rsquo;VE had our hottest October ever (well, since 1985), and – with more sun forecast before winter sets in – there’s just no excuse to avoid that park. And so it was with this in mind this weekend that I decide my occasional determination to dip into a trim trail should be put to good use, and enroll on a British Military Fitness class.
To the fair-weather runner (I’ve realised fitness is not achieved by selective running in the sun), constant exercise for a solid hour is anathema. The only other thing that’s worse is being barked at to do constant exercise, surely?
My patch is Wandsworth Common, which is brimming with personal trainers, joggers, dogs and prams. But soon it will be overrun with bibbed sporty-looking people running, squatting, (or if you’re me, flailing) in unison.
The first military exercise is to find the team. Tucked away in a car park is a logo-emblazoned van, man and his dog, waiting for their recruits to arrive. I’m greeted by strapping Carlos Glencairn Campbell and later Rory Laing, both ex-Territorial Army, Honourable Artillery Company. “You can spot ex-TAs by the pashminas we’re wearing,” says Rory, trying to put me at ease. It’s not working.
All instructors are ex-military, like Major Robin Cope, who founded the class twelve years ago in order to encourage people of any fitness level to exercise in parks using the skills he acquired from sixteen years in the army. British Military Fitness now operates in 105 parks in the UK, boasts 20,000 members and surprisingly, 16 marriages. It is not doing badly for itself.
Rory assesses my fitness (How fit are you? I run. Sit ups? I can sit up. Push ups? Er...) and explains that there are three levels of group: blue, red and green, which as far as I can tell stands for good, better, best. They can sense fear, these instructors, and put me in the blue group. The morning group, I’m told, is mostly post-natal and slightly older, and the evening ones catch the after-workers. Rory is taking the blue group, mostly young to middle-aged mothers, and two men in their fifties who used to be in the army.
The bibs we put on, vivid with the group colour, are stamped with a number so they can holla at us from afar. “72 – put some effort into it! Come on 25!”. Though I’m “75”, I’m labelled “newbie” which gives everyone a reason to talk to me. Though warned by fellow recruits that the warm-up was the hard part, it is actually crammed with fun exercises a child would love – running straight at each other, dodging before collision, punching the air and swinging your body from side to the side. We run in file and line up in ranks, attracting glances of awe and bemusement from runners out in the park. Then, it’s straight into the exercises which are embellished circuits, basic (jogging, sprinting, squats) mixed with the hardy (dips, pull ups and burpees - a four step full body move), simplified for the the ones who can’t reach the monkey bars. There’s a good mix of group and pair-work and I feel fear slipping away.
Kate, a forty-something mother-of-two and I are embroiled in a pull-me push-you type exercise. We’ve linked arms and she effortlessly slides me across the mud as though I’m not pushing at all. “I used to do classes indoors, but then I did this and I never looked back,” she says. “It gets you outdoors, but you will hurt.”
This class has the best bits of the army: toned down military exercises and camaraderie. The recruits help you out, encouraged to cheer you on. It was heartening that they were stronger than me, showing that the training was paying off. It’s much more motivating to be told to squat and punch and sprint in this fun environment than just doing this on your own.
But, as seasoned goers will tell you, the thing to fear most is dog poo. Press ups, sit ups, rolling around in mud? There’s that inevitability of rolling in dog poo. Bring gloves. This will at least save you sympathetic looks from your fellow classers.
If it all sounds too easy, there are the red and green levels who are running harder, faster, better and are probably stronger. And if it all sounds too hard, instructors won’t push if they don’t think you can do it. Rather, they’ll motivate until you can.
This is a full body workout. No limb is left unhurt, no muscle unstretched as my body heartily tells me. And strangely, though you only burn the calories equivalent of three-and-a-half pints of beer, it will feel good – the twinges in your knees are satisfying – the result of a job well done. I want to go again. Yes, the first lesson is one to fear, but once it is over, you have achieved fitness and conquered fear, which is a very worthy cause.
HOW TO ENROLL
British Military Fitness run classes nationwide, several times a week.
Prices vary depending on the park; in Wandsworth they start at £36 a month.
Wear comfortable clothing you can exercise in, and prepare to get muddy. Sports gloves and long trousers are advised for winter.
Phone number: 020 7751 9742 (London and International), 0870 241 2517 (UK – National)