Keeping fit – Alpine style
Star athletes help Paul Lamarra to run, cycle and swim his way to health
Caroline Pearce, British heptathlete and ‘Ice’ on the Sky television show Gladiators, sat on a big pink exercise ball with a dignity and a composure that eluded me. Caroline promised that the yoga exercise with the ball would improve the strength of my core. Clearly suffering from a very weak core I flopped back into the grass and stared upwards at the snow-capped Alpine peaks that surrounded us.
Being on the edge of the mountain town of Th�nes not far from Annecy, this is indeed an environment that could inspire you to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The clear air, bracing walks and hearty food have long since established the therapeutic effects of a stay in the French Alps. In Victorian times when the idea took hold, frail individuals were sent to an Alpine sanatorium to recover from the rigours of tuberculosis or to flee the smog of newly industrialised cities.
My weak core, however, was a symptom of the more modern ailments of too much stress, too little exercise and the wrong type of food, and my hope was that the Alpine setting would work wonders. Yoga had followed a circuits session where we jogged between the apparatus that you find on the edge of many French towns; beside the River Fier we breathed in plenty of mountain air as we undertook pull-ups, bench presses and step-ups.
This was the weekend that was going to change my life as the team at the Adventures in the Alps activity holidays group, which also included Sally Gunnell, the Olympic gold medal hurdler, and Christine Hemphill, a world triathlon champion, were aiming to disrupt my bad habits and send me home sleeping better, eating better and exercising regularly. Indeed I would even breathe better.
We jogged along the riverbank and over old humpback bridges into Th�nes, dodging between shoppers at the market and postcard racks in the arcaded streets. All the while, Caroline and Christine were explaining how to utilise gravity to best effect and that I should aim for my feet to hit the ground 100 times per minute rather than the normal 40 to 45. Christine pointed out I was operating only at effort level one, but I still felt a new impetus.
At the athletics track Sally, with the help of her husband and Olympic coach Jonathan Bigg, had us walk barefoot, walk sideways with elastic around our ankles and sprint until we dropped to improve our running technique and illustrate the best ways to burn fat.
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Cycling, however, is where the landscape comes into its own. We were issued with high-quality racing bikes and taken out of Th�nes and over the Col de Bluffy (630 metres). It is a minor pass in Alpine terms and wasn’t too gruelling but when the blue waters of the Lac d’Annecy and its surrounding peaks came into view it was all the motivation I needed.
Christine and Caroline were alongside and pointed out the correct gear to use and how to maintain a steady rhythm to make cycling more efficient. A swooping descent delivered us on to the side of the lake at Talloires, a fashionable resort patronised over the years by stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin. Here we flopped down on to the checked picnic blankets laid out on the lawns. Lunch of chicken, quinoa and ratatouille was followed by a triathlon-style open water swim in the lake. To shouts of ooh la la from the beautiful people by the shore we plunged in. Some say it is the cleanest lake in Europe; it has to be the coldest.
Thankfully, a fitness retreat didn’t mean a starvation weekend. There was always plenty of food, but there were differences in philosophy. Caroline advocated restraint. Holding out her cupped hand she suggested that I eat little and often, and that my own palm should act as my portion size guide. This was a shock for someone who had until then lived by the mantra that you should never eat anything larger than your head. I would need a second opinion.
Christine took a more “what you eat rather than how much” approach. She talked about a rainbow of colours on your plate and directed me towards high-protein, low-carb food such as the quinoa grain. Sally was more “enjoy your food but avoid the stodgy and unhealthy stuff”. Tartiflette, that sumptuous Savoie dish of cream, cheese, potato and ham, was definitely off the menu.
All three agreed that you should earn your treats, but those were not the ones I had been expecting. Rather than chocolate we were allowed a glass of wine in the hot tub at the Chalet Hirondelle while we waited in turn for a relaxing massage in the converted gypsy caravan. After walking for four hours in the rain from Saint-Jean-de-Sixt to the smart ski resort of La Clusaz over an intervening ridge we were shown to a discreet tree-house where we warmed ourselves by the stove and quaffed champagne.
Part of the thinking behind the weekend was that the trainers never let you know what was going to happen next, because they wanted to catch you off-guard. Just when you thought you had run your last sprint another one would be lined up so you were pushed to the limit.
Yet there was nothing austere or demanding about the weekend. Guidance was offered but you didn’t have to act on it. The Alps in the background, however, were the ever-present motivating force. To walk, cycle and run with comfort in such an environment certainly became one of my goals.
Paul travelled by train from London Saint Pancras to Geneva via Paris, booking through Rail Europe. A return fare from London to Geneva costs from �115 standard class.
Tel: 0844 848 4064
Paul joined Adventures in the Alps for its fitness weekend. The firm’s 2012 fitness breaks include: a yoga weekend priced at �650 for three nights, including all meals, chalet accommodation and tuition; a fitness training week priced at �1,200 for six nights, including all meals, chalet accommodation and trainer. Prices also include transfers to and from Geneva airport and railway station, and Annecy railway station.