Does rock climbing shape your body better than mountain biking? Are surfers fitter than snowboarders? We take a fistful of freesports and find out which one really is best for your body.
Words by Anna Lawlor
It’s an on-going debate in the Cooler office. Which action sports are best for your body? So, to settle the argument of which sport gets you fittest fastest, we asked four professional athletes from four different disciplines to take our test, feel the burn and sweat it out in a bid to uncover which action sport rules supreme.
Our prestigious line-up included six-time British climbing Champion Lucy Creamer, number one world-ranking downhill mountain biker Tracy Moseley, premiere snowboarder Gilly Seagrave and all-round action woman and international surfer Kim Johnson.
Why fitness test?
Professional athletes and their trainers often use fitness tests to asses the competitors strengths and weaknesses, highlight areas for improvement, set attainable goals in specific areas and monitor performance throughout the competitive season.
Our expert for the challenge is Paul Firth, a member of the British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences with 13 years of fitness industry experience and presently a level 3 advanced instructor specialising in cardiac rehabilitation. Paul assisted in the preparation and analysis of the Cooler Fitness Challenge but warns about complications arising from cross-comparing sports.
‘Given the reasons why we test in the first place, it’s clear to see that the more specific the test is to the sport, the more accurate information we’ll gather,’ he says. ‘As an extreme example, an Olympic weight lifter would be expected to perform extremely poorly in the Cooper run, probably worse than the average sedentary non- athlete. Do we need a test to tell us that a weightlifter is a rubbish runner?
‘The demands for each sport are totally different, even in sports that seem similar such as field sports (football, rugby, hockey etc). Football defenders have a different run profile to midfielders. Some of the tests chosen for the Cooler Challenge will favour certain individuals. Upper body tests are likely to favour the climber, however the push-up movement and muscles involved is not involved in climbing, so she may under-perform. A chin-up would be a more specific test for climbing. Specificity is the key for athletes in the same sport, yet alone comparing those in different sports.’
There are hundreds of standard fitness tests and many variations. They range from elaborate laboratory tests with participants hooked up to specialist equipment, to inexpensive ‘field’ tests that can be taken by anyone, regardless of experience, and give a less detailed but still a strong guide to fitness levels.
Control factors are the mechanisms used to levy the playing field, to iron out any discrepancies in the way the tests are conducted, which could affect the test results and invalidate any comparisons. These include a difference in warm-up routine, nutritional status and weather conditions, which may harbour different results between the athletes than if they had been tested uniformly, in the same place, at the same time, under the same supervision. With our chosen athletes busy competing around the world, the uniform approach was not possible. However, these standardised test results will still provide a fundamental demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses and overall fitness of each.
The Cooler Fitness Challenge
Our Top Gun athletes slogged it out through the Cooper Endurance test (a 12 minute run or swim to record the distance travelled in that time); the Chinese push-up/Core Strength and Stability test; the Stork balance test for equilibrium; the Stamina Step test and a host of upper and lower body strength and flexibility trials.
Let’s hope that Downhill mountain biker Tracy Moseley had her Shredded Wheat before the test as all of the competitors had her pegged as the fittest, while Tracy modestly opted to back snowboarder Gilly Seagrave.
‘I skate and snowboard too and I think surfing is more physical than those two,’ says Surfer Kim Johnson. ‘I reckon the climber will score high on the upper body strength but mountain bikers are so hardcore, I think they’ll win it.’
Climber Lucy Creamer agreed: ‘Downhill mountain bikers have awesome cardiovascular fitness and they also need really strong upper bodies to take the hits and last the course, so I’d back Tracy.’
‘I’ve heard that Tracy is really good and mountain biking is so demanding on the body, I’d expect her to be really fit,’ added snowboarder Gilly. ‘In comparison, I think snowboarding can be quite lazy.’
Contrary to our athletes’ predictions, expert Paul Firth puts his money on the surfer, closely followed by the snowboarder, then the climber, and last the mountain biker. ‘I think the tests chosen suit this sport,’ he confided.
Discipline: Downhill Mountain Biking
Achievements: World Number One; 2nd in the World Cup Series 2005
Weight: 12 stone
Height: 5” 5’
Sponsors: Kona, Oakley and Power Bar
Fitness facts: Tracy has been a competitive downhill mountain biker for 10 years, five years full-time. She keeps herself toned and honed for competition by doing a mix of sports, including running, indoor rock climbing, playing netball and training at the gym, in addition to six hours a week cross country mountain biking.
‘I’ve recently started working with a one-to-one personal trainer and I’m getting much more out of my training sessions by having some-one there to motivate me,’ she says. ‘In the gym I do a lot of work with weights on an unstable base because I need to be strong when the bike is moving around underneath me. I do core training and try to improve upper body strength as my legs get a good workout from riding.’
Tracy may be a model fitness pupil now, but her dedication to non-bike orientated workouts hasn’t always been so commendable. ‘From age15 and through my University years I got away with riding at weekends, turning up to competitions and just winning them. But as I get older I’ve found it harder for me to do that, to bounce back from knocks and crashes, longer to recover physically from races. I’ve really had to put the effort in just to maintain where I was a few years ago,’ she confesses.
Tracy now keeps her body primed for competition but acknowledges there’s more to winning than fitness alone. ‘The thing that sets me apart isn’t my fitness, it’s my skill. You can be the fittest athlete out there but if you can’t memorise the downhill ‘line’ and handle the bike and pressure of a one-off race, then your fitness won’t get you anywhere.’
The Cooler Fitness Challenge
‘It was an interesting test. I’m not much of a runner and that absolutely killed me! Mountain bikers have got to be pretty strong all over to control a bike that’s moving all over the place at those speeds, so I think I’ll do alright on the strength tests.’
Top Training Tip:
‘Variety is the key for me. Don’t just have a mundane routine that you have to do every week, do something that motivates you, that you enjoy and look forward to, otherwise you just won’t stick to it.’
Achievements: 3rd place at the British National Championships 2005; 6th place on British Professional Surf Association Tour (International Open); recognition as a Big Wave-charger
Weight: 8.45 st
Height: 5” 4’
Sponsors: Gallaz, Dreamsessions Surfboards, Xcel Wetsuits, Ocean and Earth Accessories, Dirty Dog Sunglasses
Fitness facts: An accomplished surfer on the international circuit, Kim is also a PADI-qualified Open Water scuba diving instructor, skateboards, snowboards, beach-ball competitor, contestant at the Royal International Horse Show and Horse of the Year Show (three times!).
With such a hectic lifestyle, Kim’s pleased her training isn’t a strain. ‘Surfing to me is never training. I love it so I would paddle against a rip for two hours just to catch a wave. Surfing’s the best training for your whole body. In the winter it’s even better for fitness, as your body has to work twice as hard in the cold!’
On average, Kim spends between four and 28 hours surfing each week, and in addition skateboards, runs and practices gymnastics each week as part of her fitness regime.
I am naturally flexible from doing gymnastics from an early age. I do yoga before surfing and it really helps me focus. I’m really dedicated to being fit in the competition season, as I love to paddle out and charge big waves.’
The Cooler Fitness Challenge
‘I never really measure my fitness,’ admits Kim, ‘but maybe I will now. I hated the sit-ups as surfers have pretty weak abdominal muscles. Cardio fitness is important for paddling out and duck-diving etc, so running (the Cooper test) is great for that.’
Top Training Tip:
‘Swimming helps you hold your breath for longer under water and helps you relax. The biggest thing is to enjoy surfing as it’s great fun at whatever standard you are, just never stop learning new things. When you master one thing you always want more.’
Discipline: Rock climbing
Achievements: Six-time British Champion (including 2005); Highest-level female on-site ascent climber (E7) in the UK and on parallel with the top male on-site ascent climbers.
Weight: 8st 3lbs
Height: 5” 2’
Sponsors: Scarpa-grivel and Petzl-beal
Fitness Facts: Lucy is a well-established and respected international climber, taking her place not just at the top of the female rock-climbing podium but also alongside the leading male climbers in one of the most extreme areas of the sport.
On-Site Ascent climbing is where a climber tackles a very challenging route up an outdoor rock face, ascending with no prior knowledge or reconnaissance. They make their own safety holds as they ascend. There are no back-up safety measures. Many routes take between three and ten hours. Muscle endurance, confidence and skill are key. There’s no room for error.
If this weren’t impressive enough, Lucy climbs mountain faces considered to be E7; the most endurance-demanding and the highest level of outdoor rock climbing attainable.
However, Lucy is quick to reassure beginners. ‘Climbing does have a reputation with women that to get started you have to be able to lift your body weight,’ she says. ‘It isn’t true but it does tend to put them off. Sports like snowboarding have quite a painful learning process, but with climbing that doesn’t happen. You can really improve through the sport quite quickly and get a holistic body workout at the same time.
‘I tend to train in the autumn and winter when the weather’s bad, and climb throughout the summer. I concentrate on lifting weights, paying particular attention to my antagonistic muscles (supporting muscles), like my triceps and lower abdomen. Climbers tend to have stronger upper bodies with lean muscle coverage but if you work on strengthening your legs and antagonistic muscles, that combination gives you a double-edge when you are out there climbing.’
The Cooler Fitness Challenge
‘Climbing isn’t like surfing and snowboarding, which require cardiovascular endurance. Climbers tend to have greater upper body and core strength, so I anticipate that I’ll do well at the Chinese push-up test and that sort of thing but not very well at the Cooper test,’ she says.
Top Training Tip:
‘Find a routine that you enjoy. It’s really rewarding to feel an improvement when you are at the gym and know that you can put that to practice when you next get out to climb. I keep my mind on the routes that I have coming up and the routes that I most want to conquer.’
Achievements: Founder of the all-girls snowboard camp, Our Camp (see p114); top 3 British Championship ranking; 7th at O’Neill International Open.
Weight: 8.6 st
Height: 5” 8’
Sponsors: Gallaz, Addidas, Protest boardwear, Atomic, Two Seasons, Eka.
Fitness Facts: Gilly has been snowboarding for 10 years, competitively for the last five. She favours Slopestyle and Big Air contests (tricks and rails).
‘When I get into the gym I tend to become quite addicted to it, I really enjoy it. But now I’ve got my own company (beanie company Eka) and cash is tighter, gym membership is the first thing to go. I do have quite an active lifestyle – I don’t drink, I cycle rather than drive, I practice yoga and I surf during the summer when I’m not snowboarding – but the fitness test results are purely from snowboarding.’
Surrounding herself each day with some of the hottest female competitors is paying dividends. ‘We have a good girl crew and set each other targets each day and we don’t go home until we’ve achieved that, even if we’re freezing cold. It seems to work and it’s a great way to get you out of your comfort zone.’
The Cooler Fitness Challenge
‘I’m not much of a stamina girl. The Cooper test was horrible. I was pleased with the Chinese push-up (core strength test) because I didn’t think I’d make it through that at all. The trunk flexibility test was easy bit I think I have a competitive edge since an old snowboard injury has damaged two of my vertebrae, which happen to over-extend arching my back that way [leaning back] but under-extend the other way [leaning forwards]. ‘The hardest tests are the ones in which you have to hold a position for an unspecified amount of time because you always wonder if you could have pushed yourself that bit harder.’
Top Training Tip:
‘For snowboarding, concentrate on the lower body and core strength exercises. Cardio can help but it depends whether you’re charging around the mountain, pushing yourself or just taking the easy lines down.’
The Cooler Fitness Challenge: Results
CORE STRENGTH TEST/CHINESE PUSH-UP (level held)
- mountain biker: 5
- surfer: 7
- climber: 7
- snowboarder: 7
STEP TEST (resting bpm / after step bpm)
- mountain biker: 44 / 138
- surfer: 71 / 118
- climber: 67 / 126
- snowboarder: 80 / 100
COOPER ENDURANCE RUNNING TEST (distance in kms)
- mountain biker: 2.33
- surfer: 3.05
- climber: 5.3 (swim)
- snowboarder: 2.5
TRUNK FLEXIBILITY TEST (distance in inches)
- mountain biker: 23.5
- surfer: 23.25
- climber: 20
- snowboarder: 29.53
LONG JUMP TEST (distance in inches)
- mountain biker: 84
- surfer: 81.2
- climber: 80.03
- snowboarder: 54
STORK BALANCE TEST (seconds held)
- mountain biker: 26
- surfer: 74
- climber: 47
- snowboarder: 41
ABS TEST (sit ups)
- mountain biker: 62
- surfer: 28
- climber: 54
- snowboarder: 50
UPPER BODY TEST (push ups)
- mountain biker: 38
- surfer: 45
- climber: 47.5
- snowboarder: 53
So who performed the best? We asked fitness expert Paul Firth to interpret the results.
Mountain biker: ‘Obvious strengths are maximum leg power and abdominal endurance,’ says fitness expert Paul Firth. ‘If the resting heart rate is accurate, she also seems to have to best cardiovascular fitness. A weakness seems to be balance but as this is a standing test and she is seated for the majority of her event, I wouldn’t read too much into this.’
Surfer: ‘She did well in both endurance tests and trounced the competition in the balance test,’ says Firth. ‘Compared to the others, she was poor in abs endurance. I can only think that she was distracted by a surf dude, as there’s no reason for why she was so far behind in this test.”
Climber: ‘She did pretty well in everything,’ praises Firth. ‘I would query the distance she covered in the Cooper test, notably she swam rather than ran, as the male world record is for 1500m over 14 mins. She did three times this in 12 mins; doing the wrong sport, I think!’
Snowboarder: ‘Like the surfer, she did well in both endurance tests and muscular endurance,’ explains Firth. ‘Also seems very flexible, perhaps from doing tricks over jumps. Way behind in the long jump, although I very much doubt her legs are so weak compared to the others.’
The Cooper run didn’t favour any of our athletes. ‘Because the competitive element of these selected sports does not last this long, the results for this test would come down to additional training,’ adds Firth.
If you take the scores as means (or averages), climber Lucy Creamer scored most consistently and could be argued to be the fittest all-rounder. ‘But,’ acknowledges Paul, ‘in sport, first place is where it’s at. The snowboarder, Gilly Seagrave, came top in half of the events and so would win Gold in the Cooler Fitness Challenge. ‘All the participants won at least one test and all showed strong performances in the areas of fitness most required in their sports. This clearly demonstrates that the type of tests chosen reflect in the results received, although just looking at the sit-up test, all of the athletes would be considered in the excellent/elite category in the scientific tables and I’m sure it would be the same for the other tests too,’ adds Firth.