x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The fitness test: Row, row, row your boat

Rowing is not only a great overall workout, it provides an excellent mental break as well.

After almost four years in Dubai, this weekend I finally discovered a healthier - and significantly less stressful - way to view the city. On Friday evening, as the sun faded over Al Boom Tourist Village, I removed my shoes and waded into Dubai Creek, where a pale yellow, four-man rowing racing boat waited to host my first lesson, under the expert tutelage of Monty Khwaja. The 43-year-old former rowing champion, who has competed at the Henley Royal Regatta as well as Asian and world championship competitions, has been rowing since the age of 13 and has been teaching the sport to local residents for the past 11 years.

"The Dubai Creek is beautiful - especially at sunset," he says as he prepares the equipment for our lesson. "I am looking for a place Creek-side to set up a boathouse, where I can store the boats and get down to the water properly. We have this nice stretch of water from the Maktoum or Floating Bridge, down to Festival City or to Ras Al Khor - up and down that's about 11km." On this occasion, thankfully, we are not going to venture that far. Though a view of the flamingoes and geese that frequent the nature reserve does sound tempting, this is my first rowing lesson and the fact that I find five minutes on the rowing machine at the gym a struggle suggests it is not going to be easy.

Khwaja's strong frame is a testament to the physical benefits of rowing - unique in its ability to work all major muscle groups, including those in your legs, back and arms, while placing little stress on the joints. "It is a total body workout," he explains. "It is about co-ordination, about getting the timing right. There are a lot of things to do. It's strenuous, but the smooth motion in the water, and the views at different times of day, seems to relax the minds of people who come to the classes. Everyone says they sleep well afterwards."

Having climbed into the boat - with some help from Khwaja and his assistant - and having slipped our feet into the built-in footholds on board, our friendly, no-nonsense instructor goes through the basics. He begins by explaining that the boat is balanced by the oars. If we drop one, we'll lose balance, so it is important to keep a hold of them at all times. I tighten my grip. When resting, we lie the paddles flat on the water, keeping our hands close together, in front of us.

While most people believe rowing is a predominantly upper-body workout, in fact, Khwaja explains, 80 per cent of the effort comes from the lower half of your body. "The power comes from the legs - it is a bit like the seated leg press at the gym," he says. "If you get the technique correct, though, you get the workout all over." The actual rowing movement begins with us sliding forward in our seats, our arms stretched out and low down, in front of us. Then, when Khwaja shouts "pull", we raise our arms up to about rib-height, placing the blades of the oars in the water at a 90 degree angle, and then push back with our legs.

Once the legs are fully extended, we then pull the oar in with our arms, raising it out of the water, and we swing the shoulders back until our hands are back at the starting position and ready to flow back through the process again. At the start I was a little shaky. While the movement probably doesn't sound complicated, I found myself not stretching far enough forward, bringing the oars in too close to my body and forgetting to ensure my thumbs were in the correct grip position to ensure the oars stayed locked out in the correct position. But even from the back of the boat, Khwaja sees everything and immediately shouts clear instruction to help us correct and get things moving smoothly again.

Getting the timing right is also important but a bit tricky, especially when there's a couple of you and you begin to tire. By the end of the session, which normally lasts around an hour, I was feeling the fruits of my labour and my concentration was beginning to wane, resulting in a few clashing oars. Aware that our puny bodies were feeling the effects, Khwaja allowed us a little rest to refocus and take in the view, and I was blown away by how peaceful and beautiful the city I have lived in for these four years appears from the water.

By the end of my first lesson it was not difficult to see why as many as 20 people are turning up on weekends for one-on-one and group sessions in two-man, four-man and eight-man boats with the patient but professional Khwaja. My hands, legs and back hint at the positive effects the experience has had on my body and my mind is the calmest it's been all week.