How the Octathalon is the best course possible by far


Since the Octathalon’s 8 exercises were carefully designed back in 2002, there have been several individuals who have hastily tried to put together their own courses to try and compete with us.


Several people have asked us about why the Octathalon is such a superior course so we thought it a good idea to explain why.


A lot of research & testing by top athletes was done in coming up with the 8 specific exercises in the Octathalon and the order in which they are done. The exercises and the order are both equally important and we would agree that there are other exercises that are good, but these just did not fit in with the flow with all the other ones. We also looked at a course with less than 8 and at course with more than 8 exercises but we then found that either some areas of the body were worked too much compared to others or we found that some areas were really not worked enough. There had to be a balance so that when you did the whole course you felt a really balanced effect all over at the end and a sense of having had a true all round workout.


The 8 exercises also had to be put together safely. Too many courses out there seem safe enough to do in training at a controlled pace, but just did not work in race pace conditions and the top athletes who trained so much harder and for so much longer were picking up repetitive injuries from these types of courses. This was often because the exercise order put too much pressure on one part of the body for too long or because the rules for a particular exercise put too much strain on the smaller muscle groups. These smaller muscles then became weakened and subsequent exercises later on in these poor courses would then require them to be used again – this often resulted in injury.


From a safety angle it was found that there was a need to eliminate several good exercises as the desire was to create a race and not a challenge.

A sport needs a race.

Another hugely important safety aspect was the use of the treadmill. It is the one motorised piece of equipment in the Octathalon and we were very conscious that running too fast and perhaps beyond your capability, due to race pressures to get a fast time, meant that accidents could happen. Indeed with some poorly designed courses that end in a treadmill run, we have witnessed people falling off the end of it and hurting themselves.


This resulted in the treadmill not being put at the end of the course. In addition to that we knew that whatever piece of Cardiovascular (CV) exercise was placed at the end of a course, it would give the advantage to any specialist in that particular CV exercise as they could just go all out in that exercise to the finish. This, we thought, would not give distinction to a new sport we were looking to create. If you wanted to see who was the fastest on the Bike, the Treadmill or the Rower, you could really just look to the sports of Cycling, Running and Rowing and athletes can already compete in those sports.


It was our intentions to create a new sport and one that was identifiable by its own unique characteristics. In this case one where the person who was not just perhaps the fittest, or who had the best all round strength and fitness, but also the person who trained most effectively and efficiently. The latter enabled a person to be able to go on and be the champion on the day. This was an important part of the planning as we had to have a sport where champions could certainly excel over time but also where champions could be beaten on the day.


What is debateable is how you might recognise and test effective and efficient training. From our point of view we placed a huge amount of emphasis on recovery rates. Others might well want to place greater emphasis on other areas like strength and versatility. This is quite OK and there are sports like cross fit that test these areas very well and we see cross fit as a sport that is quite distinctive in its own right but yet also different from the Octathalon.


We also feel we have addressed the strength aspect by creating several different Octathalon courses and for those that like a truly strong test, we invite you to try the Sprint Octathalon.


We also wanted to create a sport that could cater for its grass roots and this meant choosing exercises that could be done at all levels and ages. Pull ups/Chin ups and Dips are great exercises but many people in gyms, including Juniors and Seniors, would find they could not fully enjoy competing at a beginners level if these exercises were included.


The 4 weights exercises that were chosen were ones that tested a wide range of the larger muscle groups found in the Trunk and Upper body. The thinking being that we intended that the leg muscles would be well tested with the CV exercises. We also wanted to include some of the more standard and traditional exercises, ones that had really stood the test of time in the gym and went back to basics.


The Lateral pull downs were chosen as it has been a standard piece of gym equipment for a long time and, for the reasons given above, we could not put in the pull-ups/chin ups so this was the next best thing. However this exercise has changed over time. In the past the bar was taken down behind the head. So many courses also really fail to test a pulling action in the arm muscles so the Lat pulls were really a natural selection.


The Bench press was chosen instead of press ups/push ups purely because of the difficulty of judging press ups. So many people do them in so many ways it would have proved very difficult to universally enforce the rules on this exercise.

The Shoulder press was selected because it provides a form of opposite form of movement to the lateral pull downs – an upward pushing action as opposed to a downward pulling action.


The Free weights engages the use of stabiliser muscles and this requires more balance and coordination and goes toward making these exercises tougher and therefore a better test.


There were other free weight exercises that could have been selected and ones that are very good in their own right. Some of the Olympic lifts for example are excellent exercises that test several parts of the body especially the posterior chain and the legs. We definitely recommend doing these in your training for conditioning and strength, however doing them in race conditions - as fast as possible - was thought to possibly present some health and safety issues.

The selected free weight exercises, aside from the traditional sit ups, do not require much use of the leg muscles. This meant we could achieve an overall balancing affect with the alternating CV exercises which do rely upon the leg muscles more.

Because the Octathalon can be raced up to 4 times in a day in knock out events, there is a strong endurance element in the sport. Achieving a balance with the order of exercises becomes crucially more important.


We were now left with 8 exercises that we felt gave a true reflection of an all round test of the body’s muscles and yet also fitted the above mentioned conditions.


We selected a natural CV then Strength format as this tested recovery rates better than any other way we could think of. It also solved the problem of people trying to run beyond their abilities on the treadmill. Everyone could always run faster, but now they knew that they had to leave something in reserve in order to complete all the repetitions of the shoulder press. If you had developed excellent recovery rates you would be able to put more into your CV exercise as you would know you would recover faster to do the next weights exercise. This format also provided the essential inbuilt safety mechanism of not having individuals running on a treadmill at speeds that were outside their control.


Having settled that safety issue the question now was to find the best order for these 8 exercises?


What we had to keep in mind here was the muscle groups and when and how they were worked one after the other and also how we could create something exciting to watch. We also had to bear in mind heart rates and the expected maximums for these on the CV exercises.


The Bench press is a tough exercise but it is also one that is hard to film and one that is difficult for people to see the faces of the competitors. We were looking for exciting and close finishes so we had to have a final strength exercise that would be easy to film. We could have used the Lat pull downs or the Sit ups as the last exercise but the out and out winner was the highly visual Shoulder press and it has not let us down as it has produced some exceptionally exciting racing with tension filled finishes whilst also providing some excellent camera shots.


The Bike was chosen as the first exercise because this ensured that an individual was fully warmed up before continuing with the rest of the course. This is especially important when you have beginners starting in the sport.


The stationary bike was also the one where, out of all the CV exercises, the heart rate maximum was the lowest. With your upper body not being used much on the stationary bike, heart rates would not climb as high as they could in the other CV exercises. This again made it ideal as the first CV exercise.


If the Shoulder press was to be the last exercise we had to have a complementary CV exercise before it, preferably one that used the shoulders the least amount.


Out of the choices of CV exercises we had before us, we had it narrowed down to the Row, the Step ups and the Run.  


The Run was selected to go before the Shoulder Press and, although you do use your shoulders (deltoids) when you run, it was felt that they would be used less than with the other two. This selection again helped us achieve the balance we were looking for.


Having the run near the end of the course was also more suitable as, from racing experience, there was generally a greater variation of times for this than all the other CV exercises. The run therefore gave the best opportunity for someone to catch up at the end of the race and that would again lead to more exciting finishes. 


Other CV exercises that were considered for the Octathalon were the Cross trainer and the Stepper. None of the top competitors we knew liked the cross trainer and said that it was very difficult to race on and to build up any reasonable sort of lead. This made it not very competitor friendly and so was eliminated. The Stepper was not selected in the end as the Step ups were found to be more versatile in that they could be done with dumbells of different weights and  this meant we could then select different dumbell weights for different Octathalon courses. The Step up box was also a lot easier to move around and to set up in a course.


With the best possible course now ending in Run and then Shoulder press all that was left was to put in the Step ups and the Row


The fairest way was to have the best possible order to all these CV exercises. Critical to winning the Octathalon is in being able to get your race pace right. The Row is perhaps the hardest exercise there is that you can do in the gym in a short space of time – that made it a definite exercise for the Octathalon. The pace on this exercise is very important and judging that pace would be an important psychological part of the overall course.


It is easy to judge just the right pace on the Row if it is at the beginning of a course when you are not tired, especially if you have a way to go. However if you put the Row towards the end of the race, it becomes much harder to pace it correctly. You would then start already quite fatigued and possibly down on your competitors, the pressure will then be on to go quicker and forget your best race pace.

If you are in the lead at the time, the pressure will also be on as there will be a desire to aim to conserve as much energy as possible for the later exercises in order to keep the lead to the end. The temptation here is to ease off too much. You cannot win the Octathalon on the Row, but you can certainly lose it on the Row if you get your pace wrong. For these reasons it was best to put the Row toward the end of the race.


This gave us our CV order of Bike, Step ups, Row, Run.

When including the weights after each CV this left us with an order Bike, weights, Step ups, weights, Row, weights, Run, Shoulder Press. It meant deciding where the Lat pull downs, Sit ups and Bench press would best go.


The Octathalon Sit ups test a variety of muscles including the Hip flexors and even the Quadricep muscles. The exercise was put in to the Octathalon to achieve exactly this and it was put in a place that would sandwich it between two other CV exercises that also test the quadriceps but in the opposite way. In both the Rowing and the Step ups you are pushing with your quads so it was natural to insert the Sit ups in between them.


This same principle was applied to the arm muscles and this led to the Bench press being placed after the Row. With the arms in the Row being used in a pulling action, they were now being used in a pushing action in the Bench press. This again made the two exercises flow very well together.


This left us with one place left and that was placing the Lat pull downs straight after the Bike and before the Step ups. The Bike tested mainly the lower part of the body and now the Lat pull downs focused mainly on the top half of the body. This seemed a logical progression to have between the two.


With the Lat pull downs allowing the leg muscles to rest for a short while after the Bike, it worked well when they were then tested again in the Step ups. With the pulling down action in the Lat pulls, you then got a similar pulling down action with the dumbells in the Step ups. This was good early upper body pressure that would lead to lactic acid build up in the arm muscles. It meant that you only had a short respite on your arms during the Sit ups, before you were into another pulling action in the Row. If you are going to do well in the Octathalon, you have to get your body to become very efficient at clearing lactic acid quickly and this succession of exercises would test this ability well early on in the race.


The weights, distances and repetitions were then reached for each of the Octathalon courses. These were selected to suit body types as well as to again achieve a balance in the race.


Some of the really poorly balanced courses we have found can take around 10 mins to do with 5min of those on the Bike and 3 mins on a Treadmill, this just left 2 mins to do all the other 6 exercises – In our mind sheer madness and no true test of all round strength and fitness.


We then tested the course out with several people to see what they felt. We knew from our athletes experience that with poorly designed courses you could end up with a feeling of having been completely wrecked afterwards and the feeling that your muscles have been ravaged can last for quite some time.


Everyone who tested the course said a few moments afterwards that they actually felt quite invigorated. We put this down to achieving the right balance.


At that point we had found the perfect course. Just as the Triathlon had discovered the optimum order of Swim, Bike & then Run for its own reasons, we had now discovered the optimum gym competition course for racing and for the development of a new sport.


This is why the Octathalon is now considered so superior to any other selection of gym exercises.