The Olympic Sports that Burn the Most (and Least) Calories

Fitness
July 23, 2012

Olympic sports requires serious strength, stamina and poise, but which of them torches the most calories? We did some research to find out.

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Top Overall Burners

It’s no surprise that distance races comprise the top three Olympic sports that burn the greatest total number of calories.

  1. Marathon: America’s fastest marathoner Ryan Hall will strive to beat his 2:04:58 record in London. At this blazing pace, he burns nearly 2,500 calories for the entire race (heavier runners would burn even more). Sprint distance (think 100 meters) runners burn more calories per minute, but fewer per their event. No matter the race, however, “running utilizes a lot of musculature,” says Gary Hunter, an exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Your legs, arms and core are engaged, which leads to significant calories burned.”
  2. Triathlon: The Olympic triathlon consists of a 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run, taking the average elite athlete slightly less than two hours to complete. A 150-pound person would burn more than 1,600 calories in one race, which when broken down looks like: swim—223 calories; bike—818 calories; run—650 calories.
  3. Mountain biking: Relatively new among Olympic sports, mountain biking can burn more than 1,000 calories per hour, thanks to the varied terrain and elevation. The London 2012 course consists of a rugged 5K loop that competitors must circle for a set number of laps, with races lasting a minimum of 90 minutes. Road and track cycling also burns a significant number of calories—more than 800 per hour. “Biking burns a fair number of calories, but since you are isolating the legs more, most people can’t average as high of a calorie expenditure as in running,” Hunter says.

Top Hard and Fast
These Olympic sports burn lots more calories per minute, but are over in a fraction of the time.

  1. Butterfly: The longest race for the explosive butterfly stroke is 200 meters and takes the fastest swimmers in the world (ahem, Michael Phelps) less than two minutes to complete. A 150-pound swimmer burns about 100 calories per 200 meter race, but working toward the ability to do so is no easy feat. The butterfly works just about the entire body, and to prepare for it and other strokes, “Olympic swimmers train for hours a day, in the pool and on land,” Hunter says.  
  2. Boxing: Olympic boxing matches involve three three-minute rounds, totaling less than 150 calories burned, “but the energy burned per minute is high,” Hunter says. Boxers spar, and do hours of strength, conditioning and technique training leading up to the Olympics.
  3. Rowing: “Rowing uses a lot of muscles in the legs, back, shoulders, arms and core,” Hunter says, leading to a strong calorie burn. Rowing races are either sculled (with two oars per person) or swept (one oar per person), and are five to eight minutes in length. Athletes can burn more than 100 calories per race, or about 14 per minute. If that sounds low, consider this: Rowing at that rate for 30 minutes would burn 420 calories.

Lowest Burners
The Olympic sports with the lowest calorie burn may or may not surprise you.

  1. Shooting: The rifle, pistol and shotgun events require concentration, precision and mental toughness, but little physical exertion compared to other action-packed Olympic sports. Most shooting events will not burn more than 200 calories per hour.
  2. Diving: If you’ve seen the body of an Olympic diver, it’s hard to believe their sport is low on calorie-burn. Diving requires intense strength, but is done in quick bursts, resulting in low overall energy expenditure, averaging 3.4 calories per minute. In order to perform their complex routines, however, divers must train fulltime, practicing their dives in the pool and on trampolines, and performing cardio, strength and flexibility training.
  3. Archery: Like shooting events, archery, which utilizes a bow and arrow instead of firearms, calls for balance and calm under pressure, but more upper-body and core strength. Archery can burn nearly 300 calories per hour, about the same as you’d burn while circuit training at a moderate effort. Some archers utilize a regular yoga practice in addition to their shooting drills, to improve focus, strength and balance.

RELATED: Natalie Coughlin on Swimming, Snacking and the 2012 Olympics

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