x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A back-to-basics boot camp in Bavaria

Tania Cagnoni faces dawn starts and jogging on a visit to Carnegie Alpenrose Chalet, which is about education as well as physical fitness.

The Alpine landscape outside the Chalet Alpenrose, Allgau, Bavarian Alps. Tania Cagnoni for The National
The Alpine landscape outside the Chalet Alpenrose, Allgau, Bavarian Alps. Tania Cagnoni for The National

I haven't seen 6am in many years, and as the alarm screeches it's still too dark to see the Bavarian Alps through my window. I attempt to stir my teenage niece, Anna, from her bed for our first day of Alpine Boot Camp training. Heading down the stairs of our cosy chalet, we're greeted by our instructors, Keith and Tracey, who look like Action Man and GI Jane in toothpaste-white T-shirts and army camouflage pants.

As we're weighed in and wired up with heart monitors, Keith reads out our ideal heart rate before insisting on a warm-up of two minutes' push ups and two minutes' sit-ups. We then set off up the path on a brisk walk, surrounded by pine forests and Milka cows jangling their somnolent cowbells, before breaking into a gentle jog.

It's not easy for two city girls, but Keith and Tracey encourage and cajole us to keep to our target heart rate and play on our competitive spirit, until Anna is racing past me like a speeding coyote.

We must be quite a challenge for Keith, who's a former Special Forces officer, outdoor survival instructor, coach of World Cup winter athletes and the British biathlon team. His usual candidates are would-be Rambos rather than city sloths. But if anyone can get us fit, he can.

The air is crystal clear and Alpine fresh, and as the morning brightened, exercise no longer seemed like a chore, though it always seemed like one in the past. The Carnegie Alpenrose Chalet is in the Allgäu region of Bavaria, 190kms east of Munich, and usually takes in four to six boot campers, but we'd missed the previous organised weekend of doctors and teachers, so Keith tailored one to fit in with our needs.

In the past year, since returning from a busy Mediterranean lifestyle to a full-time office job, I'd put on more than six kilos. My clothes no longer fit well and I got out of breath walking up stairs. So I hoped to be kick-started into shape on three days of boot camp, with a better diet and a healthier attitude to exercise. No small ask.

After our jog, we felt we'd earned our breakfast feast of porridge, fruit, juices, yogurts and tea. The chalet's other residents at the next table were tucking into their porridge, members of the British Royal Air Force who'd come to relax and recover from their duties with kayaking, walking, mountain-biking, canoeing and, in winter, cross-country skiing.

But this boot camp isn't just about getting physically fit, it's educational too. I thought I knew about carbohydrates and diet, having spent most of my life calorie-counting, but Keith drummed into us the importance of eating the right types of food at the right time of day.

Pasta, potatoes and bread must never be eaten in the evening - with the exception of a couple of potato wedges roasted with a sprinkling of chilli; which helps burn off their carbohydrate content. Throughout the weekend and at every health and nutrition lecture Keith gave us (we had four during our stay), the message of good fats, bad fats, bad carbs, good carbs, and when to eat them, was reinforced.

The goal-setting lecture was particularly useful. Keith looked at our lives and made us suggest ways to change them to create a healthier lifestyle. We both agreed that we could climb stairs instead of taking the lift. I suggested walking to work and going to the gym more. "And I can go swimming twice a week, and if I get a cross-trainer I'll exercise every day," said Anna.

No day was ever dull. Every exercise session was different and fun: a morning jog, an afternoon's circuit training in the gym, a combat physical training and boxercise class - where Anna got a chance to punch Keith (with gloves) - and, toughest of all, an assault course.

The assault course was like a home-made version of the game show Total Wipeout. Keith's partner Tracey, who still trains soldiers in the Physical Training Corps (and previously taught at Sandhurst), had us fast-stepping through 10 tyres, wheeling a barrow round a course, dragging a car tyre up a hill and, worst of all, crawling across the muddy grass on our elbows and bellies - which always looks so easy when soldiers do it in the movies.

As the second day neared its end, we felt fitter. We were fitter. Less sluggish and more positive about our ability to change our couch-potato ways. In just two days we'd turned from being two rather tired, apathetic girls to a couple of motivated, exercise-friendly types who actually fancied a walk after dinner.

Another incentive Keith had dreamed up to keep us keen was a treat for our last day. After a morning jog, breakfast, lecture and combat PT session, we were kitted out in climbing gear.

It was my turn to be nervous. I could cope with the early mornings, I could cope with exercise, but I don't like heights and I particularly don't like being dangled from a great height above rushing water, so the idea of zip-wiring across a gorge, which thrilled Anna, sent shivers down my spine.

Tracey trussed us up like turkeys with unattractive safety helmets and Keith led the way through the magical fern-filled gorge behind the hotel until we reached a tree. I didn't like it. Watching Tracey, harnessed to the safety wire, fly along above the crashing waterfall didn't help, and watching Anna leap off the tree platform with a grin as wide as the gorge made me realise I really wasn't capable of this.

But it was my turn. I wanted to go back, I begged to go back, but Keith wasn't having it: "You can't go back, we all have to stay together." For 10 minutes I wouldn't budge, with Keith urging "take your time and don't worry, I've got control of the wire and you can go as slowly as you like". I gave myself a stern talking to: if I was safe zip-wiring with anyone, I was safe with Keith, a trained mountain rescue guide. Finally, he persuaded me off the ledge and I juddered gingerly along the wire, eyes tightly closed, until I was landed on a rock by Tracey, which was quite a feat for someone half my size.

Another zip-wire crossing and, to my great relief, we were back on terra firma. Anna was happily skipping and leading the way back along the gorge to the hotel. As we left the riverside we wondered where she'd gone, but rounding the corner we saw her lying in the hammock outside the chalet with a massive grin on her face. She'd definitely won that round. And much as I didn't want to, I was glad I had tried it.

After our final warm-up and cool-down exercises (which flush out the lactic acid in the muscles and stopped me from ever getting an ache), we showered and had a deliciously healthy but satisfying dinner, before being given a massage - now that's what I call a treat - and heading to the couch, having earned our right to be couch potatoes.

At weigh-in early the next morning, before being driven to the airport, we discovered we'd both lost a kilo or two. But that was just the beginning. We learned so much about what we should eat and when to eat it that our attitudes have changed; we're healthier and more positive about our ability to keep fit and lose weight.

Two months on, I relish my walks to work, I go to the gym twice a week and actually enjoy it. I eat porridge for breakfast and my weekly badminton game has improved noticeably. The boot camp hasn't transformed me into GI Jane, but I have lost three kilos, and discovering that made me grin almost as widely as Anna on a zip-wire.or even Anna on her new cross-trainer.


If you go

The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Munich with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh3,105 including taxes. The airport closest to the chalet is at Memmingen. See www.mypeakpotential.com for transfer distances / times to the hotel.

The camp Nordicblowfish (www.nordicblowfish.com; 00 49 1717 187669) offers two-night boot camps from 450 euros (Dh2,175) per person, including full board, all fitness sessions and lectures, massage and a CD/booklet containing all the lectures delivered over the weekend. Transfers are an additional cost.