‘I know how to get people fit’ – how I survived a week of special-forces-style training

Rachel Flaherty: Military fitness week focused on reaching small goals and building confidence

Rachel Flaherty hiking up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar during her military fitness bootcamp.

Rachel Flaherty hiking up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar during her military fitness bootcamp.


I was a lot more anxious and nervous than I thought I would be in the final days before my bootcamp holiday. I had grabbed the opportunity to sign up to a week-long military fitness holiday without hesitation. But the reality of the unknown of what I’d signed up to began hit me, doubts began to circle around my mind and it started to fill me with dread.

What if I’m the least fit and cause the rest of the group to be held back? What if I’m the heaviest? What if I can’t cope with the food? What if I fail?

I’ve watched Who Dares Wins, a show on which where some ferociously fit people have cried, and only the night before going I started wondering what similarities it might have with this weight loss and fitness bootcamp called Who Dares Slims? I had been on a fitness holiday before, when I weighed much more and exercised much less, but military fitness was new to me. I have focused on building up confidence in my body I’d lost while gaining more than 5st (32kg), but sometimes it dips back down, and this was one of those times.

Rachel Flaherty in Malaga: “It felt good and different to be proud of what my body can achieve regardless of weight.”
Rachel Flaherty in Malaga: “It felt good and different to be proud of what my body can achieve regardless of weight.”

I put the doubts to the back of my mind, let the excitement take over and got on the flight. The three-hour flight from Dublin to Malaga was full and everyone was giddy to be heading overseas. There was a stag party group to my right and a hen party to my left – but we shared a common concern about pacing ourselves for the days ahead. The man seated next to me, who told me he was 61, was deeply concerned about my week ahead. “Why would you want to put yourself through torture like that while on holidays,” he asked, shaking his head with a confused look.

“I’m hoping there’ll be no torture on this bootcamp. Although burpees are torture, and I’m rubbish at those – hopefully I’ll survive the burpees. It’s a chance to challenge myself,” I replied.

“You’re mad. And no drink at all?” he asked, looking very worried.

“None, but it’ll be fun,” I said, smiling, realising this was a different type of holiday. Yes, I’d miss wine but I was looking forward to dedicating an entire week to pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Or what I thought was my comfort zone, because I quickly learned what I thought was pushing myself before was merely edging myself out a little.


Jamie, the chief training instructor at Who Dares Slims, was the first person I met after I arrived. Jamie is from Scotland and was a professional golfer for years before he joined the British elite forces, which which he spent more than 12 years as a physical training instructor. He was friendly and welcoming, as were the rest of the group members when they arrived.

When we arrived at the house in Jimena de la Frontera we met Nicole Alcantara, who runs the UK-based business with Jamie and looks after the food and operations. She gave us all a big hug. “The fittie and the foodie,” the couple are referred to.

For those of us also keen to lose weight that week (people have different fitness goals), we weighed in and got measured privately that evening. Jamie gave us a brief on what lay ahead for the week, which basically was that he wouldn’t tell us what lay ahead.

The group with Who Dares Slims hiking through a mountain in Jimena de la Frontera in Spain. 

“I’m not going to tell you what’s coming up. I’ll tell you what to wear and bring. I want you to put 100 per cent into every session,” he said. Although I had been trying hard at training in recent months, I must admit I struggle with consistency and have a tendency to hold back, so this was a good opportunity for me to fix that.

“I’m not going to shout and scream at you but I’m going to push you outside your comfort zone,” Jamie said. “I know how to get people fit.”

Women who had been at the camp before nodded in agreement.

Jamie explained how the week would gradually get more difficult so as to avoid injury, and he stressed the need to eat all our food to fuel us for our workouts. “You’ll need it. Everything you are doing will give you muscle.”

Since I ticked on the form that I was interested in weight loss and fitness, I was on a calorie-controlled diet for the week, with three meals and two snacks a day. The secluded nine-bedroom house was impressive with a large pool and expansive grounds.

Tough workouts

Day one started with a wake-up call at 6.45am, with breakfast at 7am. Breakfast was delicious, although a much smaller a portion that I would normally have – scrambled egg, rye bread, avocado and cherry tomatoes.

The first training session was at 8am. After the warm-up it involved sprints, squats, jumping jacks, lunges, crunches and of course, burpees. I burned 425 calories and it felt good to get the first activity done. I felt less anxious about what lay ahead. We had a break and came back for the second session of the day, a high-intensity interval training session with circuits involving battle ropes, mountain climbers, slam balls, tricep curls, kettle-bell squats and overhead raises. They were tough workouts but enjoyable, and it felt good to be able to do them.

Rachel Flaherty throwing a pole on a beach in Sotogrande in Spain.
Rachel Flaherty throwing a pole on a beach in Sotogrande in Spain.

Then, after the break and a snack, came the moment that I thought I would come much later on the week: I was given a task that I 100 per cent did not want to do. Jamie pointed up the hill, to gates that looked far away, and then pointed down the hill and told us to walk down to the end. There was instant camaraderie within the group of women I was lucky to be sharing the week with and as we walked down we had a sense of foreboding about what lay ahead. Jamie gleefully told us we would be running all the way, about 1.6km (a mile), to the gate and it would be timed. He would be parked midway with water as it was about 11am, but already quite warm. I wanted to refuse to do it as I convinced myself it was beyond my ability. I didn’t know the distance at the time, but it looked too long for me.

I was considering walking it but the group set off running and were all supporting each other to keep going. I was locked within a battle in my mind from the very beginning: “I can’t do this, it’s too steep. You have to try, this is why you’re here. My legs hurt.”

At one stage I looked to the side to see a large brown-and-white cow, with sharp horns, looking at me judgmentally as I loudly sucked in all the air from the surrounding area to keep breathing trying to get up the hill.

Unimpressed cows looking on at Rachel Flaherty running uphill. 

She seemed unimpressed with my efforts – I couldn’t blame her. I looked at my legs and they seemed to be moving but I was barely moving forward. I had internal tantrums, walked, ran some more, walked, ran again. Reaching the finish line I felt a true sense of achievement and the feel-good endorphins were flowing. I knew I’d already made progress with my mindset in that moment.

After lunch we were told to get ready for a road trip as we were about to head off on a hike in a nearby national park, which took about four hours. There were plenty of hills but I enjoyed every step. There also were vultures circling at parts of the hike, but I tried to curb my dramatic thoughts and not take that as a sign that we looked near death.

At the end of day one after dinner we all sat around a big open fire in the sitting room taking in all we had achieved that day. I decided then and there to embrace not having any control of any day, clear my mind, enjoy the tasty food that was cooked with the exercise plan we had that week in mind, give each session my best, even if I wasn’t feeling capable of anything great at a particular time, and keep going. Feeling proud of what had I achieved in just one day, I said goodnight and slept soundly, looking forward to the rest of the week.

The challenges kept coming each day and I got through them with an aching body, and even enjoyed many of them. I was pushed so far out of my comfort zone with hill sprints that I actually started to not dislike them so much. Every time I felt like giving up, Jamie pushed me that bit further. I got through an assault course (one part involved water, which I’m not a fan of, but I made it through). There were military sessions and games, Tabata sessions, strength and conditioning, yoga to stretch and calm our bodies and minds (I’m still hopeless at yoga but it was needed), a nutrition talk from an expert and a hike almost every day. Sports massage was an optional extra, which we all took advantage of.

Miserable mindset

Each morning I woke up I felt more energised until I hit day four.

On day four I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. Breakfast awaited but having a shower and pulling on my training leggings was exhausting in itself. Even being told we were going to the beach for workouts didn’t change my miserable mindset, plus I know sand makes all exercise harder. But once we were there, the workouts and sprints were concealed in games so without noticing I emerged from my gloom. Then on to boxing on the beach. I found my new favourite activity to hate but embrace, bear crawls, and my new favourite activity, “tossing the caber”, a modified version of the Scottish event of throwing a large, heavy, tapered pole – it was a lot of fun.

Time flew and the last day of training quickly arrived. It was time to do that dreaded uphill timed run again. It was as difficult as ever but I shaved 15 seconds from my first time. Another stunning hike after that and our final session was back on that uphill as two teams carrying weighted jerry cans to the finish line. It was an exhausting and satisfying way to finish a tough, challenging and rewarding week.

The next morning the measurements and weight results were incredible. I’d lost 4cm from my waist. I decided to compare my weight from my own scales from the day I left and the day after I arrived home, that was a loss of 9lb (4kg). I had gained about 4lb before I left so I’ve not quite reached the overall 4st (25kg) weight-loss goal yet but am very close. I was delighted with the weight loss but, more importantly, I was surprised with how differently I felt in just one week.

The group happy to survived the week!

Regardless of the scales, I felt so much stronger mentally and physically, and fitter. My resting heart rate had dropped significantly. I was much more at ease at pushing myself harder. It felt great. It was a week of making small goals, reaching them and consistently building belief and confidence.

I’ve been so harsh and critical of my body for so many years – treated it so badly in bingeing on sugary food, overeating but still not giving it the nutrients it needed, so always feeling deprived, being harsh and critical of it – so it felt good and different to be proud of what my body can achieve regardless of weight, and of how quickly my body adapted. I was grateful to be able to use my body in this way.

It was hard, tough and challenging and I loved it, and would do it again, but for now I will find ways to use what I’ve learned from the week to make my life healthier and better.

Rachel Flaherty’s column is about getting fitter and healthier

Contact Rachel on Twitter @rachelflInstagram or email rflaherty@irishtimes.com

Part 1: I lost 3st and I’m stronger now
Part 2: Stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: Friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It’s time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Part 11: Letting go of the shame and guilt helped
Part 12: Habits have led to weight loss
Part 13: I’ve fallen in love with running
Part 14: The mountain doesn’t care who you are
Part 15: Unhappy relationship with food and my body
Part 16: I stopped trying to be perfect
Part 17: Lunchtime workout worth the hassle?
Part 18: 35,000 steps across Dublin
Part 19: Military fitness camp

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