The UAE is now a fitness hotbed with Crossfit affiliates popping up all over the Emirates. With the rise of fitness, Abu Dhabi is attracting some of the best coaches in the world. This includes one of the owners of my home gym, Antony Monks, who coaches out of Crossfit Yas. Just over a year ago, we were lucky enough to visit the recently crowned third fittest gym in the world. Here are my experiences of the week there…
Obviously one of the main elements of the Abu Dhabi trip was fitness. Whilst also there to explore a place we’d never been before, fitness happened. This started with genuinely the worst workout I’ve ever experienced, Zeus. We flew for 7 and a half hours direct from Manchester. When we landed in Abu Dhabi, with the time difference, this meant it was around 9 o’clock at night. We went to grab some food and then had a look around the gym. When we eventually got around to training it was about half past 10.
Quite honestly, we were looking forward to training and started with some Olympic lifting. Strength wasn’t great due to the lack of food and flying but it felt good to move. Then Zeus happened. The temperature was still at 35 Celsius and the air-con was broken which made things even more interesting. I’d trained in temperatures like this before when coaching in Turkey, but Abu Dhabi was another level. In summary it was the worst experience of my training life. Whether this was due to the fatigue, heat, humidity or having to push harder training with two regional athletes in Ant and John I don’t know. However, I was almost certain that at one point I was going to pass out! I didn’t and in the end had fun, but what a welcome that was!
Over the course of the next few days, training took different forms. We essentially fitted it in where we could around other things. Normally, any fitness took place in the evening. Abu Dhabi is so hot during the day there that training during the day is nigh on impossible. In addition to this, it was Ramadan for locals. This is the month of fasting they go through each year, nothing can pass their lips during daylight hours which must be a nightmare in the summer! This meant that nay classes were at night once locals could get some sustenance in them. We jumped in on a couple of classes which was cool. Crossfit Yas uses the whole gym to train which means they run around the center walkway and then perform any other movements in the training rooms just off this. The set up is pretty cool.
In addition to this we hit a partner workout with another one of the coaches. This got pretty spicy (almost anything does over there), and it consisted of handstand press-ups, barbel work, GHD’s, muscle-ups and the airdyne. Partner workouts are always fun as it allows you to have accountability. You know that you can’t let up as you will let your partner down. Some people think they get less of an effective workout with partner workouts. However, not being able to slack off helps maintain intensity and splitting reps appropriately keeps you breathing heavily. So that was fun and improved our fitness at the same time.
Finally on the fitness front, we used some of our spare time in Abu Dhabi to go to the beach and pool. This meant we got some swimming in. Now, this wasn’t the most intense exercise, however it was still exercise. Interestingly, I didn’t feel as sore as I thought I would with less food and rest than normal. I feel this was due to the light bit of swimming here and there. It seemed to act as a sort of active recovery, low impact way to chill out. So, whilst not as intense and normal training or the other fitness we got in during our time in Abu Dhabi, it was definitely welcome!
On the plane
When away from home, eating consistently well is always challenging. I have posted about come of the best ways to do this here. However, in parts of the world slightly removed from western culture this is even more difficult. On the way to Abu Dhabi it was a case of making the best of airports and plane food. Luckily enough we flew with a good airline (I’d always recommend this), so the food was okay. We had regular meals which were of a decent quality. One of the best ways to get around commuting eating is to plan, so in the airport before we left I stocked up on fruit, protein bars and a meal from Starbucks which was as healthy as I could find. This held me over until we landed which is about as good as can be expected.
Training and exploring
When in Abu Dhabi eating wasn’t an issue. Interestingly, at the time, the coaches/athletes there were a bit more laid back about their eating than normal. It was essentially “off-season” so they could unwind a bit. In the Yas gym complex there are obviously healthy restaurants. This made post fitness food simple, quick and healthy. However, more surprising was the availability of food chains being not far from that at home! The way Emirates such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been developed means that Western restaurants and shops are readily available. In the complex where the coaches lived, the main supermarket was Waitrose. Therefore, whilst this was adapted slightly to be more aligned with Eastern culture, you could get the same food as home. This made snacking or lunch easier during the day.
When we went out to explore, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai malls had places such as The Cheescake Factory, Starbucks, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and their own health food bars. This made eating much easier than anticipated. No only this, but the hotel breakfast catered for all eating styles, therefore, getting a good breakfast in was easy. I also purchased a big bag of protein powder whilst over there. This was mainly because it was so cheap, but this let me have shakes to hand if needed.
Finally, we ate out at the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La hotel. This was an all you can eat buffet but with AMAZING food. The food wouldn’t have been out-of-place on a set menu and the array of choice was mind-boggling. This was our last stop of the trip and a great way to finish. Some people may still have the view that food in the East is only traditional. Abu Dhabi taught me that this isn’t true. Eating well and keeping fit out there is now just as easy as anywhere in the world. The food is good and diverse which means anyone can go and enjoy their time without stressing about what they will eat!
So, the fitness and food in Abu Dhabi was good. Therefore, all that is left to look at is what the place is like as a destination. Honestly, it is bizarre! There is this amazing mix of traditional Eastern culture and modern Western influence. The speed that the UAE has developed at has meant a fascinating combination of worlds have come together.
On the one hand Abu Dhabi has very traditional values such as females not exposing too much skin in the malls and public places. Then, on the other hand, it has a “bling” culture of showing off cars, jewelry and other expensive items. Not only this, but whilst we didn’t experience this, there is a very prominent culture of champagne lunches and nightlife in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It was slightly subdued because of Ramadan whilst we visited but from speaking to people living there it is quite a popular way to live.
One thing that was consistent was how polite the people in Abu Dhabi are. Having worked out in Turkey for a while some years ago, I thought it may resemble that. I thought there may be a unawareness of politeness and service, however, I was very wrong. All of the locals we met in Crossfit Yas were unbelievably polite. In fact, they actually made Western people seem rude! I would imagine that it is quite difficult for Abu Dhabi or Dubai natives. The speed that it has developed must have meant a rapid change in their culture. This must have made it difficult to adapt but you wouldn’t know any different. The service in restaurants in Abu Dhabi was brilliant and the hotel even better.
We stayed in the Abu Dhabi Beach Rotana Hotel, this proved to be a good choice. In all honesty, all of the hotels in Abu Dhabi are very good. Due to the amount of money and luxury culture that exists, the value you get for your money is arguably better than most places in the world. As the hotels are all in competition with each other, the minimum standards have to be way higher than hotels in other countries.
As I mentioned earlier, the array of food was brilliant. This means that pretty much anyone can visit Abu Dhabi and not worry about whether they will be catered for. In addition, even if you do have slightly different dietary requirements, the hotels will meet special requests.
One strange aspect is the fact that whilst you feel as though you are in the middle of the desert yet have access to the sea. The water is obviously like a BATH but the Indian Ocean has been brought through to most Abu Dhabi hotels. This means you go for a swim in what seems like the middle of a city. You look out onto skyscrapers and not endless ocean, kind of like going for a swim along Canary Warf! However, this is all part of the fun and experience which does make it cool.
Like anywhere you go to visit, the likelihood is that in Abu Dhabi you will need taxis. This is especially relevant in the Middle East as the distances between places are quite big. We were lucky in the fact that we visited friends who lived there. For this reason we got picked up and taken places for most of the time which helped massively. However, we did have to get taxis from time to time which proved quite interesting.
The one point of warning is the driving, as the road rules we’re used to don’t exist. For example, the method for overtaking is to get as close to the car in front so they move out-of-the-way. This is fairly scary when doing about 70 mph on the motorway! So, I wouldn’t recommend hiring a car in Abu Dhabi unless you have been before. Obviously if you know people out there as we did that makes things easier. However, I would stick to taxis to get about if you are new to the area or don’t have friends living out there.
Abu Dhabi is an amazing place to visit, as is Dubai. It may not be for everyone’s tastes but it is definitely one of the places in the world you need to visit once. The sheer vastness and rate of development means it is changing all of the time. I’d imagine that even going back 12 months down the line would mean I wouldn’t recognise some places. So, for anyone thinking about Adbu Dhabi or Dubai I hope this has helped your choice.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and experience in the comments below.