Once upon a time, going on holiday meant spending one or two weeks sunbathing by a pool with a cocktail or flopping on the beach with a good book. But these days an increasing number of us are seeking relief from our daily stressors by choosing to work out as well as chill out while we’re away.
The trend for active holidays, nicknamed ‘fitcations’, is growing. One survey conducted by travel company The Cruise Holiday Shop found that sixty-eight per cent of people would choose to go on a health, fitness or detox break rather than a beach one.
And with an abundance of choices on offer, from hiking in the Himalayas to Asthanga yoga in Andalucia, there is something to suit all tastes and abilities.
Then of course there are the endless number of bootcamps all over Europe that promise impressive weight loss or tone in just a matter of days spent under the watchful eyes of army-major style personal trainers.
But for those who couldn’t think of anything worse than spending their hard-earned time off being screamed at in muddy fields or balk at the thought of downward dogging at 6am, there’s a new type of active break – and it includes a touch of luxury too.
Created by celebrity personal trainer Dan Roberts in conjunction with The Oitavos hotel, located in Cascais, on Portugal’s Estoril Coast, The Inner Athlete retreat has been designed to cater for those who take their health and wellness seriously. It’s a tough, no-nonsense three-day fitness experience that optimises training so participants can learn how to look, feel and perform at their best by the time they go home.
It may sound like a lot to achieve in such a short space of time but if anyone can manage it, Dan can. Not only is he the chap behind the enviable physiques of some of the world’s most famous Hollywood actors, singers, and supermodels, he also has decades of experience as a fitness coach.
What really makes this fitness guru different from others is his philosophy when it comes to exercise – that it should be enjoyable, fulfilling and mentally stimulating, rather than a chore to endure for aesthetic ends. So, he’s included an educational element to the retreat too.
“I wanted to kickstart a new way of thinking about exercise,” he explained. “Too many retreats focus on high fat-burning but give it a week and people are likely to put whatever weight they’ve lost back on. I’m after long-term change with clients which is why there’s also workshops and talks on subjects like mindset and nutrition.”
Packed with a range of activities, the daily schedule is designed to cover almost every mode of fitness, from martial arts and boxing to interval and strength training, stretch work, cycling, running and agility training, but all done in the breathtaking surroundings of Cascais.
The coastal resort town just west of Lisbon is renowned for its beautiful sandy beaches and the contemporary Oitavos, designed by Portuguese architect José Amaral, looks more like an art gallery than a luxury hotel. It’s spacious, open-plan interior is divided by moveable panels and brims with natural light. Inspired by the sky and the ocean, the crisp, pale blue walls, floors, and furnishings provide a cool contrast to the golden glow of the warm sun outside. All 142 rooms and suites are huge with open-plan bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that lead out onto large balconys.
Every modern-day need is accommodated. All rooms have two televisions, an ipod dock, a coffee machine and USB portals in the walls as well as a mini-bar. It’s comfort and minimalism at its best.
But it’s the facilities and location of The Oitavos that really make it ideal for active holiday lovers. The main building is encircled by a top-100 rated links golf course set among sand dunes and also contains a gym, outdoor infinity pool and a spa complete with a huge indoor heated pool, Turkish bath, and wonderful, glass-fronted sauna and steam rooms overlooking the wild landscape.
The hotel’s amazing setting within the natural surroundings of the Sintra National Park means there is plenty of outdoor space in which to run or cycle on either tarmac or sand.
“I chose The Oitovas as the location as people can get a different kind of fitness retreat experience there – one that combines luxury with good food, hard work and learning,” said Dan. “Plus the location is ideal with a beach and cycling track nearby and stunning outdoor space. It’s perfect for the kind of training I like doing with people using the natural landscape.”
I was lucky enough to be invited along on a small group ‘taster’ trip for The Inner Athlete ahead of its official launch. And I wasn’t disappointed. As a true fittie who relishes any exercise challenge, I loved being put through my paces in the great outdoors.
My experience began with an individual fitness and postural assessment from Dan in which I had to perform a series of basic exercises like squats and press ups, so he could check my form. He revealed that I was using the front of my thighs too much and needed to balance out the burden by strengthening my glutes (buttock muscles). Generally, my posture was good, but I wasn’t engaging my core muscles enough when moving, apparently something a lot of people do.
Next came a mobility session near the infinity pool mid-afternoon before we went running. Dan explained the importance of using dynamic (moving) stretches before running rather than static ones, to lubricate the joints better and protect limbs against injury. We stretched out our shoulders with arm rolls, loosened our legs with deep squats, and warmed up our waists with hip rotations.
Twenty minutes of stretching and a quick sip of water later, we set off for our run along the lush green grounds of the golf course. It might only have been three miles, but it certainly wasn’t easy. With a strong headwind almost blowing us over, each stride took mammoth effort. We combined flat-ground jogging with fierce uphill sprints and by the end of it, my legs felt like jelly. The views helped make it a much more pleasant experience however. From the highest points of The Oitavos’ golf course you can see the Atlantic Ocean spread out before you between tan-coloured cliffs.
Day two began with a light breakfast then an hour-long kettle bell session which involved lifting, pressing and throwing various weights around. I felt like an Olympian as I flung a 12kg bell into the air, aiming to land it further away each time.
“I like using kettlebells in training because they offer aesthetic and athletic results in equal measure and some moves can be extremely complex to learn,” explained Dan. “We are all far more capable than we realise and when we learn something that looks impossible, like a backwards throw, it proves that with bit of work, we can do anything. It’s a wonderful metaphor for life as well as a good attitude to training.”
A few more bell moves and we jumped (literally) straight into agility and speed work, using the same drills Dan had used countless times on American footballers. The first involved getting from one set of cones to another, using as few steps as possible and in the shortest amount of time. The more I practiced the faster and better I became.
“When doing speed, agility and reaction drills like this, you are learning to first talk to your muscles more efficiently and secondly to also listen to the feedback they give you. The more you train in this fashion the sharper the mind/body connection becomes,” informed Dan.
“More interestingly, with the relatively recent discovery of the ‘plastic’ (mouldable) nature of the brain, we now know that if you do a skill repeatedly, the neurons get used to firing in a certain pattern which means the brain literally
physically adapts and changes to make this new skill part of your DNA.”
Our afternoon schedule involved a light lunch of delicious cod with salad before we embarked on a cycle to the surfing beach of Praia de Guincho. The 10km round trip followed a purpose-built cycle path along a dramatic cliff coastline with a lovely warm breeze that made the journey seem effortless.
The intensity stepped up a notch once we reached the golden sands of Guincho beach however and were instructed to perform high knees, jumping squats, sprints and bear crawls uphill on the sand. This was plyometric training – a method of exercise in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time to increase strength and power in the body. It’s was super-tough but, like every workout on the retreat, incredibly fun too. Training on sand is challenging because it engages the smaller muscles and core better as well as helping develop co-ordination and balance.
We must have burned hundreds of calories by the time we panted back to our bikes, yet still we weren’t done. When Dan describes his new retreat as ‘full-on’ he means it. While there are rest periods and breaks to eat, there’s also a minimum of six hours’ exercise per day.
Training ended that day with a boxing, martial arts and self-defense session at the Forte – the Oitavos’ 1,291 sq ft luxury private villa, which has panoramic views of the ocean, the cape of Cabo do Roca, and the resort town of Sintra from its spectacular sun deck. This deck was where we practiced punches, kicks, elbow strikes and arm twists and locks, to floor potential attackers. By the end of it I felt as confident as Muhammed Ali before a fight.
“One of my hopes with this retreat is to inspire people to take up new hobbies and martial arts is one of the most fulfilling ones out there. It is a fascinating example of a movement discipline that combines having fun with learning complex motor patterns while improving one’s body and character,” smiled Dan as I de-gloved.
Pampering treatments like massages are also an important part of the retreat experience, not only to help participants relax but to soothe aching muscles. Three days of non-stop workouts would be hard on even the fittest of individuals, so an aromatherapy massage before dinner that evening was a welcome bonus.
My final day involved a one-to-one personal training session with Dan, using strength training exercises like press ups, planks and jumping lunges with weight-lifting and spurts of cardio. He taught me exercises that would slim my thighs without further bulking my quadriceps, like side steps and back lunges, and moves like incline tricep presses to tone my arms without building up my chest. Like all of the other sessions, this too was challenging but energising and as I boarded my flight back to London that day I thought, ‘Jessica Ennis, eat your heart out.’
The Inner Athlete retreat is priced at €1,205 (approx. £1,048) single occupancy and €1,917 (approx. £1,668) double occupancy. For information visit the Dan Roberts website
By Nilufer Atik