LAHTI, FINLAND - FEBRUARY 23: (L-R) Bronze medalist Kikkan Randall of the United States and silver medalist Jessica Diggins of the United States celebrate following the Women's 1.4KM Cross Country Sprint final on February 23, 2017 in Lahti, Finland. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

6 Sports That Give You the Best Workout

You may be sore afterwards, but the endurance boost from these sports will be worth the pain.
November 17, 2017
8 mins read

Looking for a new, challenging sport to try out? Even if you don’t have access to snow, a gym, an ice rink or a swimming pool, you can still watch the professionals attempt some of the toughest sports in the world at the Olympics or at national championships.

You have probably heard of all six of these sports, but what you may not know is that each of them will give you the best workout of your life by working every muscle in your body and, in some cases, requiring considerable brain power and dramatic performance.

1. Nordic skiing

Ranked the toughest outdoor sport by Outside Online, Nordic skiing, also known as cross-country skiing, allows athletes to work every part of the body, including the brain. Mastering the sport takes time, since you have to learn two types of skiing — classic and skate — and a slew of techniques for each, and even once you reach a pro level, Nordic requires intense concentration.

The correct technique to use changes based on the terrain, the consistency of the snow and the way your body feels on any given day; half the challenge of the sport is deciding how to subtly change the way you ski to optimize your use of your strength and the trail conditions to preserve your energy while maintaining a fast pace.

You would be hard-pressed to find a muscle that Nordic doesn’t work out. Core, quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, shoulders, biceps and triceps—if you are trying this sport for the first time, don’t be surprised if you wake up aching from head to toe the next day.

2. Bouldering

Rock climbing is a tough enough sport, but eliminate the ropes and the safety they provide and you get bouldering, an incredibly difficult sport with the added risk of serious injury by falling. If you are looking to try out bouldering without the fear of splatting on the rocks below, most climbing gyms —or even college recreation centers — feature a bouldering wall where you can practice with a thick mat beneath you to soften your inevitable fall.

Bouldering works your lats, biceps, forearms and calves — pretty much everything. The added element of puzzling out where your next handhold or foothold will be increases the difficulty of the sport and adds the brain to the list of body parts that benefit from bouldering.

3. Swimming

Another full-body sport, swimming is perfect for people who have struggled with impact injuries, since it eliminates any impact on knees, shins and feet. Runners with stress fractures, shin splints, planter fasciitis or other injuries often swim to maintain their strength while allowing their body to mend. Whether you’re using it as recovery or as your go-to sport, swimming is great exercise, working your core, shoulders, forearms, gluts, hamstrings and back.

In addition to the obvious physical strength and endurance required to race through the water, swimming is a year-round sport; whereas some of the other sports in this list may be limited by weather or seasons, swimming needs only an indoor pool for practicing. While this may be a good thing if you are planning on dipping your toe into the sport, swimmers who have been training for years can likely attest to the struggles of rarely getting a break.

4. Figure skating

Besides the obvious difficulties of perfectly landing a triple jump and executing flawless spins while balancing on one thin blade on slippery ice, figure skating carries an element of performance as well. The gorgeous costumes and makeup, the choreography, the exaggerated, dramatic movements and the necessity of playing along with the mood of the music that accompanies the routine combined with the physical trials of figure skating create a ridiculously difficult sport. Of course the right equipment plays a big in making this happen — just take a look at the Sparx hockey home sharpener, which is a serious piece of gear.

Figure skating works all your muscles and is a good workout, but the time it takes to train for the sport, as well as the risk of falling and getting seriously injured, are admittedly off-putting. However, the elegance of a graceful, well-choreographed and well-executed routine is beautiful to watch, and if you have the dedication to train your way to the upper reaches of the 10 freestyle levels of figure skating, I imagine it would be even more satisfying to perform.

5. Gymnastics        

Anyone who has watched Simone Biles’ 2016 gold medal-winning floor routine has some inkling of how demanding gymnastics is. Similar to figure skating, it requires incredible agility, flexibility, stamina, balance, muscle mass — the list goes on. It gives every muscle a workout, and like figure skating, it adds a dramatic element, requiring a big smile through even the toughest moves.

Some of the best gymnasts make the sport look easy, as if they are weightlessly sailing through the air, but the amazing strength it takes to be good at gymnastics causes it to rank among the most challenging sports. If you are someone who attempts gymnastics rather than watching slack-jawed as Olympians wow the crowd, kudos to you, you brave, elegant soul.

6. Triathlon

Although not technically a single sport in itself, a triathlon is the ultimate combination of endurance sports. Swimming works your upper body, and biking and running work your legs, while training for all three activities together is an unparalleled cardio workout, forcing you to build the strength and endurance necessary to compete in a triathlon.

The longest and perhaps most well known triathlon, the Ironman, consists of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running. Imagine running a marathon after swimming the equivalent of the length of an Olympic pool seventy-seven times and biking the equivalent of the distance between Manhattan and Philadelphia. No wonder triathlons are a tough workout.

Whether you are looking for a good workout or a new, exciting sport to watch, these six are some of the toughest sports out there. Entertaining and satisfyingly challenging to participate in, each of these sports works most or all of your muscles, allowing you to bundle several types of workouts into one and build your endurance and muscle mass while learning a fun new activity.

Kathleen Danielson, Carleton College

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Kathleen Danielson

Carleton College

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