Being Ireland’s fittest family: how did they do that?

The Cummins family from Tipperary ran, climbed and ‘bog jogged’ to bag the 2016 title

"Gruelling" hardly describes the challenges set in the televised search for Ireland's Fittest Family. The RTÉ series tests all-round physical and mental strength in a way that few sports do.

Anybody who watched the final of the fourth series last month could not have but been moved by the agonising failures of the exhausted father, Jim Cummins, to scale the last obstacle in the competition, a near-vertical 4.3m-high ramp. Finally, his three adult children who were already at the top were able to reach down, grab him and haul him up to victory, beating the McCarthys from Co Clare.

The Cummins family are planning to use the winner-takes-all €15,000 prize money for a holiday. They are not, however, ones for lounging around a pool – their trip will revolve around watersports or some other type of activity, as that’s what they do on family holidays.

Even when the cameras are long gone they will be living up to their title. So what does it take to slog it out over five rounds of competition, filmed over eight weeks, and be acclaimed as Ireland’s fittest family?


We caught up with the Cummins family on their farm in Rahealty, outside Thurles, Co Tipperary to profile each of the four team members, to find out the secrets of their success and to hear their advice for other families who might fancy their chances in the 2017 competition.

Ciara Cummins (19)

Occupation: Student of athletic training and therapy in Dublin City University.

Main sport: Middle-distance running, mostly 1,500m, cross-country and steeplechase.

The youngest of five children, Ciara was the one who entered the family in the competition without telling anybody.

“We had watched loads of different series and always enjoyed it and I thought it would be a bit of fun to enter,” she says. “I saw an ad and thought, why watch it again this year when we could be in it?”

She had to write an essay about her family on the application form and was interviewed be telephone before they were called for a fitness test. The top 12 families were selected for the show, which is coproduced for RTÉ by Kite Entertainment and Animo TV

While there are seven in the Cummins family and all take part in different sports, there was never any doubt which four would be competing. Ciara is the sportiest of the three sisters and they knew it would be an advantage to have three males making up the team. But the others – mother Patricia and sisters Jennifer and Edel – all played their part when it came to training and logistics. Ciara regrets they were kept off camera and not allowed to attend the events.

“Especially Mam, she was the backbone of the whole thing and nobody ever saw her. She would be the one who had to wash all our clothes and get our bags ready before we went – a typical Irish mammy.”

There was only about three weeks between knowing they had been accepted and the first round, so that didn’t leave a lot of time for training. And anyway, they could only guess what might lie ahead.

“They [the production company] were always very secretive about things and they wouldn’t tell us where the challenges were on until about two days before,” Ciara explains. “They didn’t want us to find out what the challenge would be.”

The Cummins were delighted to just get through the first round and then be assigned their coach, former Cork All Star camogie captain, Anna Geary. Then they started focusing on teamwork, practising clambering over a container on the farm and pulling heavy loads.

“Really we just worked on our weaknesses,” she says. “I was trying to do a lot of pull-ups at home. Mark is good at that so he was trying to help me and I was making Henry go on runs with me – improving his endurance.”

No changes were required to their diets because they generally eat fairly healthily, says Ciara.

“We would always have a good three meals in the day. At dinner time we always sit around together – it wouldn’t be just getting whatever you want whenever. We would always have our spuds.”

The hardest part of the competition? “Definitely for me it was the day we were in Cahir and I had to do the female race. I was absolutely wrecked. I had to pull this sleigh with three straw bales on it. It was so heavy and it was moving inches. I could just hear Anna, my Dad and my two brothers shouting me on and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know if I would have ever finished it.”

The best bit? “Spending time with your family. I think we bonded – it wasn’t just the four of us, it all was all seven of us. You can win things with the team or on your own individually but it was special to do it as a family.”

Advice to other families? “Work on teamwork – it is a lot to do with strategy.” Nearly all 12 families are fit as each other, Ciara adds, so it is “how you undertake the task and work your head to do it the most efficient way possible” that makes the difference.

Jim Cummins (57)

Occupation: Tillage farmer.

Main sports: Running and cycling.

It’s great for fitness to have a physically active job, Jim acknowledges, but a downside was that the filming of the series during the summer coincided with the busiest time on the farm.

Another bonus is that his sons Henry and Mark help him on the farm, as well as running their own motor repairs and tyre business, which means they are used to working together.

“We could read each other’s minds. We are just so used to one another and that was a major help.”

The family has always participated in sport as well and do local 5km runs together. He and his wife Patricia are keen cyclists who have done the Ring of Kerry charity cycle several times.

As parents, one or other of them always tried to be on the sidelines when any of their children were taking part in sport, be it in hockey, camogie, athletics or rugby.

Their training for this competition didn’t involve anything out of the ordinary, he says, because “we were afraid of getting injured. We did a bit of swimming, running and hill running; we did hang on the bar on and off but we didn’t want to do it too much.”

The hardest part of the competition? “The tyre pull in the quarry in Tipperary. We nearly hurt ourselves that was so hard – we didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was. We did a bad job on it first time and we changed our mind and had to do it differently halfway through.”

He also mentions the Jacob’s Ladder in the semi-final. “That was very, very physical, to pull yourself at speed up that height.” What’s more, he is afraid of heights.

“All those competitions are fine but when you have to do them at speed, if you make a mistake you are gone.”

What about that last ramp in the final? Did it cross his mind he might not be able to do it? “No, I was going to get there somehow. I would never live it down if I didn’t.”

The best bit? “It was great the way we worked together as a team. I must admire the kids for the way they discussed everything, no arguments”.

Advice to others? “It is harder than you think. You have to be cross-fit and really able to work together. We had a good coach in Anna Geary – her plans were excellent.”

Mark Cummins (24)

Occupation: Mechanic

Main sport: Rugby, he plays for Thurles RFC

By the time they knew they were in the competition, it was probably too late, says Mark, to do fitness training. But working in a physical job, playing rugby, running and bit of horseriding keep him in good shape.

“It was more strategy and how to get on together that we really worked at.” Containers had come up in previous competitions and “you are not going to be jumping up them on your own,” he points out. But the true foundation of their success, he believes, was how their mother spent so much time taking the five of them to sports as children.

“That is really what made the difference. It wasn’t the month’s training before it, but years and years of hard work is what actually got us there.”

The fact that the competition clashed with harvesting meant they had to work really hard to fit it in, he points out. The night before the round in Cahir, he, Jim and Henry were working until 2.30am.

“It probably impacted our performance because we didn’t go that well at the tyres,” he says. Ciara, who had been sent to bed, “really pulled it out of the bag for us that day. It was the women’s run that day and she did really well in that.”

The hardest part of the competition? “A lot of things were hard. The ramp [at the end of the final] I suppose was the hardest and the most important thing you had to complete. If you can’t get up that quick enough, it will decide whether you win or lose.”

He went up first and made it at the second attempt. “Once I got up I was very relieved; I knew I could lean down and catch Henry and he would be well able to get up. After that the two of us would be able to pull everyone up.

“To get Dad up was very difficult because he was so tired at that stage. We were getting nervous ourselves. We struggled to get him up but we still managed it.”

The best bit? “Just getting on together” – and he stresses that he means all seven in the family, not just the four of them who were filmed. Nothing, he adds, beats doing something that you love together as a family.

Advice to others? “I would encourage any family to do it. You wouldn’t realise what you are capable of until you go and do it.”

Henry Cummins (26)

Occupation: Mechanic

Main sport: Horseriding

Henry’s first reaction when he heard Ciara had entered them was how much time they would have to put into it, considering it was harvesting season. He acknowledges that his youngest sister was probably the leader to get them out training but “when it came to events, everything was discussed between the four of us with Anna [Geary, the coach]”. And he also says there were no rows: “Funnily enough we all got on well together!”

The hardest part of the competition? “I think the most difficult part was the final itself. It was very draining after the pull of the loaded trailer and then to get over the containers. We were all killed by the time we got to the ramp.”

The next most difficult thing was having to keep quiet about the results between the end of filming in August and the screening of the final on December 18th. He also found it “embarrassing” watching it all back.

The best bit? “Being able to get out and do the challenges but the winning at the end was the biggest enjoyment. To stand at the top of that ramp and say we have the title of the fittest family of Ireland. It means a lot.”

Advice to others? “Go in with everything you’ve got. It’s very enjoyable.”

Kite Entertainment and Animo TV hope to do a call-out over the coming months for those interested in taking part in a potential fifth series of Ireland's Fittest Family.

What it takes to be Ireland’s fittest family

Generic fitness is what the TV series Ireland's Fittest Family measures, according to the designer of the events, Joe O'Connor.

“If we make it sports specific it is not fair,” he explains, listing the components of fitness. For health, the main elements are cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility, while the performance-related ones are speed, agility, balance and co-ordination.

A fitness consultant and lecturer in exercise physiology at the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Co Kerry, O’Connor also stresses a key element in winning the show is working together.

“We have had families who are very good, individual fit people but they ruined each other by trying to be that.” Whereas this year’s winners, the Cummins family, “had utmost respect for each other”.

If he was one of the coaches picking a family to work with, he says, he would look at how strong the weakest member is and how the rest of the team protects that member.

A lot of families who come forward are sports people who compete in a very contained environment, so it is easy for them to look at an element and perfect it, he suggests. It is the unpredictability of this competition that often throws them.

He gives the example of the “bog jog” in which they were up to their armpits in mud. When, in the semi-final, the teams were surprised to have to select a second member to compete in a re-run of this event, the Cummins family made the tactical decision to “sacrifice” Ciara to this, so that the other three could save their energy for the Jacob’s Ladder event that followed.

Considering the balance of fitness that is required, it is no coincidence that over the years all the winning families have come from a farming background or are farmers.

“Fitness is very much applied fitness,” says O’Connor. “They are not necessarily gym bunnies but are used to grabbing a cow to put in a trailer.”

The series shows you can have fun in the outdoors without participating in a structured sport and that a family going regularly to the woods or park can become fit. Parents need to understand that sport can often exclude kids and lead to an inactive lifestyle, says O’Connor. Not being picked by peers for a football team at age five or six can lead to an inactive lifestyle that can lead to heart disease, he points out. “Just because they weren’t good at sport, their whole life was compromised.”

To counteract the sedentary nature of our lifestyles, he encourages parents to follow the lead of children and get down on the floor to play and roll around with them.

“One of the major problems in society, if you are talking about hip pain or back pain, is the ergonomics of sitting at your desk all day. We just don’t move the joints the way they are designed to.”

O’Connor works in high-performance sport and gets Olympians and inter-county footballers and hurlers to crawl and roll. If a senior international athlete can’t do that, they are more prone to injuries, he explains, which is why they use tunnels in training.

“You have to be really mobile to get into that tunnel and crawl and roll.”

He would like all children to take part in gymnastics and athletics – not for competition but for the fun of it.

“Fitness isn’t sport,” he adds. “It definitely helps sport but sport can inhibit fitness.”