Steve Backshall and Helen Glover must be Britain's fittest couple – but who's tougher?
She's the world's best rower, he's TV's action man. Together, they talk training regimes, their competitive spirit and the hardest things they've ever done
Steve Backshall thrives on close encounters with dangerous predators. The intrepid naturalist is back with a new series that sees him tangle with carnivorous reptiles, swim with deadly electric eels, even handle a bullet ant whose sting delivers pain like a gunshot. “An ant that has the power to make a grown man cry... that’s very, very special,” he rhapsodises, as others might coo over a fluffy chick.
When not testing his wits against the animal kingdom’s most lethal weapons, the toughest man on TV can be found honing his fitness. And boy, is he fit: his achievements include running the gruelling Marathon des Sables, the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons, in the Sahara. As a climber, he specialises in first ascents up the world’s most daunting mountains. He finished in the top ten of the UK Tough Guy event. Oh, and he’s a martial arts black belt.
Backshall is 43 on 21st April, yet his life still revolves around the words “extreme” and “challenge” – even in the domestic sphere. The woman he shares a home with, fiancée Helen Glover, 29, is the world’s top-ranked female rower. His own training regime follows his mantra of “the wilder the better” – yet her approach to fitness leaves him gasping for breath. And she doesn’t like to lose...
How competitive are you with each other?
STEVE Very. With the Olympics in Rio in August, time at home is for Hels to get her zip back after what must be the most intense training any athlete goes through. We sit around trying to beat each other at word puzzles or board games. Or we go in the garden and play boules or badminton, and that does get serious.
HELEN I’m always the one who’s more disappointed when I lose. We both know that. Whenever Steve wins, he looks at me carefully to see how annoyed I am.
What about domestic chores?
HELEN I have to admit Steve does most.
STEVE There’s one little word there...
HELEN OK, he does all of it! I would have cereal for dinner and then run out of the door with an apple for breakfast. Steve’s very good. He makes me a smoothie and cooks a great dinner.
When you have a break, how do you relax?
HELEN We do sport together. We play tennis. We do swimming races across the river, paddle-boarding, kayaking, climbing, mountain biking, cycling...
STEVE And we do training sessions together. The problem is that they become competitive as well. Who can hold an abs crunch the longest? Unfortunately she wins all those too. The irritating thing is that Helen is a phenomenal all-round athlete. After the London Olympics in 2012, she competed in Superstars and wiped the floor with the rest of them. I’m introducing her to activities like climbing – and the first time she goes, she’s better than I am, and that’s ever so slightly galling. There is no activity I can steer her away from to maintain my superiority.
HELEN Kayaking? You were quite pleased with your kayaking... I’m racking my brain. You’re better at word games?
STEVE That’s so cruel.
HELEN You can beat me in a wrestle. Any form of martial arts, I don’t stand a chance.
STEVE Oh yes. We do have a wrestle every now and again, and I have yet to lose at that.
How do you maintain fitness?
STEVE When I’m on the road filming, I have a small kit I take everywhere – a skipping rope, suspension trainer and abs roller. That means I can do a 45-minute session no matter where I am – on an icebreaker in the Antarctic, on tropical beaches, in the rainforest. If I don’t exercise, I’m a grump.
HELEN I start training at 7.30am, with a two-hour session, rowing with Heather [Stanning, her pairs partner]. After a second breakfast, we do another session on the water, or sometimes on the rowing machine. At this time of year we start race practice – three sets of two kilometres each. After lunch, we finish with weights: lifts, squats, bench press and bench pulls. By the time I’m home and showered, it’s time for dinner, and then bed about 9pm.
STEVE I didn’t know anything about rowing when I met Helen [at a Sport Relief event in 2014], so I’ve been desperately trying to get up to speed. I tried the ergo [ergometer, or rowing machine] on the sly. I’ve never experienced pain like it. The horrifying thing was admitting it to her and telling her my time. Her line was, “That’s not too bad, that’s what some of the junior girls get.”
What's the toughest thing you've ever done?
STEVE Big mountaineering expeditions involve long periods of not eating or sleeping, at very high altitudes. Your body goes into decline, to the point of utter collapse. Climbing Kedarnath Dome in the Indian Himalaya, I lost ten kilos. We did a huge summit push and by the end I couldn’t walk a couple of paces without collapsing.
HELEN The physically toughest is the summer camp, the last push before an Olympic Games or world championships. We do a three-session day, with the last session being two hours on the rowing machine, and then you have to be back on the water at 7.30am doing flat-out pieces over 5k. That’s a three-week camp. One day alone is tough, and then you wake up and repeat it. Mentally, the toughest is sitting on the start line, knowing that races are won by the person who’s happiest to leave themselves in the most pain for the longest.
Is there anything about training that you hate?
HELEN The rowing machine. It’s boring. I listen to music. I showed Steve my playlist and he couldn’t listen because it’s so cheesy.
STEVE Cotton Eye Joe by the Rednex! How could you listen to it? For me, time for training is so hard to come by, every second is treasure. It’s my time to empty my head. It’s almost meditation.
Is there anything that you can do that the other can't?
HELEN I’m fine with the snakes, spiders and birds of prey he’s asked me to handle, but I couldn’t go into caves not knowing the way out.
STEVE The ergo sessions. I managed 5k and I was dying. That’s her warm-up. She’ll do 24k on the rowing machine. The thought makes me feel violently ill.
What are your partner's strengths and weaknesses?
HELEN Steve is so mentally tough, his skill level is almost irrelevant. His ability to push himself beyond normal limits is a big attribute because on an expedition you have to push on through, no matter what happens. His weaknesses are his knees and ankles, the legacy of bad falls. If push came to shove they might slow him down.
STEVE Helen’s main strength is that she’s a unique athlete. She’s officially the best rower in the world and she’s also one of the smallest, so she’s combating leviathan girls a foot taller than she is, through her phenomenal abilities, driven by what I would say is her weakness... that enough is never enough. She can row a personal best and I’ll be, YES! And she’ll say, “No, it’s terrible.” She will be cross for not having gone a couple of seconds faster. She feels her competitors’ breath on her neck even when she’s beating them by lengths in the boat. She never has a sense of satisfaction.
So, who is the tougher of the two? Steve concedes it’s Helen. “Nobody can underestimate what she goes through on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “She does three training sessions seven days a week – each of which would knock a very, very fit person sideways. The fact she can even stay awake is a miracle.”
RT photographer Mark Harrison delivered a more straightforward verdict after putting the couple through their paces.
“She’s fine. He’s not,” he said, looking at the pictures. “He’s too smiley.”
Steve Backshall's new series Fierce begins tonight at 8pm on ITV