Driven chiefly by the forward march of technology, sport and fitness activity has changed dramatically over the past decade – and nowhere is this more evident than on the campuses of UK universities, where innovation and excellence are central philosophies and where many athletes are working towards careers in (and sometimes at the top of) their chosen sports or areas of interest. Innovation, interactivity, user engagement, ease of use and, yes, fun are top of the agenda – and, as we shall see, this often means that the non-student public can be beneficiaries too.
Many universities make their impressive fitness facilities available to the world beyond the campus. Leeds Trinity University recently added £200,000 of new equipment to its Trinity Fitness gym, enabling gym-goers from both campus and city to challenge other members on virtual cycle tracks and running routes. State-of-the-art treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers, as well as a new specialist Watt bike, have been fitted in the gym, and the Trinity Fitness team have revised their programme of classes to suit their members. “The gym really is open to everyone,” says Sarah Studds, Sports Facilities Manager at Trinity Fitness. “We’ve taken great care in planning the facility to suit anyone, wherever they are on their fitness journey.
Being a university gym, of course, many of its users will be at peaks of fitness, ability and technique, and/or using their training as part of vocational degrees, and the Trinity Fitness equipment also caters for these elite athletes with specialist strength and conditioning equipment, and a new functional training rig.
What was the thinking behind the recent equipment refresh? “As well as providing excellent facilities for students and staff at Leeds Trinity, Trinity Fitness has actively targeted the local community, generating a valuable revenue stream which has enabled this development,” explains Leeds Trinity’s Commercial Manager Damon Shaw. “The relaunch needed, therefore, to be two-facing. On the one hand, we wanted to provide the type of cutting-edge ensure that could support academic provision on sports-related courses, such as strength and conditioning modules, and help to maintain Leeds Trinity amongst the leading destinations for Sport, Health and Nutrition courses. On the other hand the centre is, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, appealing to the local community – and ensuring both revenue and supporting sports partnerships.
“Students joining Trinity Fitness should not feel that they have just joined a standard ‘university gym’,” Damon adds. “The strong emphasis on friendly, professional and knowledgeable staff ensures a tailored experience akin to any of the big fitness chains. Signposting opportunities to remain active is at the heart of what we do, and the team work closely with both Sports Development and the Students’ Union to promote activities both on and off campus.”
Across town, the University of Leeds recently set up a set of personal training packages for those Union societies and clubs not currently receiving regular strength and conditioning training. “The American Football team in particular have bought into this initiative, as the package includes the InBody analysis and health and fitness assessments to inform their training,” explains James Buckley, the university’s Assistant Operations Manager (Health and Fitness). “The team have really excelled on the programme – they top the university leagues, while their captain has been called to the national squad.”
Another of James’ and his colleagues’ key recent aims has been to widen the ‘wellness reach’ across campus. “The Edge, our university gym, receives around 48,000 visits per month at peak times – but, with our city-centre campus spanning over 100 acres, the opportunities for university members to engage in physical activity needn’t be limited to the gyms, sports halls and fields of play. We have a wide range of products, services and facilities to help our members look after their wellbeing, and this initiative aims to widen that reach further through programmes targeted at those students, staff and alumni who would otherwise be inactive. We want to utilise more of the campus space; to develop programmes that reflect the needs of those not currently participating in the recommended levels of physical activity; and, ultimately, to foster a healthier and happier campus.”
The uptake of digital technology is growing fast among the Leeds community – some 22,000 university members now use the Technogym Mywellness cloud system. How does this enhance their gym experience? “There is a growing trend of app-based, technology-driven products on the market for people wanting to increase their activity,” James explains. “At Leeds, we embrace both the opportunities and challenges that this presents. People are not only starting to use more of a tech-driven approach (such as wearable technology and streaming services), but are also seeking variety in their training options by, for example, joining sports-specific clubs. By using the digital platform of Technogym’s Mywellness app, our members are able to track their activity and feel part of the Edge community whether or not they are exercising on-site with us.”
All this embracing of technology is clearly having positive effects. “With a membership base of 17,000 we realise we cannot always offer the first-name-terms style service of smaller boutique clubs – but, despite having a largely transient student population, we have established active engagement from nearly 22,000 people in the platform. Unique challenges and touch-points enable us to inspire interaction and boost our member reach.”
Elsewhere, building work at the University of Birmingham’s new £55 million sport and fitness facility, 360 Sport & Fitness, is approaching the home strait, as finishing touches are made to the building. The city’s first 50m pool is now filled and ready for use, after taking four and a half days and over 2.1million litres of water to reach its capacity. The six glass-back squash courts are also now complete, along with the multi-sports arena capable of hosting badminton, netball, basketball, volleyball and korfball. Birmingham is now commissioning over 200 pieces of equipment in the gym, supplied by Technogym. The Performance Centre will also feature state-of-the-art apparatus, including an Alter G anti-gravity treadmill.
“This new facility will be a very important resource for our students,” says the university’s Director of Sport, Zena Wooldridge. “It will provide a wide range of sport and fitness opportunities to participants of all ages and abilities, including talent athletes in the region.”
Change has also been in the air at the University of St Andrews, whose brand new dedicated Strength and Conditioning Suite provides a private space for teams to train, away from the gym’s regular users. Featuring five lifting stations, a three-lane plyometric track and designated ‘rehab zone’, the new performance suite also offers video analysis technology. In addition, St Andrews’ newly refurbished fitness suites can cater for whole squad sessions, or can be used for injured players to recover.
St Andrews have also created a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) zone, with equipment such as the Rig, the Skillmill, Airdyne, Cybex Spark and Concept 2 Rowers – all in response to the current trend towards multifunctional machines. “We have created a space where our members can perform Tabata-type workouts – Tabata being a high-intensity HIIT workout, featuring exercises that last four minutes,” explains St Andrews’ Strength and Conditioning Manager, Allan Gartshore. “There is no equipment lag – you can constantly control the speed of your exercise/workouts without the delay of a motor in a machine.”
What are university sports and fitness teams looking for when buying equipment? What other factors join price and durability as key criteria? “It’s about getting the blend right,” says Damon Shaw at Leeds Trinity. “As a university with strong sport courses, we have expectations from students for equipment that meets the very latest fitness trends – alongside updated versions of the more traditional cross trainers, treadmills, bikes, etcetera.
“Key to our refurbishment was ensuring a functional training area, whilst introducing new equipment such as a Technogym Skillmill [a non-motorised, treadmill-style training tool, featuring a data-tracking function to assess personal workout parameters and results, and store them via the cloud-based mywellness® open platform] and a stair climber. It’s also about ensuring fun and interconnectivity – the ability to log in to a machine and pick up on a fitness programme where you left off, or to cycle around a virtual arena against friends.”
“We don’t have a huge facility, so the equipment has got to be tried and tested,” explains Allan Gartshore at St Andrews. “A large and transient membership means that equipment has to be intuitive and easy to set up and use. The Cardio equipment has to have online capabilities, as most members want to track their workouts and view their data both on the console and through their mobile devices. So the equipment has to have the ability to run commonplace apps such as Endomondo, Strava, Map My Run etcetera.
“We have also installed five combo squat racks with integrated lifting platforms – the ability to perform the big lifts, Olympic lifts and body weight exercises, is hugely popular at the moment. This, along with more women lifting weights, is one of the key trends in strength and conditioning right now.”
Do students' fitness needs differ in any ways from the more general gym-going public? “In general, yes; in Trinity Fitness, not hugely,” Damon Shaw reflects. “In general, students are much more likely to try something new, and are more naturally tuned in to learn, absorb and develop, than your average gym-goer. However, the sort of (non-student) gym-goer often attracted to a university gym like ours tends to share that open-minded attitude – even the oldest Trinity Fitness gym-goers are keen to try new routines and equipment.”
Damon has seen ‘massive’ changes in gym equipment during his time working in the sector. “There has been real innovation in the market, as customers have become so much more demanding and diverse. Equipment is much easier to use, more multi-functional, kinder to the body – and more fun. It also better replicates exercise outside of the gym. Oh, and you couldn’t watch Netflix whilst training a few years ago...”
Technogym are key players in the university fitness sector. “We have a long-standing relationship with many of the UK’s most prestigious universities,” explains Ben Sandham, Technogym’s Health, Corporate and Public Key Account Manager. “Alongside offering durable, reliable fitness equipment, we have worked in partnership with many universities to increase participation and activity levels across campus, through the use of cloud-based applications. We also work closely with university fitness teams, creating bespoke education and training plans. Our Master Trainers can help with all aspects of their facilities, from member retention to gaining competitive advantage in student experience and the team performance.”
Ben reveals that the company has witnessed “a huge shift away from the traditional model of universities’ Wednesday-afternoon sports clubs and teams, towards the ‘active campus’ model where physical activity is available to all, at any time. We understand the benefits of physical activity for everyone – including staff, students and the local community who aren’t involved in the very traditional definition of sport.”