By all accounts, I’d consider myself reasonably fit. I’m of a fairly average weight, height, and have five not particularly fast half marathons under my belt. So as the days grew shorter and the mercury rose higher, my mentality in joining Smart Fitness’s Summer Shred programme was more “please, anything to get me out of jogging in the heat of Hades”, than “I need to work on my fitness”.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Over four weeks of what I can only assume a stint on Survivor is like – I’ve realised just how fit I really was not. My “sprint” pace on the treadmill has leapt to at least 17, when 13 or so used to be an absolute stretch. I can now complete more than three burpees in a row without collapsing in a heap on the floor. And while I’d not done this to lose weight, the other day I sucked my thighs into a pair of size 36 jeans. Don’t try to tell me Zara has dodgy sizing – let’s give Carlo and Ashley credit where it’s due.
Though my relationship with the trainers began much akin to my relationship with leaves of kale (you hate them when you look at them, but the feeling wanes when they’ve done their bit and you can accept they’re good for your body), I’ve finished this month with more respect for them than I could have imagined (the trainers, not the kale. I still hate kale).
And this is how it happened.
Much like the first day of school camp, our group of 20-odd naive souls came together in the Smart Fitness gym on day one awkwardly, with trepidation, and probably wondering who would be the first to run away to hide in the carpark during a group session.
Our trainers, Carlo and Ashley, seem likeable enough, and just as we’re ready to build up a rapport with them, the doors to the blazing inferno outside are thrown open.
Then we hear two words, second only to “not licensed” at inciting fear and panic in the hearts of all who hear them. Beep Test. We then half swim, half wade through the 40 degree air, throw in a round of push-ups and sit-ups for good measure, and notch up our benchmark fitness level.
“That wasn’t so bad,” we wish we’d never thought after day one.
Day two was what seemed like the circuit to end all circuits; a hellfire round of weights, cardio and machines that was like the brainchild of Jillian Michaels, Gunnar Peterson and a drill sergeant. I’d never felt so close to passing out after an hour of exercise. There were burpees, deadlifts, and many other words that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise because they shouldn’t be real things. I think I recall hugging the floor in a daze at some point.
But walking away from the gym that day, I near raised my head in a single fist pump of Breakfast Club-style proportions. Between that and sticking to the eating plan for a whole four days, I was really feeling good about this.
And then the next day dawned, and boy was it bleak. Without going into too much detail, it was hold-onto-the-bathtub-for-dear-life-whilst-using-the-toilet-type stuff. Every time I had to rise from my desk the next day, my face resembled Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense. I’d seen things, man. Vowing to never have children if it hurt half this much, I hobbled my way through our two remaining sessions of the week, wondering how on earth we’d make it through, and maybe Carlo and Ashley weren’t really that nice at all.
Week one summation: I hope we never have to do another burpee again.
Carlo is like a man possessed. He either had a really bad week, really hates us, or I guess, is quite a good personal trainer. We’ll stick with option C, because at the end of the second session this week I swear I’m halfway to pins like Rihanna. During one session, Carlo cranks the treadmill up to 16 and I panic, accepting that this was the day I would fly off the end and become a viral gym meme. But instead of skidding backwards over the gym floor, I kept running, and for 60 glorious seconds, I wasn’t a pitiful internet sensation. The intervals continued, and the realisation dawned on me that maybe I could push myself this hard. Perhaps I was always capable of this, I just never thought to try. The second valuable lesson I was to learn that day was how much a single person can sweat.
Ten days in and five sessions down, I’d been maintaining my eating plan and found myself waking each day with more energy than the one before. I kept all Rihanna-related inspiration at the back of my mind (notwithstanding the absolute lack of Barbadian blood in my body) as I stocked up on quinoa, chicken, and discarded my fruit-laden morning smoothies for vegetable omelettes on non-training days. One night that week, my significant other mentioned to me how muscular my legs were looking. After I walloped him for the insinuation that I was getting bigger, and managed to drag a U-turn out of him (“no, I meant toned, not big – honest!”), I for once didn’t reward myself with chocolate, or other comfort food to equally offset all gym-induced gains.
And then Thursday drinks happened, and all the wheels came off. A nibble of bread became half a loaf, a singular chip became a packet, and water became Baileys. I fell so far off the wagon, I’d rolled down a bank and ended up in a gutter three towns over. And let me tell you, the next day I felt truly awful – and that was enough for me to take a vow of abstinence from junk food for a long time. But it’s important to remember – no matter how far you fall, that wagon is made to be jumped back on. If you’ve had one off day, it doesn’t mean the next five are write-offs too. You’ll feel better the second you get back on track.
Mark my words, I will be dancing to Umbrella in that same black leotard and heels one day.
Week Two summation: I’d say we’re definitely going to be doing more burpees.
Will anyone miss me if I tag out, for, like, ever? This week’s first session is quite the struggle; I felt fatigued, like my body was sick of pushing itself to its limits, and my energy seemed at an all-time low. The Sunday session was harder than it should be, and after one run on the treadmill I was spent. Luckily, the trainers are super understanding.
“Please Carlo, I can’t go on. Can I sit this one out?”
“Don’t care, get back on the treadmill and stop complaining.”
Well, that’s that then.
In saying that, he was right. I could keep going, and I could finish the set. This programme has taught me that it really is always that “I can’t do it mentality” that hinders you, and stops you from trying. Three weeks ago, I’d never dared to put the treadmill on higher than 13, and that was when I was feeling cocky. Now, I know I can do it, and every time I jump on that treadmill and don’t push myself to my limit – I’ll feel that guilt gnawing at the back of my mind.
By the end of this week, all pop star-induced hallucinations aside, my clothes are definitely looser. I’ve found myself kicking the front of the treadmill when I set it at what I used to run at. I’m more comfortable at running at higher speeds, and all concerns of someone snapping a pic of me after I’ve been offloaded across the room have abated. My days are running at a higher energy level than ever before.
And then, what felt like 1750 burpees, several arduous runs in the overwhelming humidity, and many droplets of sweat lost later, we finally arrived at week four.
Week Three summation: I really hope they’ve got the burpees out of their systems now.
While I was late for my first session and punished by being placed in the lads’ team, I gained a lot from this week. The dudes in this group are made of hardened stuff, and are really pushing themselves to be the best that they can be. With my stumpy short little legs and nonexistent deadlift ability, I battled to keep up, but it was the challenge I needed.
Session two was a core blast that left my stomach muscles on fire and half convinced I would see a six-pack appear that evening. Instead, I endured the next day with an awkward wince every time I had to bend the tiniest bit forward. My colleagues seemed stuck between asking if I had a hernia, and just deciding they were better off not knowing.
And then, it all came down to our final day; what we were all expecting to be our final fitness test. We all congregated anxiously in the middle of the gym, groggy from sleepless nights anticipating our slow death in a Dubai parking lot. And then Carlo redeemed himself for every single burpee bestowed upon us over the last month. “No beep test,” came the call, and we finally dared to hope we might make it out of there alive.
Instead, Carlo and Ashley had planned a test of our stamina for our final session – just to see how far they could push it to breaking point. There were burpees, a (short) outdoor run, weights, and even a wee jaunt up 20 un-airconditioned flights of stairs, which did actually help us sweat out all the toxins from the last 15 years of our lives. With a round of applause, and a few sharp comments not to hug – or indeed touch – us as the sweat poured off our backs, we congratulated one another. There were much less of us than when we started – but that was mostly the extra kilos that had been lost along the way.
I may have wanted to push Carlo and Ashley off the Burj Khalifa when I first started, but now I really feel like I owe them dinner up there instead. If I hadn’t had these guys there pushing me, and not accepting no for an answer, I would never had made the gains in fitness that I have.
And I’m sure my changes pale in comparison to the improvements of others in the tribe – I watched first-hand as each of them shrank as the weeks went by. On the final day, each face that exited the weighing room was beaming from ear to ear. One of my compatriots lost 3 kilograms, and was ecstatic he could now handle a minute at 17 on the treadmill. Another, whose shrinking frame I’d been noticing as the weeks went by, lost 4 per cent body fat. But probably the most striking change of all, was the vitality and companionship that had come to the fore. Saying farewell on our final day was like the last day of high school all over again.
One things for sure: this has made me far more determined to keep going. I’ve even made a post-Summer Shred vow to complete the Dubai Marathon in January (ask me again in three months how that’s going. No seriously, please someone remind me I foolishly agreed to this in a moment of weakness).
I asked my partner tonight how he thinks my body has changed in the last month.
He said: “You’ve become much more muscular and toned, and you’re carrying less fat.”
He faltered slightly when my face darkened at the mere mention of the last word, but at the end of the day – I’ll take it. If we’ve come this far in four weeks, imagine the gains to be had in four months.
I’ll be back for Winter Shred – when the Middle East will actually allow us to venture outside to slip into our bikinis and show off these muscular and toned bods.
Week four summation: I’ll never admit it if they ask me, but I don’t mind burpees now.
…only because I now know running up a stairwell built like a sauna is worse. Much worse.