Dubai boot camp: Tried & tested

One Time Out journalist does battle with the Dubai stone. Can a month at a Dubai military boot camp turn lazy into lean?

A few weeks ago, I went to Dubai Mall for a spot of shopping. I strolled, perused, and purchased. All was well with the world, except that I also nearly had a heart attack while climbing a modest flight of stairs.

I’ve been in Dubai for four-years. Over this time, my exercise routine has boomeranged between sporadic gym trips and enthusiastic shape-throwing on the dance floor, to little more than waddling into work.

I turned 30 last year and decided that things had to change. And then I went home for Christmas and spent a week eating enough calories to send a small family to Weight Watchers. In January, I vowed to join the gym, but then I went on holiday and it would have been unseemly to break into a jog in a bikini. So I didn’t.

Luckily, the fates conspired to save me, when a friend and fellow gym-dodger proudly announced that she was joining a Dubai ‘Boot Camp’. How pleasant, I thought. No gyms, just jolly jogs in the park with a nice man in uniform. Lovely, I said, sign me up. So she did, and here we are.

Sunday April 4: Week one, day one

It’s 7.15pm and around 30 degrees. I am waiting in Dubai’s Safa Park with my fellow gym-dodger for the rest of our boot camp group to turn up. We got here early, for fear of being punished.

Having changed into appropriate leisurewear en route, I am starting to feel rather unwell. This is partly because my exercise gear wouldn’t look out of place in 1982, but mostly because I am ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED. I am the most unfit I have ever been. I have heard the boot camp horror stories. I am fairly convinced that I might die.

It’s 7.30pm on the dot and we’re off. After a quick chat with our very pretty instructors (I can see why the boys have repeat female customers) each of us is asked to jog on the spot, before taking turns to introduce ourselves: Name, nationality, reason for joining and favourite chocolate. The words ‘want to be thin’ and ‘Minstrels’ hang in the air as I wheeze through the initial niceties. I am in serious trouble.

In brief: I don’t run. I can’t do press-ups and I’m not very competitive. I’m also totally fine with being a loser. This is going to be a long month.

Okay, so day one at Ignite Boot camp ‘Night Ops’ goes like this. First, you declare what you want to achieve. Thin, please, sir.

Next, you spend your first session being assessed, before being split into ‘ranks’, depending on your ability. We are told that in the second session on Tuesday we will be given t-shirts, according to our rank. I managed nine press-ups, 27 sit-ups, 20 ish squats and ran 1600 metres in 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure this makes me ineligible for any war but, in boot camp terms, I must be a soldier (the lowest rank). Only Tuesday will tell. Now, where are those Minstrels?

Day 2: Tuesday April 6 7.30pm Safa Park

Whoever said that spending the day sitting on your behind was bad for you was absolutely right. I’m in agony. Standing up isn’t much better, closely followed by reaching, pointing, sneezing and laughing.

I am now two sessions into my Dubai boot camp. Session one, established that I am indeed very unfit. I was thus awarded a ‘soldier’ t-shirt at the beginning of last night’s class, just in case there was any doubt among my comrades about my lowly rank. I was also informed that I have a ‘weak core’ but more of that later.

We started session two with some pleasant banter. Stories of previous boot camps were exchanged – it appears that a lot of people come back for more – and returning boot campers chuckled like old chums as Guillaume (he’s our instructor, keep up, folks) started unloading what appeared to be lengths of pipe from the back of his van. These, along with a metal screw top, were to be our ‘guns’. Oh dear.

'Guns' in hand we trotted into the park, passing what appeared to be a much bigger boot camp comprising of what could have been real soldiers – well, fit people, at least. At this point, the evening started to become much less pleasant.

After some stretching, lovely Guillaume pointed us towards the park sand pit. We were to unscrew the heavy bit from the top of the pipe, sorry, gun and fill it with sand. Right up to the top, he said. So I did. It was a school girl error.

So, guns loaded with sand, some less full than others, I might add, I won’t name names, we headed back to the grass. First, there was jogging, then there was lifting, then press-ups, then sit ups, then some evil hybrid of the two, then squats, then more running, then I had so much grass on my face I wasn’t sure what I was doing. This, aside from an ill-advised half marathon thirteen years ago, is the hardest thing that I have ever done.

Session over, Guillaume encouraged us to have some ‘good carbs’ as soon as possible. Music to my ears, this was surely a license to stop at Pizza Hut on the way home? I could have kissed him. I didn’t though. Honest. Turns out that a ‘good carb’ is an apple. These are bad days.

Today, the morning after the night before, I feel like a very heavy person is sitting on my shoulders. Walking downstairs was not an elegant affair. On the plus side, I do feel like a muscle might be attempting to develop under my muffin top.

The mission continues. The next session is cardio on Thursday. The ambulance is on standby.

Thursday April 8: Week one, day three

Today was ‘cardio’ day and, in a sick way, I was looking forward to it. Think about it. Do you know any fat runners? No, you don’t. They’re all skinny. Bring it on.

Clearly, I hadn’t thought this one through.

I was in agony before the session even started - big man, now jumping on shoulders, walking down stairs, still an ugly affair, thighs, about to explode. Not good.

But surely, a run around the park can’t be as bad as running with a big pipe full of sand? I mean, really, how far can it be? Let me enlighten you. It is a long LONG way. Don’t do it. Ever.

First, Fabian (instructor number two, Guillaume was catching up on his beauty sleep) led us in a run at 80% full speed. Now, considering that my usual speed is a walk, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this.

Turns out, the percent refers to an amount of the speed you would run if you were being chased by, say, a big monster. 100% is speeding away from imminent death and so on. And off we went, around the entire edge of the park. Sometimes at 90%, sometimes at 80% interspersed with the odd ‘slow down’ to a jog to drink water but there were no, repeat NO, actual stops.

I learned several things from this morning’s experience. Number one, carrying a big bottle of water while attempting to run, when you’re chronically unfit, is not easy. I mean, where do you put it? I am thinking of investing in one of those lovely hats with the straw.

Number two. Running is not fun. It really isn’t. I have a new found respect for people who do it on a regular basis. They deserve their thinness.

Number three. The only way to survive a run, is to have an out of body experience of some kind. Naturally, I focused on thinness and my new supermodel figure. But be warned, this is only possible if you never catch sight of your own reflection.

Number four. I am hiring a body double to do the next session for me. All applications welcome.

Friday April 9, Week one, day four

We’re back at Safa Park, this time at 7am on a FRIDAY morning. Oh yes, a Friday. The weekend! I’ve become so institutionalized, that I felt like this was a bit of a treat after Thursday’s 6am torture. It wasn’t.

Firstly, I didn’t account for the fact that post-7am the sun is out. This makes an ordinarily horrific hour of physical exertion almost unbearable.

Secondly, I didn’t know that from 7.30am onwards on a Friday morning all sorts of weird committed sporty types start gathering at gate 1 - exactly where we were panting our way through a boxing session. Pitying glances do not help a lady focus on her ‘jabs’ while pondering future wrinkles caused by excessive squinting.

We had all chosen boxing as our Friday session of choice because it sounded easy. Also, none of us really understood what the second option was. It was something to do with ‘planks’ so, without saying a word to each other, we all furiously nodded as soon as another option was announced.

Turns out, I am no Rocky Balboa. I have neither the strength nor the co-ordination to make it in the boxing world. On the plus side, there is an odd sense of satisfaction as you feel your bingo wings flapping in the breeze. It’s like you’re actually shaking them off. Result.

Sadly, the session wasn’t just boxing. Our lovely lady instructor for the day, Jo (who incidentally had been up training since 4.30am - lunatic) decided to throw in some ‘burpies’ and a couple of other jumping and squatting related exercises with names I can’t remember. Each was more painful than the last, after three previous days of muscle-twanging hell. This was a dark day. Worse than Thursday’s cardio, which I never thought could be possible.

Week one complete, only twelve more hours and three more weeks of excruciating pain left to go. If I am not fit by the end of this, I never will be.

Sunday April 11: Week two, day five

I think it would be fair to say that I’ve hit a bit of a wall. I’ve only been doing this for a week but it feels like a lifetime. On Friday, I actually started muttering obscenities under my breath, mid-drill. What kind of soldier am I? I was about to find out.

Amazingly, pretty much everyone who started the course last week is still here. This is apparently unusual. People just stop showing up - clever, clever people.

Luckily, last night, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Guillaume (evil instructor number one) had food poisoning and was unable to leave the house. Oh no, really? That is a shame. I only just stopped myself from breaking into a celebratory jig. I wasn’t the only one.

Fabian (number two and less scary) is taking his place. Happy, happy day, things are looking up. Fabian’s a softly-spoken young Australian, we like him a lot. Sadly, all is not as it seems. Once the whistle blows, Fabian is mean.

He hands us traffic cones and the dreaded pipes/guns to take to our training area. Again, they have to be filled with sand. Ha, he thinks I learned nothing last week. As if I’m going to fill mine to the top. Fool.

I don’t and he checks. I have to run back to the sandpit with my already half ‘loaded’ gun and top it up before the session even starts. Why, Fabian, why??????

Today, the session is called ‘suicide sprints’ Now, call me sensitive, but this doesn’t sound good. It’s not.

The traffic cones are laid out ahead of us at intervals. I can’t even see as far as the last one. I remember school sports day and I know what traffic cones mean. They mean running, fast running, and lots of it - interspersed with falling over, skidding, collapsing into a heap, crying and eventually asking your mum if you can go home.

To make matters worse, each sprint begins and ends with its own mini torture. Sit-ups, press-ups, squats, jump-squats and all manner of other things designed to pull muscles and generally destroy your soul.

Now, I said that last Thursday’s cardio session was bad. It was. But it was, quite literally, a walk in the park, compared to this. I can hardly drag one foot in front of the other. My run is little more than a stumble. What on earth am I doing here?

The session finally ended and we hobbled out of the park, emptied pipes in hand, high on endorphins, laughing about exactly how broken our bodies were. I joked that my knees might never touch again.

This morning, it’s a lot less funny. If you see me Tina Turner-ing it down the stairs today, please be kind.

Tuesday April 13: Week two, day six

Some days, you jump out of bed, full of the joys of spring. Yesterday was not one of those days.

I was exhausted, to the point where I was seriously considering the merits of a power nap in between work finishing and the beginning of boot camp, or, as I like to call it, the biggest mistake of my life - aside from that cropped haircut in ’98.

But, true to my word, or more honestly the Dhs500 I’ve been promised for finishing this horrific process (my word, means nothing) I grabbed gym-dodger number two and hobbled along to Safa Park for another 7.30pm rendez vous with the rest of the troops.

You might remember, that Guillaume (evil instructor number one) was off sick with food poisoning last session, leaving us in the hands of instructor number two, Fabian (harsh but fair). Sadly, this pleasant interval was not to last, as we caught sight of our worst nightmare hurtling into the car park, just in the nick of time. Damn you, Guillaume, damn you. Doesn’t food poisoning knock most people out for a week, at least? What are you, man, some kind of robot??

Needless to say, this ordinarily pleasant sight was not a welcome one today. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept a little.

So, off we went into the park, traffic cones and a bag of boxing gloves in tow - thankfully, no sign of the dreaded gun-pipes.

Slowly, we allowed ourselves to dream, that a session with no gun-pipes would be an easy one. Well, some of us did. Call me an old cynic, but I know those traffic cones never mean anything less than full-blown torture. I was right.

Yes, there was some boxing, but only between fast bursts of sprinting. This was Guillaume’s idea. I know this because he was there shouting and blowing his whistle in my ear throughout the whole experience. When he wasn’t shouting or blowing he was handing out punishments. We’d somehow managed to accrue 38 between us by the end of the session.

One hour later, with supplies of bodily fluids, and pride, severely depleted, it was punishment time. Now, I’m really not sure we did manage to build up 38 of them but Guillaume seemed set on dishing them out regardless. Burpies (weird hybrid jumping/press-up things) followed by press-ups. Burpies are torture, especially if you have long legs. I’m not making excuses, honestly, it’s just harder to whip long legs under you and jump into the air. It’s a fact.

So, we were punished and then we stretched and cooled down – the only good bit. Finally, the pleasant stroll out of the park and a bit of endorphin-fuelled banter. I joked about my lack of co-ordination and general sporting skills, hoping for a pat on the back or at least a bit of encouragement from the big G. Foolish error. “Yeah, we talk about that when you’re not here, too, hahahahaha”. OMG, how rude! Do you think that I’m so delirious with tiredness that I can’t hear you? Now, things really cannot get any worse. I’m not only a broken woman but a shamed one. This is a dark day.

Thursday April 15: Week two, day seven

Today, I made a boot camp breakthrough. I have found my thinspiration.

She’s called Sue*. Sue is of indeterminate age, tall, blonde and slim - apologies if I sound like a bit of a stalker, but she does have the best legs that I have ever seen.

They are long, and thin, not a hint of cellulite. I know this, because I often end up running behind her - a long, long way behind her. I run behind pretty much everyone else in the group. As we have already established, I am extremely bad at running.

This morning, I saw the light. The time was 5.45am, the location was Safa Park gate 1. Sue and her husband, we’ll call him Steve, arrived just after me and we whiled away five-minutes with some idle chat. It turns out that Sue is not Sue by magic, no siree. Sue has lost two stone. TWO STONE, courtesy of boot camp. Oh. Happy. Day.

Okay, so it wasn’t instant, and Sue is also pretty genetically blessed. But TWO STONE!!

Sue and Steve have been doing boot camp, on and off, for six months. The story goes that it was hard initially (yup, feeling you there, Sue) but then it got better. And then, somehow along the way, the two stone was gone.

So off we trotted, well, let’s not go overboard, Sue trotted and I staggered about 100metres behind. My knee also felt like somebody had been repeatedly kicking it throughout the night but I felt positive for the first time this week. Yes, I was in agony, my face was purple, and my jogging would not have looked out of place in a Benny Hill sketch, but I was making progress. I will have Sue’s legs by the end of the month. By hook or by crook, they will be mine.

*names have been changed to protect the skinny

Friday April 16 Week two, session 8

Disaster has struck. The bad knee that I mentioned in my last update is now well and truly, well, knackered. I am hobbling like an old crone but, as Friday’s session is usually light on running, I thought it was safe to show up and give it a go.

Guillaume was back in action and, keen not to make my knee any worse, he kept me occupied with boxing and planks. Unfortunately, over the weekend the knee deteriorated, so much so that I can’t walk on it properly today (Sunday) so it looks like I’ll be sitting out of tonight’s session.

I am actually really disappointed, I feel like a failure. After two weeks of solid exercise hell I was starting to feel like progress was being made. This is going to set me back, but fear not, I will return.

For the record, all of our instructors asked about injuries at the beginning of every session. I just chose not to mention how bad my knee was until it was too late - foolish error.

Watch this space…

Bootcamp costs Dhs1000 for 16 sessions, four times a week for one month with Ignite Wellness. For more details, check out

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