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No pain, no gain: why a hellish week at bootcamp more than pays off

Alex Light
Alex LightBody Work Columnist
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It’s 7am on a cold, wet October morning, and I'm wondering if the pouring rain means the morning’s exercise will be called off. Or, at least, be replaced with some form of gentle, indoors activity? I’m thinking along the lines of pilates, yoga, a spot of spinning… Wishful thinking. "If it ain’t raining, you ain't training," shouts one of our big, burly trainers as we are ordered to drop to the muddy ground and begin a gruelling circuit.

All photos courtesy of Jeremy Batch (

I am at the No.1 Bootcamp in Norfolk, performing more squats, press-ups and burpees* than you can shake a stick at. (*If you don't know what burpees are, be thankful and ask no more.)Encouraged by the promise of weight loss – we all want to drop a few pounds, right? – and improved fitness levels, I had naively signed up for a week-long stint. Two weeks later and armed with a suitcase full of exercise clothes generously supplied by sportswear company Regatta, I arrive at the country house raring to go. But panic rapidly sets in as our trainer, an ex-Marine with more muscles than my whole family put together — and there are seven of us — firmly informs us of the House Rules and warns of the "tough times" ahead. Yikes.I silently curse myself for failing on the research front and sneak a glimpse at the ten or so other nervous faces in the room. We all go to bed terrified. Blaring rock music at 6.30am marks the start of the next day. Filing up in the courtyard outside, we continuously nudge each other as a reminder to keep the legs moving – standing still results in punishment for the whole group. An hour's run gets our muscles warmed up before we sit down for breakfast – a small bowl of porridge.

Two demanding 90-minute circuits follow, broken up by a quick break for 'snacks' (I become fond of referring to these as 'canapes' thanks to their petite nature). The circuits are torturous. Holding the plank position for any longer than 30 seconds really hurts and tractor tyres, I can assure you, are even heavier than they look. Twenty minutes in, I’m not entirely surprised when I hear a girl sobbing her way through a series of leg repetitions – I can, quite literally, feel her pain. We breathe a heavy sigh of relief when 12.30pm finally arrives and we allow our shellshocked bodies an hour's respite to eat lunch (it is probably more accurate to say I inhale mine). The food, cooked by an ex-Oxo Tower chef, is healthy, flavourful fare designed with weight loss in mind: chicken breast, salmon and lean beef combined with lovely salads make up most of the mealtimes. However, as a girl mildly obsessed with food (earning myself the nickname 'The Bin' at school for shamelessly hoovering up any leftovers), I struggle with the calorie-restricted diet and regularly find myself daydreaming about, in particular, cream cakes and cheese toasties. But it is important to point out that this programme is safe and thoroughly thought-out and it soon becomes clear that our bodies are being given exactly the right amount of food to properly deal with the brutal exercise regime. We are also in safe hands with the experienced trainers, who carefully monitor us and are able to spot real exhaustion instantly. A leisurely, several-hour hike around the countryside rounds off the day's exercise. This comes as a relief after the intense circuit training but continuing to put one exhausted leg in front of the other becomes increasingly difficult.

We continue in much the same fashion until we hit – and 'hit' really is the best way to describe it – 'Toxic Tuesday'. Now, I had been warned about the notorious third day of training, when DOMS – delayed onset of muscle soreness – fully kicks in and your poor, shocked body seizes up. But I wasn't quite prepared. Running a brush through my hair was like lifting a ten tonne weight and getting both legs out of bed felt akin to climbing Mount Everest… I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever be rid of the smell of Deep Heat. Luckily, we had a great deal of comic relief. My team mates and I spent the non-exercise time – of which there really wasn’t much – giggling and fantasising about every kind of food under the sun. We even sneak out to Tescos one night to gape at the totally off-limits goody-lined aisles before opting to cheat with - wait for it - an apple each. Despite the aches, pains and deep, deep rumblings of hunger, which thankfully wear off as the days pass, I gradually begin to feel the difference in my body. I become visibly stronger and leaner. My skin, being given a much-needed break from daily make-up and the harsh London air, is clearer and smoother than ever.

But the proof of the pudding – ooh, pudding (I'm still hungry) – is in the weigh-in. A lot of emphasis is put on this moment throughout the week, and the tension is palpable as we wait in turn to see if our hard work has paid off. It has, of course. One woman has managed to shed 11 pounds and I find myself getting teary as it is announced - I'm delighted that her gritty determination has given her the result she had been so hoping for. As for me, I lose five pounds, come away with guns to rival Madonna's and feel thoroughly motivated to persevere. Within two hours of arriving back home, I have booked in for a course of 10 circuit training classes at my nearest park. Maintaining the diet, however, proves slightly more difficult — within the same two hours, I have devoured two plates of lasagne, a chicken sandwich and a bag of toffee popcorn. One thing at a time, hey.

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