A growing number of directors are turning to extreme fitness activities, not only to cope with the demands of work and life but also to enhance their leadership skills. But could flipping a few tyres around an obstacle course really make you a better boss? We went to find out…
There was a time when a relaxing round of golf was considered the norm for business leaders wishing to escape the pressures of work. But a growing army of high-fliers are now seeking more challenging ways of relieving stress while also boosting productivity – extreme fitness. Thousands of executives have been embarking on ultimate endurance challenges and adventure races, such as Tough Guy, Ironman and Spartan Race. Not simply because these gruelling events improve physical fitness – the suggestion is they make them better leaders, too.
Chris Lima, managing director of Colourful Coffins and an IoD Oxfordshire member, certainly thinks so. In 2012, the 46-year-old took a team of employees to Mud Runner – a six-mile cross-country course interspersed with strength and co-ordination tests.
“I thought it would be a good way to lead by example and show my team I’m willing to do whatever they do,” says Lima. “Completing an event like this causes a change in you that expresses itself in the workplace. It builds the attitude that setting goals and working hard to achieve them is rewarding. It made me more focused, demolished stress and helped me get to know my employees better. Training allows me to detach myself from the thinking blocks and let the creativity flow, while the personal satisfaction boosts self-worth. It’s like an injection of motivation.”
Billy Williams, founder of Wolverhampton-based Tough Guy, among the world’s most demanding obstacle courses, says an increasing amount of company heads are now racing – they now account for a third of all entrants. Participants have to run eight miles cross-country negotiating barbed wire, fire and live wires, while battling through energy-sapping mud. So why do they put themselves through it?
“Post-recession, directors are under more pressure to meet targets and manage with minimal staff,” says Williams. “This increases the stress and presents them with problems they may not have faced before. They look for something extreme because they thrive on challenge. A marathon is a hard run but there is no fear involved. It’s the fear factor of an obstacle course like ours that gets the adrenaline pumping and gives people the feeling they can overcome anything. They carry that feeling back to the office.” The team-building is also a huge plus. “We live in a disconnected world,” explains Williams. “Technology might have made it easier for us to communicate, but it’s on a superficial level. This gives them the opportunity to bond while pushing their own boundaries.”
“Anyone in a responsible role recognises the value of exercise,” says Tough Guy devotee Gareth Edwards, chief executive of facial animation company Cubic Motion. “These challenges are different though, because unlike just going to the gym, you’re putting yourself in an uncomfortable environment where there’s real risk of failure. This reconnects you with the raw elements of life, which helps in the office when you’re deciding what is and isn’t important.”
According to a study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, high-intensity exercise makes people 23 per cent more productive at work. Joe De Sena, 46, a former equities and derivatives trader, is the man behind worldwide obstacle challenge Spartan Race, which attracts over 350,000 competitors each year. It was De Sena’s own struggle with work stress that led to him creating the event. “I’d be at a desk all day and felt terrible,” he says. “I didn’t have the time to exercise. Then one day I heard a noise from the stairwell in the building where I ran my trading firm. I saw a guy running up and down 32 floors. He said he did it every lunchtime to keep fit, sometimes carrying weights.”
The man was an adventure race enthusiast and introduced De Sena to the sport. “I began training with him, then did my first race the following year,” he recalls. “It involved running, cycling and kayaking. I was instantly addicted. I loved being completely out of my comfort zone. At work I became much more productive and eventually sold my firm and decided to run my own adventure races.”
Gary White, director of CBHC Accountants, whose company sponsored the corporate-geared Extreme Fitness Challenge run by BlitzFitMe in Essex, adds: “These events create a situation where teams really do bond – whatever your relationship in the office, it’s hard not to build a new rapport with team-mates supporting you as you test the limits of your physical and mental endurance.”
Forget the G&Ts – it might be protein shakes all round at the clubhouse from now on.
Be prepared for extreme fitness
James Exton, part-owner of fitness company LDN Muscle, offers tips for the extreme fitness novice
Plan ahead Organise your training and diet a week or so in advance. Make sure it not only furthers your goals, but strikes a balance with your home life
Ease yourself in Gradually increase training rather than risk burning out prematurely. Ensure you are fully fuelled both in terms of food and hydration
Don’t overlook rest It is as important as training, so make sure you have at least one complete rest day a week. Illness or injury will hamper your progress
Stretch and do core work It may seem dull but these elements of training are key to ensuring your body remains in peak physical condition
Keep it varied There are endless ways to work out, so mix it up. Don’t let it become boring
Read our interview with James Exton about LDNMuscle here