“Are you mad?”
“Why would you put yourself through that?”
The initial reactions to my "brave" announcement that I was going on my first fitness and health holiday in the Algarve, Portugal weren't the most encouraging.
My friends had a point. I, too, had many doubts – and with good reason. In the past year I had almost completely abandoned any exercise regime, my eating habits were unhealthy, and my weight had increased substantially.
I wondered if it would make more sense to improve my fitness and lose some weight before going overseas to exercise every day for a week. Probably, but I decided to do it anyway to give me the boost I needed – and it could only improve my lifestyle at this stage. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.
A month before the trip, the owner of Algarve Fitness, Ray Donovan, who is from Dublin, rang for a chat about the holiday.
He advised me to start building more exercise into my daily life in the lead-up to the holiday to get the best out of the week. He reassured me the week was for “real people” with “no fads” and all levels of fitness. And he didn’t promise any miracle results, thankfully.
“Our breaks work well for those who are fit and in shape, as well as those of us with some work to do.”
I was reassured.
But, four weeks later, my doubts return with a bang as I wait at 6am to get on the plane in Dublin Airport for the three-hour flight to Faro. I have spotted a few very athletic-looking people in my queue for the same flight wearing Hell and Back T-shirts and have become convinced they would be in my group (they aren’t). Questions begin to race through my head: “What if I actually die trying to keep up with elite athletes? What kind of a holiday will it be anyway without the usual drinking wine and overeating? And exactly how can a holiday be relaxing if I’m working out every day?”
At Faro airport, a driver is waiting to bring me to the Monte Santo Resort. It takes about 50 minutes to get to the five-star accommodation. It's late October when I travel but a sunny 26 degrees when I arrive.
After I check in I’m presented with a complimentary icy cold cocktail. Instead of gratefully accepting, I back away from it and look suspiciously around to see if this is some sort of test to see how committed I am to being healthy for the week. The bemused waiter explains all guests get one and “there’s no alcohol, it’s fruit”. I’m off to a flying – and awkward – start.
My accommodation is a two-bedroomed townhouse. It’s bright, spacious, modern, has a balcony and each room has its own ensuite with a spa bath. The wifi is free and has a strong signal. The house has all your normal conveniences including a washing-machine, which proves to be very useful during a week of sweaty workouts.
The resort itself has an indoor heated pool, six outdoor smaller pools, (warning: they were cold), a jacuzzi, a sauna and a multi-sports court. There is also a spa, although I don’t use it during my week.
The resort is a 15-minute downhill walk to the coastal town of Carvoeiro. The uphill walk on the way back is fine but if you prefer a taxi, it costs about €5. The top of the picturesque town opens up to the sea, with a small sandy beach protected by golden cliffs on either side. Being off-season, it’s peaceful, and locals are friendly and chatty.
On the first night, a Friday, Donovan organises a dinner at a local restaurant for the group to meet. Being part of a group was one aspect of the holiday I hadn’t given much consideration to, but it ends up being one of the best parts of the holiday.
The group of 10 includes our two main trainers and an almost equal divide of men and women, a mixture of couples and people flying solo. The ages of the group vary as do the fitness levels, with some being clearly incredibly fit and others (me) who need to work on it. Most of us have not been on a fitness holiday before so we’re all curious about what lies ahead.
We learn a rough guide of a typical day is breakfast at 8am, and an option to go for a run with one of the trainers before breakfast. There’s a workout at 10am, lunch at 1.30pm, another workout at 4pm and a stretching session afterwards if you want. Dinner is at about 6pm/7pm each night, and you’re free for the rest of the evening.
Workouts are replaced by activities on recovery days, and the group can request a particular activity. Also, there’s no obligation to take part in an activity if you don’t want to.
On the first morning there is no official weigh-in, but a weighing scales and measuring tape are there for whoever wants to take measurements. I do, as I want to lose a lot of weight and want to see how my body reacts to a week of consistent exercise and healthy eating.
Our trainers include Martin Sak from Bratislava, an acrobatics and gymnastics coach, and a performer with Dragone, and Ewa Zatorska, a former athlete who runs a personal training studio in Paris. After our first breakfast they discuss our hopes for the week ahead.
Zatorska emphasises how making yourself a priority is not egotistical or selfish. “The goal is progress,” she says.
After our chat, we do fitness tests so we’re clear on the areas we need to work on. We then have our first session of stretching, strength and conditioning. Both trainers stress the importance of listening to our bodies, technique and recovery.
After the test and first sessions, I stop worrying about what I might not be able to do to instead focus on what I can do and how to push myself further.
The final session of the day involves a bodyweight circuit, which challenges everyone. At the end of the first day my anxieties about the week have disappeared.
Throughout the week the sessions are challenging but fun. You can push yourself as hard as you want or ease off if you need to.
Our sessions include a vast array of exercises including learning the correct deadlift technique, bodyweight exercises, rope slams, kettle bells, boxercise, farmers’ walk, pulling a sled, flipping tyres, yoga and Pilates-type exercises, bands, climbing and strength training from the bars.
But on day three I hit a wall. I wake feeling tired, with achy muscles, a headache and lacking in enthusiasm. First on the agenda is a sunrise yoga session on the lawn. Our activities for that day are kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding in Praia da Rocha. I choose kayaking and within a few minutes forget about my aches with the breathtaking views all around me.
Afterwards we stop at a local restaurant for lunch and share two large golden bream that have been caught only an hour earlier. I feel a little guilty but they are delicious.
Our activities also include a 10km and 22km hike, which prove to be a highlight of the week for me, along with a cooking class and a surfing lesson.
There’s plenty of relaxing, too, in the midst of it all, with the pools, jacuzzi, sauna and spa baths. It’s easy to switch off as everything is organised and all I have to do is show up.
The meals are filling and healthy. Breakfast is normally a choice of eggs, spinach, avocado and porridge, and lunch and dinner is a mix of chicken, fish, beef, vegetables and salad.
On the final day I wake up feeling stronger, fitter, re-energised, de-stressed and focused. I’ve also rediscovered my love of exercise. I’m still a bit nervous about weighing in but am happily surprised with a loss of seven pounds (although bear in mind I had a lot to lose to start with). My measurements have reduced all over, including just under an inch down on my waist. Since returning home I have kept the weight off and have been losing a pound or two each week since.
On the last night all the group go out for drinks and have lots of laughs. It’s a great way to end the week. Fitness holidays? I’m converted.
Rachel Flaherty was a guest of AlgarveFitness.com. The all-inclusive package prices start at €1,695 per adult for a week including five-star accommodation, transfers, food and training. Flights are not included. Contact algarvefitness.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or Tel:+353-86-8363264 to book.