How I joined Crete's fit club
Matt Carroll gets back to basics for the ultimate workout in the Greek sunshine
Saturday 20 March 2010
"If you're looking to get fitter, one of the most important things to do is rest," said our instructor, Kristie Ramsland, before sending us all off to bed for a nap. This was the first morning of a week-long training camp that was supposed to make me leaner and stronger than ever before, yet here we were, being told to take it easy. Surely I was hearing things?
Before coming to Crete, I'd been bracing myself for a punishing schedule of 6am starts, endless press-ups and a strict diet of lettuce leaves and lentils – as is the case with every exercise programme I've embarked on in the past. This, however, was Wild Fitness – a new approach to exercise where the emphasis is on sunshine, fresh air and relaxation.
A two-hour drive from Chania airport had taken us away from the usual package holiday hotspots and into the mountains on the west of the island. Our hideaway for the week was Milia agritourism village – a hotchpotch of cottages sprinkled around a natural amphitheatre, with a taverna that produces its own food. The only sound I could hear as we made our way down the track to check in was the crunch of gravel under foot. This place is so off-the-beaten-track that you don't know it's there until you arrive at the first house; in the Second World War, it was used as a hideout by resistance fighters on the run from German soldiers.
While we helped ourselves to cups of mountain tea, brewed from a combination of local herbs, Kristie and her fellow trainer, Matt Walker, gave us an insight into the Wild Fitness philosophy.
"Running on a treadmill for hours on end will make you good at one thing: running on a treadmill," said Kristie. "But humans are designed to do a range of activities including climbing, swimming, balancing, lifting, throwing and jumping. The problem with gyms and most personal trainers is that they ignore all that."
Kristie is an expert in her field, having competed in triathlons up to professional level. Now, with a degree in dietetics from Sydney University, she trains elite athletes as well as running courses for Wild Fitness. The company runs courses in Kenya as well as Crete.
Matt has competed in 100-mile ultra marathons, in between stints as a snowboarding instructor and a career as an Army commando. With a physique like a sack full of conkers, the man is a walking incitement to practise what he preaches.
The Wild Fitness camps were started in 2001 by a personal trainer, Tara Wood, as a way of making exercise more enjoyable.
Pop your head into any high-street gym and you might notice rows of complicated-looking machines, and miserable-looking people desperately trying to conform to unrealistic physical stereotypes. The philosophy behind Wild Fitness is to do away with this and get back to exercise basics. So one of the first things we were taught was to forget everything we've been taught; this meant no weights machines and no ridiculous balancing acts with Swiss balls. Just six days in the great Greek outdoors – running on the beach, swimming in the sea and taking regular snoozes.
Our first day involved an early-morning boxing lesson on the roof of the taverna. After waking up to the sound of cockcrow echoing across the valley, I plodded up the steps to find a cracking view of the surrounding mountains. Kristie and Matt led us through a series of stretches aimed at loosening up stressed limbs, before we padded-up to throw our first punches. After years of slogging away at the same old exercises in the gym, it felt wonderful to be learning a new skill from scratch. Boxing may look simple, but there's much more to it than meets the eye.
"It's all about using your body weight," said Matt, as he lunged at me with a huge paw. Luckily, he was only demonstrating, and stopped short of actually clocking me. "As you put your arm out to punch, step forward and lean into it; this will give you much more power."
It did. And after a few minutes, I was already getting the hang of it. With every clout of the pad, I could feel the stress of home being smashed to smithereens. After a relaxing, yogic warm-down, we were sent back to bed before regrouping for lunch on the restaurant terrace.
Forget miserly portions of brown rice, though. On the menu was an all-you-can-eat buffet of organic lamb and home-grown vegetables. Diet is one of the key components of the Wild Fitness regime. "For 200,000 years, human beings were hunter-gatherers – eating meat, nuts and whatever else we could find," said Kristie in a midweek lecture.
"It's only in the last 100 years that we've been eating mass-produced food; our digestive systems are simply not designed to process it. That's why so many of us suffer from bloating and other problems."
It certainly seemed to work for me. By the end of the week, I'd lost the last few annoying inches around my waist, despite shovelling in three huge meals a day.
The rest of the week was spent perfecting our boxing, lifting "kettle bells" (solid metal balls with handles) in a nearby meadow and strolling through Roman ruins in a neighbouring valley. There was plenty of down time, too, with afternoons spent reading and catching rays on the roof terrace.
There was also a great team spirit among the group, as we got to grips with various new skills – including learning how to run properly. For this, we headed to Elafonisi beach – a stretch of golden sand an hour's drive away, which we had all to ourselves.
Shoes and socks off, Matt showed us a technique known as the "pose method", where you land with the ball of your foot first instead of striking the ground with your heel – as I was doing. According to Matt, the impact from heel-striking goes straight to your knees, causing 85 per cent of people to quit running through injury. Within days, I felt lighter on my feet, easily completing a scenic five-mile run through the mountains later in the week. Others on the course had similar results – including Caroline from Dorset, who declared that she "hated running" at the beginning of the week, but by the end of it was making plans for a daily jog back home.
Months later, I'm still managing to stick to the diet (almost) and am enjoying my workouts instead of dreading them. The only thing I'm missing now are those afternoon naps...
*You can fly to Chania from Gatwick with easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com), with Monarch (08700 405 040; flymonarch.com) and with other charter airlines.
*The Wild Fitness (020-7734 2526; wildfitness.com) Crete camp runs three week-long courses from 24 May-15 June. A week costs £1,850 each based on two people sharing, including food, accommodation and airport transfers, but excluding flights. It also includes fitness assessments, training sessions, three workshops covering movement, metabolism and nutrition, and a one-hour massage.
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