Battle of the Codes. Which is the fittest sport according to current GPS data?

For the longest time there was no way to really compare one sport to another. And while the new GPS technologies cannot tell you anything about the skill levels of one sport vs. another, they do allow you to objectively measure the physical and physiological demands.

GPS technologies have been adopted far and wide in sport because they allow coaches and trainers to effectively manage player loading with real time statistics on distance, speeds, heart rates and even impact. Geelong in the AFL and Manly Sea Eagles in the NRL were two of the first teams to adopt the technologies. You can learn a lot more about the applications of sport GPS from GPSports, the Australian pioneers sport GPS technologies.

There has been a boom in research in this area. However most of this research is simply profiling the demands of different sports. Given the number of conversations I have had with friends about which sport is the toughest, I on the other hand am more interested in comparing the different sports.

The following research is from 4 different papers looking at professional level athletes in each of the sports.


Average distance covered by elite Rugby-Union AFL and Rugby League athletes












Average heart rate for elite Rugby Union AFL and Rugby League athletes












One interesting side note for the Rugby boys and girls, the Rugby Union article indicated that backs performed a significantly greater number of sprints compared to the forwards – although I am sure that all the backs out there already knew that…



Elite AFL athletes cover the largest distance (by some way) at a similarly high average heart rate. You would have to say that at least by these numbers AFL athletes are the fittest of these 3 sports.

Don’t agree?

It’s probably because you are a Rugby player 🙂


Original post published on Pro Training Progams.

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  1. 1

    Running isn’t the only activity that raises heart rate! Rugby league and rugby union both have a far higher contact component than AFL. And what about duration and breaks-in-play differences between the codes?

    Collision data combined with GPS data would make workload analysis within the rugby codes more accurate. As it is, the heart rate data indicates rugby players are working pretty damn hard. I don’t think that’s a reason to conclude AFL players are fitter, though! The study referenced even says AFL players spend a lot of time in low intensity activities such as standing and walking, which would be recovery time and reduce their average HR.

    When I measure work rate, I use video footage to count tackles, run metres and breakdown involvements, and calculate the rate of involvements per minute or per 10 minute period. These are very rugby specific measures, but work is also highly dependant on position played. I think the standard fitness tests, ie VO2Max, speed, strength are more useful if you want to compare fitness levels, then average HR during matches will tell you at what % of VO2Max the players are operating at at specific periods or on average.

  2. 2

    Thanks for reading Amanda!

    In response to your post, the studies I have referenced in my post measured average heart rate over an entire game – so that would include the contact areas in Rugby and the potentially higher number of rest breaks AFL.

    I am glad you called me on this. Because I agree that it is hard to say that elite players from one sport are ‘fitter’ than another. Because they are all specifically fit for the demands of their sport. So while the Rugby players have to balance the running demands with the higher physical demands of their sport…

    In this article, when I said fitness, I was referring to aerobic fitness – so exactly as you say, that would be the VO2 max of athletes from the different codes (the maximum rate at which a person can take up and use oxygen measured in mL/kg/min). Heart rate combined with distanced covered is not a bad indicator. However I did a little more digging for you and found two studies measuring VO2 max in elite AFL and Rugby League players. They found that AFL players had an average of 54 +/- 3 mL/kg/min, vs. 50 +/- 3 mL/kg/min for Rugby League players.

    • 3

      Thanks for your reply, Cameron. It’s interesting to see that AFL players have higher VO2 max values. I wonder how they’d compare with sevens players, although those are really quite different games!

      • 4

        Absolutely…. I would imagine that 7s players are much closer to AFL than 15s – as the game is more like AFL in that there is less contact and more open running.

        I was not able to find any research on this. However I do work with the Australian National Rugby Union Sevens Strength & Conditioning coach so I will ask him whether he can share their numbers.

  3. 5

    Thanks for your comment.

    This is not my blog actually. However I do manage my own blog on Pro Training Programs.

    How much work will depend on how regularly you want to write!

    I would recommend starting with a simple WordPress blog and free theme (design). There are a lot of help resources out there that will help you get started!

    All the best.

  4. 6

    The scrummaging, mauling, and rucking in rugby union is what is the most draining. I’ve played both codes and can assure everyone, the running bit is the easy bit.

  5. 7

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