With the coming of spring, many after-work and weekend athletes may be looking forward to the warm weather with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they know the lure of green fairways and dry tennis courts. On the other, all those stiff muscles have been lying dormant all winter. But for those in the know, snow on the ground means a chance to get a jump on the competition—if one knows where to look.
In the past few decades, many traditionally outdoor sports have moved inside for the winter and developed tournaments that are beginning to compete with outdoor counterparts. Indoor rowing, indoor field hockey, and indoor rock climbing all now have national championships. That's not to mention world championships that started in the past 20 years, for such games as floorball and futsal, the world soccer governing body's accepted form of indoor soccer.
"It kind of started out as a diversion, and then it really blossomed into its own identity," says Tina Reinprecht, organizer of the field hockey International Indoor Championships that took place last weekend in Feasterville, Pa.
For most, it's a fun winter diversion of three or four days a week. For others, indoor sports take on an identity beyond a mode of exercise when the rivers are frozen and snow covers the ground.
Misery Loves Company
In Boston on Feb. 20, while some of us were digging out of yet another snow dump, more than 2,000 rowers were showing off winter training regimens at an unusual event called the C.R.A.S.H.-B. World Indoor Rowing Championship. (The event began as more of a lark. The initials stand for Charles River All-Star Has-Beens, and many of its founders are former Harvard oarsmen who rowed on Boston's Charles River.)
"It's pretty grueling," says Linda Muri, a Harvard crew coach who serves as the Commodore of the organization that puts on the championship. "There's comfort in numbers. Misery enjoys company."
Dozens of rowing machines, called ergometers (ergs for short), were lined up as athletes in dozens of skill levels and age groups sweated through 2,000 meters. All winter they had, for the most part, been racing each other through an online database made by the main creator of the rowing machines, Concept2.
"I erg pretty obsessively, probably six days a week," says David Churbuck, 52, a digital media strategy consultant who had rowed at Yale.
Times to be Proud Of
Concept2 spokesman Greg Hammond says the website is "inundated" during the winter with people logging times. "The funny thing is that it's all honor system. We're not giving away cash prizes or anything like that. You want to see what other guys are doing."
When rowers arrived at the championship, it was relatively clear who the top competitors would be, because the practice times were logged. But racers came from all over the country and from across Europe.
"You spend so much time on the machine in a health club or gym, or, in my case, in a garage by myself, so the opportunity to compete head-to-head is exciting," Churbuck says. "That excitement pushes you to establish a better time."
Sometimes an Obsession
Not every indoor sport is as lonely to practice as rowing. Squash racquets is social on the court and off. In New York, the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Assn. (MSRA), the organization that puts on the annual Grand Open squash tournament in January each year, hosts cocktail hours for the players as part of the annual dues. Still, that doesn't mean it's not about the competition.
"You definitely get a lot of Ivy Leaguers familiar with it," says Paul Zummo, 42, who won a midlevel draw of the Grand Open this year. "I went to SUNY Albany, but it is more prominent in some of the Ivy League schools. But if you look at it, it's not polo. Guys are out there busting their ass. It's a sweaty, calculated, rough game."
The tournament was for all ages and organized around skill levels. So Zummo, whose day job is chief investment officer for JPMorgan Chase (JPM) Alternative Asset Management, says he played a 50-year-old and a 15-year-old in the same tournament. MSRA President Jessica Green says the tournaments have grown as the sport has become more popular, with a broader base of support.
"There's an obsession with squash that you don't see as much with other sports," says Zummo. "People are extremely passionate and committed to the game."
As with many other indoor sports, many players decide to stay inside when it gets warm out rather than change sports. Squash often turns into an obsession that one doesn't see as much in other sports. People are extremely passionate and committed to the game.
As Green put it, "Hard-core players continue to play." The season, however, runs from October to April, after which, as Green says, "people tend to want to get outside."
Click here to see the best indoor sports for outdoor athletes.