It’s a grey, rainy Saturday morning and I wake up feeling sluggish and tired. Do I feel like driving 40-minutes to Brentwood, a place now mainly associated with TOWIE, to lug myself around an obstacle course? Nope, but fast forward a couple of hours and I feel wide awake, relaxed and I’m even considering conquering climbing ropes that seem to reach all the way up to the wintry sky above. Let me explain.
WildForestGym is primarily an obstacle training site, where people (nutters?) preparing for the ever-growing raft of muddy races, such as the most famous, Tough Mudder can follow one of two courses. It also offers personal and group fitness training including a wooden outdoor gym, all within an incredibly beautiful forest setting called Menagerie Woods in Essex.
Far from being ex-SAS or something similar, as I thought he might be, owner-coach Michael Cohen was once a complementary therapist. Cleverly spotting a gap in the market a couple of years ago, he moved his ‘natural movement' approach from Epping Forest to this tranquil 20-acre woodland site opposite the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker. He is gentle in his manner, but serious about his skills and clearly loves the forest with a passion. The equipment is almost notable by its absence as, aside from the odd metal frame and some manufactured wood, it is entirely made from indigenous wood, often using the trees in their natural form, twisted, gnarly shapes and all. He told me how he recently accompanied his son to the local gym, where he couldn’t help crawling all over the equipment as if he were in the forest.
After the session, Coach Michael reveals how you use the ‘natural movement’ gym equipment barefoot for a better grip and flexibility (I had asked myself earlier why he wasn’t wearing any socks in winter). He demonstrates how he moves with the forest, pouring himself under the tiniest curved branch and blending with his natural environment. At the Mega Rig Jam, an elaborate combination of hanging paraphernalia, from hoops and ropes to metal nunchucks, he swings around with the ease of a wild monkey.
The animal connection is key to much of his technique. After a warm up session outside the garden office HQ, blending elements of martial arts moves and a bit of Woodstock-style wavy arm twisting, and a run around the perimeter of the site, we begin obstacle training by climbing the 12-foot-high wooden Blast wall. Asked to jump down from a low height, we ‘newbies’, as he calls us, bend our knees and bounce down as we have all been taught previously. Wrong! Michael advises us to twist our bodies around as we descend to land in a more loose, animal-like way on all fours. Pouncing like this does feel less clunky and stressful on the joints.
Over the next hour or so we learn to scramble over walls and use the monkey bars, after rubbing earth into our hands to eliminate traces of lotions that may inhibit grip. This is the stuff of a Ray Mears or Bear Grylls adventure, only I’m in Essex. I’m slow to learn the technique of brachiating, swinging from side to side, again, like a monkey, whilst your hands grip above. However, the more experienced members of the group chip in with tips and support, some even literally. I just cannot get myself over the six foot high inverted wall without a hand from Michael. My arms are weak. When he is needed elsewhere, Jo, who comes times a week, lets me use her bent body as a leg up. Once there, I rest on top with my head low, as instructed, before swinging my leg round and jumping down with less grace than is desirable. Hidden from Michael’s all-seeing view I flop clumsily on the ground (although his keen ears probably heard me). I notice I’m not clock watching like I would do in a gym.
When the session ends I feel happy to have spent a cold morning embracing a new style of forest fitness. The next day I ache all over, walking zombie-like as if I don’t have knees, a testament to using parts of my body in a way that I don’t usually. It hurts, but it’s a good feeling and one I’m keen to repeat. Perhaps I'll join those muddy racers...
*£8 per adult in a group class, wildforestgym.wordpress.com
WIN an Obstacle Skills Class at WildForestGym in Brentwood, Essex
Come and experience this unique woodland oasis in Essex, where you can train, get fit and have fun. WildForestGym has re-invented outdoor fitness training by moving away from sterile and repetitive exercises, offering a fitness and training environment in a tranquil and stimulating 20-acre forest environment. Training is suitable for adults and children over seven. WildForestGym was the winner of the 'Best Training Centre' at the 2015 Mudstacle Awards.
Explore facilities including:
2.35 - 7km course routes with 39-110 obstacles
346 jump course with 32 technical jumps
Outdoor fitness gym
For the chance to win an Obstacle Skills Class for two, which includes two full day passes for induction, using the gym and the Obstacle Skills Class worth £15 each, share this page on Facebook and enter below. Competition closes at midnight on 22 March 2017. The winner will be chosen at random and informed by 24 March 2017.