Are motocross riders the fittest athletes in the world?
Competitors in many sports like to think that their sport is the hardest to do, the most physically demanding. There are many lists of the fittest sports, with boxing and gymnastics commonly on top. See our discussion about the Fittest Sports for details. Motocross riders are rarely considered, but should be.
Ever since motocross failed to be listed on the ESPN List of The Most Demanding Sports, there has been great discussion on this site about the physical demands of motocross riding. A online vote of the world's most demanding sports listed motocross at the top, and in our vote it is currently 5th.
There is no doubt that it is a tough sport. As well as a lot of anecdotal evidence of how demanding the sport is, many have pointed out that there have been a couple of scientific studies that have supported their assertions.
Motocross is a very physically and mentally challenging off-road motorcycle sport, which is raced on natural terrain with man-made obstacles. While undoubtedly the bike does a lot of the work for the rider, to manoeuvre and stay on the 200+ lb machine requires a high level of strength, power and endurance. The riders need to be light and strong, with good strength of the upper body, shoulder and arms, hand grip and legs. A study by Gay et al. found that during a motocross race heart rate is quickly raised, and the competitors average heart rate was between 92-96% of their maximum, indicating that there are very high demands on the aerobic endurance system. See more about fitness for motorsports.
The Fittest Sport?
Motocross is definitely physically tough, though is it the most demanding of all sports? It is not an easy thing to measure and compare the fitness of athletes from different sports. You can compare fitness test scores of athletes, but there are issues of varying protocols and athlete levels, and there is not a lot of data on motocross riders for comparison. It is best to compare head to head battles. There are two oft reported studies which have directly compared motocross riders to other athletes, one in 1979 by the National National Athletic Institute and another in 2002 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UMPC) Sports Performance Complex.
1979 study by the National Athletic Health Institute (NAHI)
A study was conducted in 1979 at the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood, California, founded by pioneer sports orthopedists Drs. Robert Kerlan and Frank Jobe. The original article apparently appeared in a Cycle magazine in early 1980, though this article or any research paper has not been sighted. The information below has been gained from various online reports.
The study compared athletes from a range of sports, including motocross (MX) racers. Other sports tested were American football, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball, soccer, baseball, wrestling, ice skating, track and field, marathon runners and maybe others. The motocross racers included Brad Lackey, Mike Bell, Danny Laporte, Jeff Ward, Kent Howerton plus several others. There was a large range of fitness tests conducted, including a treadmill VO2maxtest, body fat levels using underwater weighing, bench press for upper body strength and leg press for lower body strength.
One report stated the highest scoring sports were found to be long-distance running, gymnastics, wrestling and motocross racing, while another said soccer was top over motocross.
2002 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
A study was conducted in 2002 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UMPC) Sports Performance Complex, headed by Alan DeGennaro, the director of UPMC's Sports Performance Program and Brian Hagen, director for rehabilitation medicine at the sports complex. The testing began when the nation's best motocross racers traveled to Pittsburgh for the Steel City Nationals (Round 12 of the U.S. Motocross championships) in Delmont Labor Day weekend in 2002. A battery of tests was performed on about a dozen riders, including Broc Glover and Hannah.
The evaluations included some standard medical checks such as EKGs, blood samples, blood pressure, and more sport specific treadmill maximal oxygen consumption test, body fat levels using underwater weighing and skinfold measures, blood lactate acid buildup, upper body strength via a series of shoulder presses, bench presses and curls, lower body strength strength of quadriceps and hamstring muscles, grip strength, sit-ups, flexibility, and vertical jump power. These results were then compared to published results for other sports. No details of the conclusions of this testing have been found.
Without the specific details of the results of these studies, no conclusions about the claim of motocross riders being the fittest can be made. The lack of published physiological data of riders highlights the need for further study. The data so far indicates that the sport of motocross should be considered in all the discussions about the fittest sports, though there are several other sports worthy of the claim to be the world's fittest sport!
- "UPMC starts study of ways to cut down off-road motocross injuries", By Pohla Smith. Published Tuesday, July 23, 2002, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
- "Are motocross riders athletes? Bikers and researchers say yes", Pocono Record, Aug 30, 2002.
- "Motocrossers As Athletes", p106, Cycle World Magazine Jan-Feb 1981.
- Transcript of interview of Brad Lackey by Bobby Myers about his participation in the 1979 NAHI study.
- "The Exercise Intensity of MX and SX Racing", By Gay, D; Keen, J; Riel, R; Evans, M; Milek ,M; Furman, T; Casillas, E; Augustine, S (senior author) University of Florida HSC - Jacksonville and Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute. link
- "Physiological characteristics of top level off-road motorcyclists". Gobbi AW, Francisco RA, Tuy B and Kvitne RS. BJSM. 2005; 39:927-931. - comparing off-road motocross, enduro, and desert rally motorcyclists. Motocross riders had more muscle mass, more strength, and greater aerobic power. link
- "Cardio-respiratory and neuromuscular responses to motocross race", Department of Biology of Physical Activity. University of Jyväskylä. by Tomi Konttinen. 2005. link
- "Cardiopulmonary loading in motocross riding Tomi Konttinen", Keijo Häkkinen, and Heikki Kyröläinen, Journal Of Sports Sciences Vol. 25 , Iss. 9,2007
- Saltin, B. 1975. Motocross-ajajan maksimaalinen hapenottokyky ja syketaajuus ajosuorituksen aikana (Motocross rider's maximal oxygen uptake and heart rate during the riding performance). Teoksessa: Husqvarna 250-360 CR. Owner's manual. American edition. Värnamo. Sweden. 1976
- "Anthropometric Characteristics and Performance Capabilities of Highly Trained Motocross Athletes Compared With Physically Active Men", Bach, Christopher W.; Brown, Ann F.; Kinsey, Amber W.; Ormsbee, Michael J. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research December 2015 Vol. 29 - Issue 12: p 3392–3398. - results suggest highly trained MX athletes possess certain physiological adaptations that likely result from sport-specific demands compared with physically trained men.
Here are a few more mentions of other studies that I have found online, but were unable to find any more evidence. Let me know if you have details to add or can verify the details below.
- "extensive tests were done by the Swedish Physiological Institution way back in the mid-1960's. The researchers names were Bengt Saltin and Goran Agnevik."
- "In the late 60's early 70's some Swedish Sports scientist (maybe from Husqvana) did a study which found MX to be the most physically demanding sport in the world ... Professional Tennis came in second. "
- "In the 90's German scientists compared many top German sports people and Pit Beirer came out as fittest of them all."
- About the sport of motocross
- Discussion about the World's Fittest Sport
- Vote now, POLL: What do you think is the world's fittest sport?
- See the Fittest Sport poll results
- See also about the Fittest Athletes.
- ESPN List of most demanding sports
- Factors of Success for Motorsports (general) and for Motocross Riders
- Poll about the Fitness components for motorsports
- Fitness Testing for motorsports athletes.
Commenting is closed on this page, though you can read some previous comments below which may answer some of your questions.
- Jon Ferrell (2016)
Motocross is by far the toughest sport and the most physically demanding
- PI (2018)
Its hard to compare different sports. I have been riding motocross 30years and raced national level at veteran class. Motocross rider needs so many different ingredients, mental and physical toughness. Starting line with 39 other racers is quite tough task to try beat them. Mentally some riders are done allready there, they just go to ride it through. Mentally tough is also different tracks and weather conditions. Sunny day, summer time and hardpack track is totally different than deep sandtrack in winter. Sandtrack which is wet, ruts are allover the track, some ruts knee deep and you have keep throttle full to ride it through. Try to race when you are surviving the track, hand power is coming down every minute because you are fighting too much against bike awkward movement in the ruts. Every lap is harder ruts getting deeper ,muscles weaker, less vision and bike carries extra 5kilos mud/sand. Some people doesnt understand clear fact in motocross, every muscle have to be trained and cardio training have to also be nearly at level runners/cyclists. Heart rates are 90-95%/max whole 35minute race. Forearms get blood flowing problems if are not in very good shape. Braking and throttle control fade due forearm issues.Risk of injury is very high also. Some riders backoff big jumps when conditions get bad but winners keep jumping. Crashes can lead to severe bone fractures but also crashing physical condition helps a lot. Mentally tough after crash drive at same pace and forget it. After all, motocross is fun sport. Its not easily boring while you have to train so many things to get better. Feeling of riding when everything goes on point is just amazing. Margin of error is just so narrow, I think there is that hook which gives you so much adrenaline going.
- ComeAndGitIt (2018)
Late to the party, but name ONE other sport where you have to go all out for 30+ minutes with NO brakes and your heart rate sits at 90% of maximum while you concentrate and man handle a 200# machine in ALL types of weather. Hint: you can't
- Igneous11 ComeAndGitIt (2020)
You are FOS. Sad to see people so completely ignorant of anything but their personal pet hobby.
- Harry jones (2017)
- Ray (2016)
Motocross is by far the most demanding, 100 degree heat/sun 35 minutes heart rate 190, all dressed in gear, plus need to concentrate!
- Olustee (2019)
While every sport is difficult in many ways theres no sport that requires physical and mental perfection constantly the entire event, for 2 races! And the penalty for failure?! Crashes are brutal and terrifying. These guys are straight up warriors, the best athletes on the planet. Go to a race and see for yourself. You'll never look at a baseball player the same again.