, it's not as easy as it looks, many of these poses take years of training and require huge strength, flexibility and practice.

"People look at the images and sometimes they don't understand the amount of training that goes into those small movements," Ornagh (30) from Firhouse, Dublin explains.

"I train my wrists with strengthening exercises and mobility exercises - a lot of the stretching in the same way as you might if you were training to do the splits.

"So I will do push-ups in certain positions, for example with my palms facing up or hang from a bar in a false grip position, lots of different movements to get the wrists as strong as possible," she continues.

"People will often come to me to learn how to do muscle-ups and a lot of the time what has been hindering them is their wrist mobility and strength."

Mobility has always been of huge importance to Ornagh as a lifelong gymnast. However, following a shoulder injury last year, which put an end to her days competing as a CrossFit athlete, it has become an even greater priority.

"Mobility is such an important element in fitness and it's something that we focus on when people come in initially" Ornagh says.

"We spend a lot of time concentrating on movement, basic gymnastics and mobility and would incorporate that into every class and encourage everybody to try and do extra mobility work whenever they can," Ornagh explains.

"For example, if we have an athlete who struggles with maybe tight hips or bad ankles, we will give them their own accessory piece that they can do before and after class to ensure progress because without working those aspects everything else is just a waste of time.

"If you are trying to work up to maybe a 100kg back squat, but you are struggling to get below parallel position and you are falling forward, there is no point; so you have to go back and make sure that you have a great air squat position first and then start worrying about the weight."

Ornagh discovered CrossFit in her mid-20s while living in Arizona.

"As a child I did gymnastics until I was about 13 and that was my main sport and as a teenager I was always into fitness and would have been very into the gym, but it wasn't until I was living in Arizona for a couple of years ago that I found CrossFit," she explains.

"I just thought it was amazing because it was the first thing I had ever found that was like gymnastics for adults; it includes everything: weightlifting, gymnastics, cardio - all strength and conditioning stuff and the minute I knew I could do gymnastics, it was an adult playground to me," Ornagh laughs.

"So I got really into CrossFit for two years and the community aspect of it is really cool too, so when I came home I found a CrossFit box and I started coaching there and doing my gymnastics class out of that."

CrossFit was very new to Ireland at this point, however, Ornagh's gymnastics history and CrossFit experience led to her becoming one of Ireland's most widely recognised experts in the field. These days, Ornagh is a full-time coach at CrossFit Green in Sandyford, where she runs specialist gymnastics classes. Ornagh also travels throughout Europe as a member of the CrossFit gymnastics seminar staff and runs her own gymnastics workshops around Ireland called More Chalk.

"I did a little bit of competing in gymnastics when I was younger, but competitive gymnastics is extremely time consuming; you need a lot of dedication, which I would have given, but it is a family commitment too and you need parents who can spend that much time with you, so I did as much as I could do," Ornagh says.

"I did a couple of CrossFit competitions in more recent years and I love team stuff, so the goal before I got injured last year was to get on a team, but that plan didn't happen for me and now I am happy to focus on my coaching and my personal health and fitness.

"I think I am going to take the competitive side out of it and work on just being healthy now."

In her CrossFit competing days, Ornagh was putting in workouts of up to five hours a day, so taking a step back from training over the last few months has been a huge learning curve.

"My training schedule has changed a lot," Ornagh smiles. "Previously I was obviously training to compete in CrossFit, so I was doing a lot, maybe four or five hours a day with a morning and evening session that would have involved a lot of strength work, skills and a lot of cardio, but the shoulder injury put an end to that and I had to take my training right back.

"I was off for about six months. I had to rest completely as I had shoulder bursitis from overworking it. So I am only really back to my training now and I am taking it very easy and just really focusing on my mobility and flexibility with a lot of yoga too, just really getting my body conditioned and flexible again.

"I'm building slowly back up now. I am not lifting things overhead, but my gymnastics is still pretty strong."

Ornagh has also had to alter her approach to nutrition in recent months.

"Nutrition has been interesting for me over the last while," she says. "I have never had a huge appetite, but before I was injured I could afford to eat whatever I wanted to eat. I always eat pretty healthy, but have got an extreme sweet tooth.

"I have to have dessert every night, so that was the hardest part for me when I wasn't training because I was gradually noticing changes in my body, so I had to cut back and eliminate things like bread and the main thing for me was my sugar intake.

"Now I won't have a cup of tea because I would have about three sugars in it, so I will have to have a green tea instead, and whereas before I might have had a flat white, now I am having an Americano," Ornagh explains.

But aside from a few sugary treats, Ornagh's overall approach is to eat as much unprocessed and homemade food as possible.

"Nutrition is actually pretty standard, it's not that complicated," Ornagh explains. "If you are eating fresh food and meat, keeping your grains to a minimum, your sugar intake low and getting your carbs in when you need them, then you should be good to go. So I don't have a crazy diet plan, I just try to be healthy and keep my body functioning.

"For me, how my body looked was only ever a result of what my body could do," Ornagh adds. "Some people tend to become a little bit obsessed when they start seeing results and it can take over.

"So it is very important to find balance and to remember that the reason you are working out is to be healthy and the reason your body might look a certain way is because you are healthy now. It should be an overall fitness and health goal, as opposed to doing something every day simply because you want a six-pack."

Ornagh's top 5 fitness tips

1 Start with a healthy balanced diet first - protein, carbs and fats. So many people under eat and then start crazy training. Your body needs fuel to run.

2 Set realistic goals and don't expect instant gratification. Start to love what your body is capable of. This is a journey, so enjoy the ride.

3 Weight training is a valuable part of exercise. It's not just about the hustle of cardio. Weight training is what will give you that lean defined look and will make you stronger.

4 Stretch! Mobility and flexibility helps your body run a lot smoother and will help in all aspects of fitness training and life.

5 Recovery is just as important as everything else. Eight hours of sleep a night, plenty of water and fish oils will make you feel brand new for your next training session.

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