For about six months I have been trying out different exercises, activities and fitness classes for this column - all of which I have genuinely enjoyed for a variety of reasons. There is one class, however, that I have quietly been attending for almost two months now and have put off writing about, mainly because I worry I won't be able to do it justice. Today, I've decided to give it a try. Every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings as the sun rises over Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC), a group of men and women of various ages - and including everyone from oil experts and investment bankers to editors of glossy magazines, advertising executives and charity volunteers - gather on a small lawn at the back of the club.
The first group, who arrive ahead of a 5.30am start, are currently at around 15-strong most mornings. I know this because I usually drag myself from my bed at around 5.45am and head there for the next class, which begins at 6.30am, to be greeted by their sweat-soaked but happy faces as they leave the grounds. The class instructor is Jordan Branford, an American with more than a passing interest in basketball, who has spent the past 15 years - most of it in the US - training everyone from toddlers through to world-class track athletes and the elderly.
I'd seen Branford at work while I was attending various classes at Safa Park and was really impressed with what he managed to get from those he was training. One Saturday morning, while I was attending a boxing lesson at the park, I saw two individuals under his instruction, pulling their training partners up a steep, grassy hill, the person behind holding on to the handles of a skipping rope that went around their partner's stomach - a bit like a horse and chariot. Anyone who's ever been made to do this knows how difficult it is.
On another occasion, this time while I was at an evening fight class, I watched as he put a group of men and women through a series of conditioning exercises on a nearby expanse of grass. It looked tough, and my fight instructor at the time commented on how great Branford's conditioning programme was. So when I heard he held group camps on weekday mornings, before work, I wanted in. There is nothing fancy about the DOSC morning camp that Branford runs. It doesn't involve any weird or wonderful equipment. It consists of proven cardio fitness and strengthening exercises, incorporating the Tabata protocol.
For those not familiar with Tabata, it's a four-minute interval-training cycle where you carry out a specific exercise at a high intensity for 20 seconds, followed by a 10-second rest period. You do this eight times for a total of four minutes before moving on to the next. The method was created by Dr Izumi Tabata and his team at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan. Their 1996 study provided evidence of the benefits of this kind of high-intensity interval training. It is said to have shown that four minutes of Tabata training could do more to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity than an hour of endurance training.
The idea is to get as many repetitions of the particular exercise into each 20-second burst as possible. It doesn't always start off too badly but guaranteed your repetitions are likely to decrease by the seventh round as you rush to catch your breath before the next set of repetitions start. While the basic movements remain pretty much the same, Branford varies the routine during every session, and sometimes Tabatas may be replaced by 50s, for example, whereby we carry out 50 repetitions of each exercise, back-to-back, with sand runs for a "rest" in between circuits.
During my time at the DOSC camp, we have sprinted on grass and in sand; we have performed lunges and squats, including jump squats; and we've done push-ups - traditional, against walls, and plyometric versions. We are often instructed to do side, normal and "dirty" planks for anything between 30 seconds and four minutes; and we have performed cruel amounts of those much-reviled but wonderfully effective Burpees and various forms of abdominal-crunching exercises.
Branford is a great motivator. In a class of mixed abilities, and mixed ages, he keeps an eye on everyone and encourages us individually throughout the hour. Students even turn up for class with their muscles still aching and sore from private gym sessions they've taken with him the night before. While everyone works hard, there's a friendly atmosphere that helps keep motivation high as the workout gets tougher.
Since attending, I have noticed my legs are stronger and firmer than they were; I'm squatting that little bit lower than I did at the start; and I can hold a plank for far longer than I was able to before. Perhaps more importantly, though, whereas initially the early start and exhausting hour-long workout was tough, now it sets me up for the day. This is an ideal option if you find it difficult to make evening classes - and there are showers on site so you can head straight from the class to work.
I tweaked my diet a couple of weeks ago and am no longer feeling sleepy by 3pm. I leave for work with a spring in my step now because I know I've already achieved something and the day has barely begun.