The greatest fat-torching outdoor workouts of all time
After a dark and cold winter, the fluorescent-lit gym starts to feel as drab and stuffy as a fluorescent-lit cubicle, and the old routines of arm day and leg day and ab day just aren’t cutting it. Ditch the racks and benches and venture outdoors into the sunshine. Your bleary eyes will find life’s better with the wind in your hair, the sun on your back, and the world zipping past.
We’ve ranked the top outdoor sports—mountain biking, trail running, open-water swimming, obstacle-course racing, road cycling, and rock climbing—based on exercise efficacy, calories burned, cost of gear, availability, and risk factor to see which one offers the most burn for your buck. So go ahead and take your fitness to the next level while communing with nature. The outdoors awaits. Go work it.
For a lot of guys, “mountain biking” conjures up images of adrenaline junkies in full-face helmets rocketing down white-knuckled descents and hucking themselves off cliffs à la Red Bull Rampage. “It’s not necessarily gnarly,” says seven-time world champion endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch. “It’s like skiing, where you can choose a green, blue, or black trail depending on your skill level.” For her, mountain biking is all about leaving the road behind and exploring. “It’s easy to say, ‘I want to see what’s over that hill’ or ‘I’ve never been in that valley over there, so I think I’ll check it out.’ I really like the distance you can cover on a bike; you see so much more.”
What it works: “Endurance—heart and lungs—is something people in the gym neglect,” says Rusch. Dirt riding hits more than just legs. “If you’re riding really technical trails, it’s a ton of upper body, core, and midsection.”
Calorie burn: 694 per hour
Pros: Besides for the downhill bits, mountain biking, done right, is low-impact. If there’s an obstruction like a large rock, you can get off your bike, walk around it, and keep going. It’s also mentally engaging “because you’re constantly looking ahead and making choices about picking a line, standing or sitting, and shifting gears.”
Cons: Your ass will probably hurt from rattling over roots and rocks, so stand up in the pedals when riding through obstacles to spare yourself some of the beating.
The whole world melts away when you’re high up on a rock face, with nothing between you and the deck but 10mm of rope and your grip on the rock. And that’s what’s beautiful about rock climbing: There are no full-length mirrors, no babes to impress, and—thank God—no Nickelback looping over a sound system. It’s just you, your partner, the route, and, in many cases, killer views. “I love the individual challenge,” says Kris Peters, who’s made a name for himself training world-renowned rock climbers like Daniel Woods and Emily Harrington. “It’s you against the rock up there, and it’s an incredibly self-satisfying feeling when you complete something you’ve worked so hard for.” To get started, find a guide and take a class or two that’ll get you up on real rock on Day 1 and give you a feel for the sport. If it suits you, get more practice at a climbing gym and, in the process, look for a more experienced partner who’ll literally show you the ropes.
What it works: “Climbing is a very upper-body-dominant sport—grip strength, finger strength, pulling strength from your lats,” says Peters, whose Black Mountain Training specializes in climbing- and mountaineering-specific strength. “The three biggest muscle groups that are going to get worked are biceps, lats, and forearms.”
Calorie burn: 837 per hour
Pros: Climb enough, and your upper body will be rock hard, as if it, too, were chiseled from stone. Because of the intense mental focus and physical effort it requires, climbing is almost like a workout combined with meditation. You clear your head and work the route, and when it’s done you’ve accomplished something incredible while getting ripped.
Cons: “On outdoor rock, you’re always going to need a climbing partner and a ton of gear,” says Peters. “And the gear is wicked expensive.” And unlike running or, say, riding a bike, it takes a serious time investment to learn the sport and get started. Plus, access to outdoor rock is quite limited. “That’s why a lot of people go to the gym—all you need is your harness and your shoes, since most gyms already have a belay device, ropes, and everything else you need.” Also, lots of climbers have skinny legs for a reason (the greater your leg mass, the greater the hindrance it has on steeper climbs; you’re hauling your own body weight after all). And then there’s the considerable fear factor of dangling from a rope high off the ground. Try to remember that climbing is a technical sport—dependent on strong ropes that are anchored to a system that will support your fall—and not a risky one, so long as you climb within your limits and, most important, follow safety protocols.
We’ve all heard what a great fat-burning exercise swimming is, but most of it happens in the pool, where swimming endlessly back and forth, focused on lane patterns, is even more monotonous than the treadmill. Taking the swim outside lets you actually get somewhere—like across a lake or river or bay—and environmental factors add challenge, not to mention the “no turning back” motivational approach, to the workout.
What it works: Each stroke in the water works your shoulders and upper back, while pulling the water hits your lats and triceps hard. Don’t forget the hamstrings, quads, and glutes, which are largely responsible for your kick. And, because you need to practice breath control while working major muscle groups, it’s a hell of an aerobic exercise that can leave your muscles and lungs screaming.
Calorie burn: 694 per hour
Pros: “Swimming is a full-body workout,” San Diego-based triathlon swim coach Kevin Koskella says, “without the pounding of running or the danger of cycling with traffic.” It’s a long, steady swim since “you don’t get that flip turn every 25 or 50 meters where you can push off the wall and glide.” You also won’t send your heart rate as high as running, which means it’s even better for burning fat.
Cons: Even Koskella felt like a fish out of water when he first started open-water swimming. “There are so many more elements out there,” he says. “You don’t have walls or lane lines to follow. And you usually can’t see what’s below you, either, so the fear of the unknown is a big factor.” Ocean currents and riptides can come into play depending on your local geography, so be sure to educate yourself before heading out. There’s a lot more to get used to—navigating by sight, lengthening your stroke to conserve energy, breathing more efficiently, and calming your nerves—but that comes with practice. “Get into a breathing pattern you’re comfortable with and focus on counting your strokes,” Koskella advises, “which will put your mind in a meditative state as you swim