Run-down, jaded, stuck-in-a-rut, stressed-out, tired? Sometimes life can be hard, and we’ve all found ourselves feeling at least one of these emotions at some point. I know I have. If I’m being honest I’ve felt more than one of them in a given moment, but the question is always, ‘what can I do about it?’
Good friends will advise that you need a break from it all, ‘a few days away will do you the world of good’ they say, and more often than not, we acknowledge they are right and we book something. Whether it’s a weekend away or a fortnight in the sun we think that laying around, eating good food, having a few drinks and soaking up the sun will make all the difference. Often it does, but, the reality, at least for me, is that it usually doesn’t. I just end up laying in the sun thinking about whatever it is that is stressing me out or wearing me down, returning from my holiday a little bit tanned, not to mention a little bit heavier, but no less stressed and tired.
This time, I thought to myself, things will be different: I’ll go on an activity holiday and have a different experience. I hadn’t realised just how different an experience it would be! But more on that later…
I had some annual leave to take and it coincidentally, was at the same time as my birthday. So, I thought about what I could do on my annual leave that would be a little bit different and that would be a good birthday gift to myself.
I’ve always been into my fitness and my nutrition but for about eight or nine months it all had gradually slipped away from me, the way it does sometimes. It starts with a busy day at work and a promise to go to the gym tomorrow instead of today because you’re too tired, and that is then compounded by the odd sweet snack or a cheeky glass of wine while you tell yourself that it’s just one and it doesn’t count. Then, before you know it, these occasional treats and missing gym sessions become the norm. When you add it all up over the course of nine months the toll it takes is noticeable. Those deep breaths you take when you go to button your jeans. The loosening of the shirt around the waist of your trousers when it’s tucked in, because you know that if it is tucked in too neatly then those new love handles will be a little too visible. Sound familiar?
Right, I thought, enough is enough; the best gift I can give myself now that I am turning 45 is to get back into shape. So, online I went and quite quickly found a fitness boot camp in Spain that looked just right. Without overthinking it, something I am prone to doing, I got booked on the course as quickly as I could after a few cursory emails to check about sleeping arrangements and dietary requirements. Next thing I knew two weeks later I was getting up at 3am and heading to the airport to jet off to Spain to do a little bit of exercise in the sunshine. In reality, I didn’t really have any clue what to expect, it was all in the lap of the gods.
I had arranged with Casper, the guy organising the camp, to be picked up at the airport by someone called Agnes. Upon emerging from arrivals I called Agnes, ‘I’m just a few minutes away, I am wearing a brightly coloured dress’, she said.
As I emerged from the airport terminal I saw a girl with a vibrant, multi-coloured tie-dyed dress, her sun-bleached hair swept effortlessly into a wet bun with skin that was honey and golden from what I guessed were Mediterranean genes (it turned out she was Hungarian) and time spent in the sun. She smiled at me with the look of someone who has taken their first steps on the journey to a zen existence. She was calm, poised and graceful, with a huge smile and a face that reminded me of Sophia Loren. There wasn’t any doubt about it; Agnes had to be our yoga instructor on the course.
We had also picked up two other girls who had been on the same flight as me, and whom I had spotted at the baggage reclaim carousel because they were both dressed in their sports gear, ready for action. Off we all set, the two girls from the plane in the back and me in the front with Agnes.
As we drove the 45 minutes to our destination I babbled about how apprehensive I was about the fitness camp. I was worried about how fit everyone was going to be compared to me. Would I be embarrassed if I couldn’t keep up? Agnes reassured me that all would be fine, she told me not to let my ego get in the way, something all of us do, and to just try to be in the moment. I guess she was talking about what most people refer to nowadays as ‘mindfulness’. A lesson for life already and I hadn’t even gotten to the boot camp!
We arrived at our destination: a small rural village by the sea, dotted with white washed fincas and cortijos (farmhouses), little winding lanes and locals strolling barefoot to the beach. The sky was the cerulean blue only seen in exotic oil paintings and the light was bright but not harsh. There was a feeling of something intangible yet special in the air. I loved it instantly.
We were offered breakfast while our rooms were being sorted. We sat outside in the shade of a veranda, and ate eggs and vegetables that had travelled no more than a mile to our plates and were as fresh as I had ever eaten.
The camp was centred around a few little villas and it transpired that I would be sharing with the two girls from the airport. The two girls had travelled together having met on another fitness camp a year previously. I was a bit concerned that I was going to be the gooseberry to these two good friends who had come away to catch up, chat, bond and do some exercise. I needn’t have worried, they were both lovely.
Having eaten breakfast we were shown to our villa and told that our first training session would be in a couple of hours. Having been up since 3am and only having had 2 or 3 hours sleep, I realised that I definitely needed a nap before I went to do any kind of exercise. I decided to quickly unpack all my essentials, especially my Ultrasun Sports SPF20 and my Ultrasun Face SPF50. As I was putting my toiletries in the bathroom I did notice that at least one of my housemates also had her Ultrasun with her, as well as her Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish. A QVC fan, I wondered? As it turned out I was right, in fact. Her whole family were, and over the course of the week we ended up having a lot of conversations about QVC products.
The fact that the sun was shining, the sky was bright and the temperature was around 30 degrees meant that I wanted to be outside and stroll around and explore, so even though I did throw myself on the mercy of my firm bed, sleep eluded me. Before I knew it I had to get myself up and get into my gym gear and make my way back to the house were we had been offered breakfast earlier (I shall call it basecamp) to meet with our trainer Casper. I don’t mind telling you I was a bit nervous. In retrospect it does seem pointless to have felt this way, but I did.
Casper welcomed us and we met all the others who would be in our group, 12 in total, four of whom were doctors, one from Belgium and the rest from The Netherlands. So many doctors in one group, is this a sign of what’s to come I wondered?
Off we headed to the beach. All of our training sessions were to take place outdoors and mostly on the beach. Casper believed in using the natural environment wherever possible, so before I knew it, we were running barefoot in the sand. Jogging slowly at first, the waves were lapping our ankles and the sun was shining. Ahhhh, this isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. Then Casper told us we had to keep up with him but he would be tapping each of us on the shoulder with instructions for exercises to do, e.g. 10 press-up, 5 burpees etc.
When we had completed the exercised, we had to catch up with him and the group. OK I thought, that sounds like fun. But those taps on the shoulder happened repeatedly at shorter and shorter intervals, and the running pace was getting faster. My heart was beating, my breathing was getting heavier, and so too were my legs. Then Casper took off at a sprint and it was so fast I wondered if we were really meant to follow, so I dug deep and put my head down and went for it. I thought my heart would explode in my chest.
When I looked around everyone else was way behind and I had caught up with Casper. I was bent double, my chest painfully gasping for air. All the while I kept thinking that even though it really exhausted me it was a good first workout…. but I soon realised, this was just the warm-up!
Next thing I knew we were picking up boulders and doing shoulder presses, chest presses and burpees, and running laps of the lighthouse which towered over us. I was in agony, but all I was thinking about was the next shoulder press and the next lap I had to run. Nothing else was in my mind other than survival; it was almost meditative in a weird sort of way. I was definitely not thinking about any of the stresses and worries of everyday life in that moment; there just wasn’t the time or energy. I’ll admit that I didn’t perform particularly well at that first training session, or at least not as well as I would have liked, but I was severely sleep deprived – at least that’s my excuse and I am sticking to it!
After training we headed back to basecamp where Casper had provided a meal that was entirely ‘clean’ – this was how we were to eat for the entire week at every meal. By eating clean, I mean there was no meat, no wheat, no sugar, no carbs, no caffeine, no alcohol, nothing processed, etc. I hadn’t known any of this when I booked the trip!
The food was all healthy and there was lots of it, but never too much. We got exactly what we needed. I have to admit it was quite nice, a relief almost, to relinquish all responsibility for making any decisions of any kind. I didn’t need to think about what to eat, where to eat, what time to eat, what activities to do, or where and when to do them. Everything was planned and arranged for me. All I had to do was train, eat, sleep and repeat. It was a liberating release from everyday life. No decisions to make, no one else to accommodate, no negotiations of any kind – just train, eat, sleep, and repeat. It became a mantra. Like I said, it was almost a form of meditation and I fell into the routine of it readily.
For the first few days, after I had trained and eaten, I pretty much fell back into bed from exhaustion. A typical day consisted of:
- Wake up
- Morning training on the beach
- Breakfast at basecamp
- Afternoon training at basecamp (we did it under the shade of the trees because the beach was too hot) Lunch at basecamp
- Evening training on the beach
Repeat for 7 days.
Training sessions typically lasted an hour and half to two hours (some were longer), and no two training sessions were ever the same. Sometimes we did sprints, sometimes we sparred and boxed, other times we did yoga. It was never boring or repetitive, and the sessions always pushed us to our limits. Casper also liked to make it competitive so we were all against each other. One thing I eventually learned was that if you did well at an activity there was always a price to pay as you would be given more to do, or a heavier weight to lift, or further to run on the next activity. I also learned to never trust Casper when he said ‘last one’, as it was never true!
I pushed myself further, trained harder and gave more than I have ever done before in my life. I was at the outer limits of my physical ability almost every day and I learned a huge amount about myself.
I learned that I don’t give up, I will push myself, I’m a fighter, team player and a good sport, I am strong physically and mentally, and I refuse to let my brain tell me what my physical limits are.
I didn’t really know any of these things about myself before my week at the boot camp. I got so much out of being there, more than I could have ever believed. Certainly a lot more than I ever would have gotten from a week away lying by a pool soaking up the sun and drinking cocktails!
Yes I saw physical improvements – I was leaner, fitter and stronger than before – but, more significantly, mentally all my worries had melted away. I simply hadn’t had time or was too tired to think about them and so I just let go of them.
It wasn’t all pain and no fun though there were some great highlights. There was the yoga on the beach in the evening with the sun setting, my healthy birthday cake that Agnes made for me and one of the girls I shared a house with, as it had been her birthday that week as well. It was made with nuts, avocado and fruit and it was the best thing any of us had ever tasted as we hadn’t had sugar or anything sweet for about 5 days at that point – sheer heaven. We also had a ‘rest day’ in the week which happened to fall on my birthday (only one morning training session that day).
I had a deep tissue massage in the garden in the afternoon under the shade of a tree, and a group of us went walking on the beach at sunset and then dinner at a great restaurant right on the beach. As it was a special holiday in Spain, there were bonfires on the beach and fireworks as we ate, so it felt really special and I imagined it was all happening just for me.
Casper himself was a highlight of the entire trip. He was focused and hardworking, and he made sure that if fitness was our aim for the week, that he was going to provide it. He also taught us a lot about nutrition and how food affects the body as his background is in biochemistry.
I have returned to London refreshed and renewed with a vow to return to Casper’s fitness camp later in the year, as they take a break now for the hottest and busiest part of the summer when the beaches are really crowded. I truly feel fit for life – mentally, physically and spiritually all from hard exercise and good nutrition, and that is in only a week! (I am keen to see how long the effects last for). It seems that it is true what they say; a change is as good as a rest. I changed the type of holiday I went on and I did anything but rest – but boy was it worth it!
If any of you would like further details about how to contact Casper about his fitness holidays then just let me know.
Until next time,