Flashback to freezing early February, and you can imagine how unenthusiastic I was to embark on an eight-week fitness challenge that promised to upend my entire routine. The Deliveroos and Sunday night sofa sessions with three varieties of Lindt that I was using to self-medicate throughout winter were about to be replaced with daily HIIT classes, alcohol abstinence, limited caffeine and virtuous home-cooked meals. But it was too late to back out – a few weeks prior I’d innocently signed up for the F45 Challenge.
For the uninitiated, F45 is a worldwide Australian-born exercise phenomenon that’s spreading like wildfire throughout the UK and Ireland, with studios as far afield as Glasgow, Bath, Bristol, Oxford, all corners of London, and elsewhere, with more set to open this year. (Mark Wahlberg, whose own hardcore workout schedule starts at 2.30am daily, just bought a minority stake in the franchise, so you know it’s serious.) Its USP is its 45-minute circuit classes that combine interval, cardiovascular and strength training to build muscle and fitness. It holds four eight-week challenges a year, which involve training as many times a week as you can manage, while following a meal plan and monitoring your body composition (muscle, fat and more) at the beginning and end. Yeah, it’s a lot.
So why did I sign up? A fitness challenge was high on my goal list for 2019 – I’d never done anything like it and wanted to see how I'd feel, mentally and physically, from sticking to a structured exercise regime. My goal wasn’t to lose weight – if anything, I was keen to put on muscle and spice up my exercise regime while challenging myself. I was stuck in an exercise rut and bored of my unfocused routine – which amounted to a Pilates or kettlebells class here, a 10km run there, a few times a week – and didn't think it would be much of a sacrifice at a time of year when my social life wouldn’t ordinarily be popping off anyway (I was wrong, but more on that later).
Flash forward to now, just a week after finishing the challenge at F45 Farringdon, the endorphins are settling down and the novelty of being able to guiltlessly sip my favourite gin cocktails is starting to wear off, and I’m in a good position to reflect on what I learned. Whether you're considering doing the next F45 Challenge or another challenge (like Barry's Bootcamp's Face Yourself or Hellweek, the CrossFit Games, or marathon training), or merely looking to hop back on the fitness train for spring, you may find this useful too.
You really do get out what you put in
In a world where everyone’s Instagramming their workouts, and gyms flog their classes with the help of their Herculean superstar trainers' vast online followings, it’s easy to expect immediate results from the latest fitness trend. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But the F45 Challenge hammered home the obvious, unglamorous truth: the more sustained effort you expel, the more likely you are to see the outcome you want. The days when I chest-pressed 10kg rather than my safer 8kg were the days I’d leave the studio feeling proudest and most satisfied. "People become braver and push themselves more with weights from week to week," says Honey Fine, a fitness coach at F45 Farringdon. "They learn that being part of a community allows you to feel comfortable in a safe environment to train, discuss the challenge and their concerns."
Equally, there’s no getting around the importance of dusting yourself off and trying again when you hit stumbling blocks. "Getting back into the swing of it after a holiday can be tough for people," Jake Hazell, F45 Farringdon’s studio manager, tells me, and yep, he’s right. In week three, just as I was hitting my stride, I went on a long weekend to Marrakech and everything went out the window (because YOLO and there’s no way I wanted to be That Girl who ruins their boyfriend’s holiday by eschewing the bread basket and leaving him to drink alone). I ditched the meal plan and broke the plan’s no-alcohol rule, and I drank a few other times later on in the challenge and ended up going more overboard than usual because of the novelty of it. While I don’t regret the fun I had (and wouldn’t have done anything differently on holiday), it was tough getting back into the #fitness mindset and annoying knowing I’d undone my progress. The key, though, is picking up where you left off and letting it go. The challenge is hard enough as it is, without the added mental anguish of regretting some fun experiences that can’t be undone.
A support system is surprisingly important
I’m usually an independent exerciser and have no problem motivating myself to work out – the thought of jogging with a friend to "catch up" brings me out in hives – but I seriously underestimated how vital others’ encouragement would be to get me through such a massive lifestyle change. "Team changing, life changing" is the F45 slogan and they’re not just empty words. Complaining about the meals and difficulty of certain classes with the same people each day was cheering. My now-friend Mervet Kagu, with whom I did virtually every class, also describes "the sense of community and support from fellow challengers and the trainers" as her biggest motivation throughout. As someone who usually avoids all eye contact with others at the gym, I surprisingly didn't mind having to make small talk with fellow challengers at 7am. I was also added to a WhatsApp group headed by the trainer who’d act as my mentor throughout (shout out to Jonah!), which I was grateful for countless times. Once I'd muted it, which I did within five minutes of being added, it was an invaluable source of challenge intel.
The first two weeks were the hardest for me – the meal plan means no coffee, alcohol or sugar – and on the first day (my first without coffee for at least a decade) I had the worst headache of my life and felt like I was outside my body, looking down on myself. The immediate impact of the cappuccino withdrawal amazed me, but the WhatsApp group told me I wasn't alone, and I ended up having one of the best sleeps of my life, so it wasn’t all dire.
On top of the support from the Farringdon studio, there was also the global network of F45 studios to get me through. Whatever fitness challenge you're doing, I'd recommend following others doing the same challenge on social media. Everyone on the F45 Challenge around the world does the same classes each day, and it was helpful looking at others’ versions of the same meals and the classes beforehand. My Instagram feed looked like the inside of a bodybuilder's kitchen, with all the chicken breasts and protein shakes on the challenge hashtags I was following, and I'd religiously watch the studio’s Instagram Stories for a glimpse of the workout I had to look forward to.
Variety is underrated
While it's important to be deliberate and consistent in your training, it's crucial to have diversity within each session (the same goes for healthy eating). The focus of F45's classes alternates each day: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are cardio-focused, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are weights-based, and Saturday is a slightly longer class (Hollywood, my favourite) that combines both. Classes are never repeated (and specific exercises are only repeated every now and again) so you never get bored, while recipes on the meal plan aren’t repeated week to week. I realised my diet was extremely lacking in diversity – as a veggie, I leaned heavily towards carbs and wasn't getting enough protein (I'm now a protein shake addict) – and I was too reliant on caffeine (see: the aforementioned crippling headache). I came away with a cookery book’s worth of recipes that I’ve already been recreating in my post-challenge life.
You have to make sacrifices if you want to see results
Sad but true. Call me a sheep, but I don’t enjoy socialising sober at night when everyone else is drinking. This meant I had to turn down invitations and plans where I knew alcohol would be involved (read: about 80% of them) to stay on track, because I knew I'd be miserable being the boring "healthy" one and having to explain why I wasn’t eating or drinking as normal. (You may find it easier to strike a balance between socialising and a fitness regime, but an all-or-nothing approach sometimes works better for me.) Thus, my social life suffered – badly. During the week I’d spend every evening at the studio, followed by meal prepping for the next day (three meals and two HOMEMADE snacks). Because my fridge is so small I couldn’t make a week’s worth of meals on Sunday like other people. (This being said, I’d never done a weekly online shop before the challenge and it’s a habit I’ll be sticking to because it is, crushingly, cheaper than nightly runs to Tesco Express. My mum was right.)
Fitness apps may have scored a bad rap recently (with critics claiming they're too number-heavy) but for me, tracking my habits, mood and workouts in the diary section of the F45 Challenge app became a key source of motivation when I was struggling, and I'd eagerly await the "drop" of the following week's meal plan on Mondays (how's that for a sorry glimpse into my life?). I stuck to the meal plan pretty staunchly and trained six times a week on average, giving me a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction that I hadn’t felt for ages. It was great having a fitness and nutrition plan laid out for me – it freed up mental space to think about other things.
Nothing's more important than your mental health
Too much restriction and life admin, I very quickly realised, is terrible for my mental health. In between the alcohol abstinence and nightly meal-prep, there were times when I felt pretty low. Luckily the encouragement from others and the classes themselves were enough to keep me going, but it's called a "challenge" for a reason: it's not sustainable long term. A challenge like this (if you're a fitness fanatic and can afford the hefty £200 a month) is fun, life-enhancing and the health benefits are amazing – by week eight my skin was blemish-free, I felt stronger and I'd shaved a year off my biological age – but it made me realise how much I value alcohol, meals out, and simply doing nothing (that is, not exercising) for my mental health. That being said, I learned you have to get through the lows to properly value the highs – and I've already put the dates for the next challenge in my diary.