Thursday, June 20, 2024

Professionals find their competitive streak in group fitness challenges

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Electronic dance music reverberates across the vast room as competitors run around the perimeter, faces rigid with determination and fatigue. Others push heavy sleds, lunge with sandbags across their shoulders and throw weighted balls. “Manchester, make some noise!” shouts an MC over the loudspeakers. Spectators cheer.

This is Hyrox, a fitness competition that drew 7,500 participants to an exhibition centre in the northern English city over a January weekend. The latest group exercise combining cardio and strength has become popular among professionals and a new generation of chief executives keen to promote a clean lifestyle and instil healthy competition among employees.

Looking on nervously is Mike, a 48-year-old airline pilot from Cheltenham, hoping to complete his first Hyrox course in under 70 minutes — 22 minutes faster than the average, and far quicker than the slowest of more than four hours. Despite Mike’s flying schedule, he is pleased to have kept up his training, completing a solid workout in Chennai a few days before. His friend, Chris, a company director, says it has helped him recalibrate his life. “I got into fitness again after focusing on my career.”

Another participant waiting for the doubles event is Michael Murray, chief executive of UK retail group Frasers and son-in-law of Mike Ashley, the company’s founder. After his first Hyrox in May last year, Murray now sees it as underpinning his business performance. “I was bored of just training and had . . . no real goals.” His trainer suggested Hyrox. “I like achievements . . . I like having a path to success.” He trains for one hour a day, usually at 6.30am. The morning of the competition he did “a nice little smooth run, [to] freshen my mind, so I can think”.

Such sporting commitment — Murray later completes the Manchester doubles event in 58.01 — marks a change from Ashley, his predecessor as Frasers CEO, who was better known for his drinking sessions. “The sporting industry wasn’t known for sport,” Murray says diplomatically, flashing a bright-white toothed smile. “[The] corporate world in general was not known for fitness.”

Changing that was part of the motivation for Christian Toetzke, Hyrox co-founder and chief executive, who created the event for competitive gym enthusiasts who want to fit training around the demands of work and family. Toetzke, who was previously CEO of Ironman, says marathons and triathlons can be too time intensive.

“It was always, for various reasons, too boring, too one sided, too long, too time consuming. If you live in London, where do you go with your bike?” The name comes from “hybrid” and “rox” as in rock star; “It was an X because it just looks cooler.”

The Hamburg-based company — one of a number of group exercise phenomena that have sprung up in the past few years as part of a broader trend for workplace wellness — was launched in 2017 by Toetzke and co-founder Moritz Furste, a German hockey player who has won three Olympic medals. It took a hit in the pandemic — the worst conditions for an indoor mass participation event — but has since grown rapidly. Last year, 125,000 took part and Toetzke anticipates that number to double in 2024. The biggest event will be held in London Olympia with an expected 12,500 competitors and more than 10,000 spectators.

Hyrox is one of a number of group exercise phenomena that have sprung up in the past few years as part of a broader trend for workplace wellness © Jon Super/FT

It is most popular with 35- to 39-year-olds, followed by those between 30 and 34, then 40-44. Fifty-four per cent of participants are men, with Hunter McIntyre the fastest to complete the course, in 53 minutes. Megan Jacoby holds the female record of 58 minutes.

Toetzke is keen to promote the idea that it is an inclusive sport, but the competitions require intensive cardio and strength training and are not for exercise newbies. Professionals with disposable income — events cost from £89 for singles and £84.50 for doubles, while gyms that offer Hyrox training can cost more than £200 per month — and a competitive streak are a key demographic. Third Space, a high-end chain of gyms, says its Hyrox training is most popular at its branch in Canary Wharf, east London’s financial services hub, while the participation rate at its City club is also above average.

Nick Braund, founder of public relations company Words + Pixels, did his first competition two months ago in London and describes it as a “global phenomenon taking over LinkedIn . . . I’ve seen more Hyrox posts than any other sporting activity over the past year.” He says the competition provides useful discipline for those mastering their careers. “Some tasks you’ll love and destroy the competition. Some you’ll hate and lose ground. Regardless, you need to work on all aspects of who you are — not just the ones you like — to truly get better.”

Peter Bowyer, a human resources director, who has done two competitions, is more pragmatic. He finds the training a great counterpoint to sedentary work and a “great means of releasing stress or pressure”. He likes having a target “which helps with motivation, particularly if you have had a hard day at work and it’s raining outside”. Unlike other endurance events, such as marathon running, there is “more variety in your training which makes it easier physically and mentally to fit in with work”.

For Amber Waudby, a 28-year-old associate at Clyde & Co law firm, training for her first Hyrox in Manchester meant early mornings, and a carefully planned diet and routine. “My performance and engagement at work improved, feeling more energised and fulfilled, both personally and professionally. I was able to utilise the training for motivation before work, and in decompressing after work.”

In the lead up to the competition, “brunch with friends became burpees and box jumps”, she adds

Michael Murray and Christian Toetzke in sportswear. Hyrox competitors can be seen in the background
Michael Murray, CEO of Frasers, says Hyrox, co-founded by Christian Toetzke, right, now underpins his business performance © Jon Super/FT

Competitive exercise among professionals plays to their personal and corporate image.

Last year Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg posted on Instagram about a strength training circuit, and has won ju-jitsu competitions. The recent trend among male business leaders, including Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and Hollywood super agent, Ari Emanuel, for muscular physiques prompted one headline to declare the “real CEO flex is washboard abs”.

While social media and a desire to look vigorous might drive some CEOs to fitness, for 34-year-old Murray, the motivation is representing “what you’re trying to sell”. “[Frasers is] a platform for aspirational global brands. That’s what we’re building in sport, premium, luxury and the common fabric is healthy, looking good, staying fit and healthy.”

Like Murray, George Heaton — whose hair is cropped short and who is wearing a hoodie from his clothing company, Represent — believes fitness is part of his brand as an entrepreneur, regularly posting pictures of himself training on Instagram. “The landscape’s really changed. The new CEOs, the new creative directors, the new guys that are at that C-suite [level], they’re trying to find a way they can let out their energy, [including] competing in sports . . . rather than going out and drinking and smoking.”

The 30-year-old is not competing in Manchester because he is focused on the Los Angeles marathon but is here to support colleagues and friends.

Heaton sees Hyrox as a way to instil healthy competition among employees and has set up a gym in the office. “If I can bring [staff] together in the gym and they can compete with each other and against each other, they’ll have that bond.” The sport has become a water cooler moment. “The talk of the office in the mornings is, did you compete today? Did you work out?” Admittedly, the workforce skews young, with an average age of 28. “There’s a few people in their forties. Nobody in their fifties.”

Murray too wants to integrate Hyrox into Frasers’ staff benefits. The company has Frasers Fit — an app encouraging employees to sign up for sporting challenges, as well as a festival for employees to compete in fitness challenges. Exercise “gives you consistency and structure. [It’s] great mental therapy as well,” he says.

Such sporting challenges may be a way for colleagues to get to know each other, and improve fitness and productivity, but they also run the risk of excluding some staff and decreasing morale © Jon Super

Hyrox encourages all its employees to do at least one event a year. Over time Toetzke would like other companies to offer it to staff, though he acknowledges it is more complicated than sending the workforce out on a 5km fun run. Hyrox has organised sessions for Salesforce and Google in Dublin.

Such sporting challenges may be a way for colleagues to get to know each other, and improve fitness and productivity, however, they also run the risk of excluding some staff and decreasing morale. One academic who studied an accounting firm found that the group run designed to build bonds did the opposite — intensifying competition in the workplace.

Hyrox is facing its own competition. The business is on target for revenue of £25mn for 2024, Toetzke says, but is not yet profitable, due to its rapid expansion as it tries to outpace rivals such as Deka, CrossFit and F45.

David Minton founder and director of Leisure DB, which provides market intelligence and analysis on the fitness industry, notes the fickleness of the fitness market: “We’ve seen quite a few [mass sporting events] and they’ve disappeared. People are always looking for something new and Hyrox is definitely that.”

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