Think 'festival' and many would traditionally think a long weekend of debauchery, loud music, questionable outfits and disregard for personal hygiene. Many probably still do, but over the last few years, the UK has seen an explosion of alternative fitness-based festivals hit the scene. Some are full-blown camping weekends, some are single-day events in urban locations, all with one thing in common – workouts are the main attraction.
For anyone who loves to move, fitness festivals are the absolute dream weekend. Line-ups include the VIPs of the fitness world, with classes led by acclaimed teachers from top boutique studios, talks from industry experts and even appearances from Olympic athletes (RunFestRun boasted the likes of Paula Radcliffe, Colin Jackson and Christine Ohuruogu).
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But beyond the obvious pros of these festivals, what are the cons? Is it healthy to be cramming so many workouts into a short period of time? Are they too expensive? Is there too much of the same thing across different events? We spoke to personal trainers, event organisers and people who attend the festivals to get a more detailed look.
Work it out
Depending on the event, you're offered anything from two or three workouts per day to unlimited sessions. Running festivals, unsurprisingly, offer open and guided runs of varying distances from a couple of kilometres all the way up to multi-day ultra options. More general fitness festivals offer a blend of runs, yoga, and fitness studio classes, ranging from HIIT to CrossFit to spin.
Rachel Pilcher, 26, is a keen fitness festival-goer and attends several London-based events per year. "I am definitely one of those people who tries to cram as much in as physically possible! I tend to go for the whole weekend, and depending on how long classes are, I’ll generally try and squeeze four to five in per day, as well as perhaps a talk."
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Rachel added: "For me, it’s a brilliant opportunity to try classes that I simply don’t have time to try in my everyday life. I’ve gone on and been to those studios after I’ve tried them at the festival, so I always know it’s not wasted. It’s also a chance to meet new and like-minded people, and challenge myself and my body.
"I find it way too easy to get into a routine of either being super crammed with friends and family on a weekend, or spending most of it laying on the sofa, so doing a festival pushes me out of my comfort zone and gets me out of that routine. I’ve gained so much confidence from them."
Quite clearly, these events are an incredible opportunity for festival-goers to try something new or explore the location, but with so many chances to train can we run the risk of overdoing it?
"I think as long as you pace yourself throughout the day and don't burn out it is a great way to top up your training for the week," says Eni Adeyemo, a personal trainer and founder of fitness event company Barbell Brunch Club. "It is not necessarily dangerous but I wouldn't recommend it for those that are injured or those that are not used to intense exercise.
"A great idea would be to do some high-intensity training with an hour rest between or, alternatively, do a lower intensity workout to balance out," she adds. "You have to ensure that you are well hydrated and have eaten enough in order for your body to handle the extra energy expenditure."
"I would like to see a cap on the amount of classes, but my general feeling is that as a one-off a few hours of activity should be fine for most attendees," says personal trainer Hannah Lewin. "This is not something people should be or need to be doing every day! It's likely that people will be trying new classes, hence the volume of bookings, so may not be working at their full maximum effort level, but I would like to see a PAR-Q (a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) filled out before each class, and instructors ensuring they are more aware of signs of fatigue."
This becomes somewhat more tricky if events don't have many alternative options – for example if the main attractions are high-intensity workout sessions but there isn't much in the way of more chilled activities or places to refuel. While many fitness festivals have improved on this in recent years, there was a time when some didn't offer anything besides sweet snack options, leaving festival-goers dashing to the nearest supermarket for an emergency sandwich.
One example of getting the balance right comes from Lululemon's Sweatlife festival. Based at East London's Tobacco Docks, it has a multitude of street food stands, a quiet relaxation room and a designated space for stretching and foam rolling, as well as plenty of places to sit down.
Show us the money
Tickets for urban fitness festivals start at around £20 for one day and £50 for the full weekend, while camping-based festival tickets range from £120 to £180 and more for VIP options. The costs pale in comparison to most music festivals, but are they worth it?
"Overall, it’s great value for me when I consider how much each individual class that I do would usually cost," says Rachel – and she has a point, considering most boutique fitness studios in London cost in the region of £20 per class. "However, I would say that it could be seen as pricey if you’re perhaps not bothered by as many classes. I also think that it can get expensive when you start adding food on, so I generally try to bring my own snacks."
Lewin looked into organising a fitness festival in London last year but found the organising prices to be a major roadblock. "Finances were a huge thing. The setup costs are absolutely enormous, with a myriad of hidden costs," she says. "Now I am aware of the enormous setup costs, I believe the entry price is fair. However, I feel that people should not then be expected to pay additionally to attend talks, workshops and fitness classes."
I would like to see a cap on the amount of classes, but my general feeling is that as a one-off a few hours of activity should be fine for most attendees
This is something that varies between festivals. Depending on the event, you may have two to three workouts you can book into for free, total access to all sessions or you may have to pay for each class on top of your entry fee.
When you consider day tickets start at £20 and you'll be expected to fork out around £5 per class plus pay for food and drink, this can easily double or triple your costs – not such great value after all.
While some camping-based events are family-friendly – such as RunFestRun, which features short distance runs and a kids' area – most fitness festivals tend to be geared towards adults. This makes sense when you think about it, as many adult fitness classes aren't child-friendly (think gym equipment and heavy weights) and not all that many kids will be suitably entertained by browsing protein snack brands.
But when it comes to narrowing down the adult audience, the offerings of many festivals can look quite similar – both in terms of content, marketing and line-up.
When researching fitness events last year, Hannah Lewin found one major piece of feedback from festival-goers kept coming up. "People seemed to be tiring of the similarities between festivals – the same people discussing similar topics, just on a different weekend. This opinion is certainly one I share. I am finding it increasingly different to find any distinguishing features between the main fitness festivals, as they all seem to follow the same design."
With so many fitness events on the market now, is it that they've simply exhausted the options regarding panels and workshops? Probably not – many running and yoga-focused festivals have a broader spectrum of topics available than more general fitness events. But now we're a few years into the fitness festival boom, perhaps it's time for organisers to start to diversify, both in terms of festival content and the line-ups. "Fitness events tend to be missing diversity in panel speakers in all ways, including ethnicity, gender, and body type," says Lewin.
"I don't feel particularly represented by the marketing or advertising of fitness events unless the team behind it is someone that looks like me," says Adeyemo. "You can often tell by the choice of trainers and speakers involved." That's something that Adeyemo is trying to fix by organising fitness meet-ups herself.
"I run my own fitness events and essentially created the vibe and feel of what an ideal event I would like to attend would be like! I created my fitness community Barbell Brunch Club first and foremost because I was always going to fitness events alone. In addition to this, I felt like a lot of the events are repetitive with the same trainers and speakers. Not to knock anyone, but it seems like festivals are just interested in the numbers and not particularly the consumer experience. Diversity in fitness and sports has always been a hot topic for discussion. What has to be considered is, is the event representing what fitness really is – of all shapes, sizes, colours?"
With another summer of events nearly over and next year's fitness festivals being planned already, hopefully the diversity of Britain's fitness community will be reflected in 2020's line-ups. This, plus workouts which are more accessible to people at different levels of fitness and more affordable brands exhibiting, could make the fitness festival industry even bigger than it has been so far.