Whether we say it out loud or just repeat it to ourselves, many of us share this sentiment.

That said, some activities are legitimately harder than others, and in the realm of outdoor sports, a few are in a league of their own. Take rock climbing, for instance, which requires explosive upper-body strength, problem solving, and crux-time focus. Downhill mountain bikers regularly risk shattered bones, while open-water swimmers push themselves to the limit in unforgiving conditions. Nordic skiers force their bodies deep into oxygen debt, and ultrarunners—well, you get the idea.

But how can we quantify which one is actually the toughest? Here’s how: we chose five competitive sports that we feel are tough to learn, can be dangerous to perform, and require a high degree of skill and fitness.* We then looked at peer-reviewed research and compared calories burned per hour, the average number of injuries per 1,000 hours of an athlete’s activity, and fatality rates. Finally, we asked a panel of world-class athletes to weigh in on what makes their vocations so tough and to vote for the sport, besides their own, that they think is the hardest.

Our Verdict

  1. Nordic Skiing:For our money, this is the toughest sport. It requires the endurance of ultrarunning, the sprint speed of mountain biking, the mental toughness of open water swimming, and, at times, can put skiers in situations of real exposure. And at 952 calories per hour, competitive nordic skiers burn the equivalent of a Chipotle burrito every hour. To be successful, athletes must maintain unparalleled cardiovascular fitness in addition to muscular strength and coordination.
  2. Rock Climbing: Climbing requires a high degree of technical skill, and a nearly incomparable level of mental discipline and self-reliance. Unlike some other sports on this list, one cannot simply gut their way through a difficult climb—they either have the fitness to complete a certain pitch, problem, or route, or they do not. And if they don’t, the consequences can be deadly—Teton Gravity Research reportsthat 145 per one million expert climbers will die from climbing-related injuries, which puts its fatality rate leagues above any other sport on this list.
  3. Open-Water Swimming:This sport combines the enormous training regime of ultrarunning, the exposure of climbing, and the added element of the ocean, where one must factor in the risks of sharksand jellyfish and the tedium of changing tides. Sure, many open-water swimmers have a fail safe in the form of an escort boat, but that doesn’t detract from the absolute sufferfest that is swimming for hours (or days) at two miles-per-hour, and trying to eat 900 calories per hour in the process.
  4. Downhill Mountain Biking: Like climbing, mountain biking requires a serious degree of technical competence, daring, and finesse; there’s a high barrier to entry in terms of skill required to successfully traverse a downhill course, and the consequences should one wipe out are massive (it injures more athletes than any other sport on this list). However, riders enjoy the assistance of gravity, and one doesn’t need a high level of aerobic fitness to be a good downhill rider.
  5. Ultrarunning:Don’t get us wrong—running 100 miles is incredibly difficult, and being competitive in an ultra requires an almost unparalleled degree of suffering. That being said, the only requirement for beginners is to be able to run more than 26.2 miles. Running is hard, no doubt, but not as technical or energy-intensive (as measured by calories burned) as the rest of the panel.

A true love for sports

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