At Olafs Štrodahs’ fitness classes, there’s no need to worry about wiping down the equipment or bringing a mask. That’s because they all take place outdoors, in rain, snow or shine.
At 7:30 am just before Christmas, a handful of exercisers gather in Kundziņsala, a working-class neighborhood in Rīga’s northern suburbs, on a basketball court cleared of snow by Olafs. It is minus 11 degrees Celsius, a little warmer than the record of minus 18 for these events. The dress code is lots of layers, the rule of thumb being to pretend it is ten degrees warmer than the mercury shows.
Olafs cheerfully leads his charges through warm-up stretches, a circuit routine and a friendly basketball game. Far from being torture, there is something strangely pleasant in watching a wintry dawn break while lying on a mat doing stomach crunches.
“Whether I’m performing in a concert or a training session, I want to inspire people to get out there and do something,” says Olafs. “Because I have a surplus of energy which I’m happy to share with others.”
Earlier in life, 32-year-old Olafs was a musician with a day job in sales. But he became disillusioned with the latter gig because his team members rarely shared his commitment to projects. So, he attended the Sports Education Agency, a private college for trainers, and for the last three years has been leading groups in parks around Rīga.
Olafs has always loved a solitary jog in the forest. And he is dismayed by the amount of time the average person spends indoors. By his reckoning, we only encounter the elements for one hour in every 24, and that includes the sprint for the bus or cleaning the snow off the car.
Predictably, this has only worsened in the age of Zoom, as folks “wake up, put their laptops on their tummies and start the day.”
“I think a bit of claustrophobia is good for you,” he laughs. “Being outside in the fresh air makes us feel fully alive.”
Olafs conducts between two to six classes a day, taking a couple of days off in the middle of the week. About 30 regulars turn up for sessions in Grīziņkalns and Mežaparks, including some starting at 5:30 am for the truly committed. The cost is a donation from five euros and up.
According to Olafs, the weather has always been miraculously merciful, with only a couple of classes ever ruined by downpours. He strives to make things fun, with students fondly recalling games of badminton on a frozen lake. Behind the giggles, sword fights with foam noodles offer a stiff cardio workout and develop wrist flexibility.
“I want sport to be fun, instead of yet another traumatic experience where people are made to feel like losers,” he says. “And if you just want to have a walk around and not bother with anything else, that’s fine, it’s your time. My job is to create an environment where people can connect more closely with their bodies.”
His holistic approach is based around a reverence for the Mayan calendar. While many only know about this as the source of doomsday predictions, for Olafs it is a powerful psychological instrument, offering insights into people’s energy levels, family and working lives. Several times a year, he blends this esoteric knowledge with massage and sauna sessions and sports at camps lasting several days.
“Of course, exercising and sweating are important, but being in nature, having fun, and going along with spontaneous ideas is just as vital,” he says. “I start every training session with a plan, but I often change it midway through and just follow the vibes.”