Interview | Helen Glover MBE
Helen Glover MBE is an Olympian who almost doesn’t need an introduction; the former world number 1 & World Record holder is a Double Olympic Champion, has picked up three World Championships, 13 Golds at the Rowing World Cup, and is a Triple European Champion.
After dominating the world of rowing for around 8 years, Helen took some time off to get married and have a baby, so we rowed our way up the Thames to find her & Logan, and quiz her on her nutrition both as an athlete and as a new mum…
Helen, thank you for finding some time to chat with us… jumping right into the questions, what were you eating pre-pregnancy as an athlete, and how did that change once you knew you were pregnant, to what you have now?
“So when I was training full time, my diet looked very different to the way it does now. I was eating 6000 calories a day when I was in the training camp, 4,500 when I was training in this country as the training was less intense, but it was all about fuel: fueling my body to train, and it kind of didn’t really matter what I ate… I would make sure, maybe, 80% of my diet was healthy but to get the amount of energy [I needed], 20% was whatever I wanted, so in the evenings I could sit down and eat chocolate and cakes and biscuits and not have to worry about it too much because it was just fuel for the next day.
When I left rowing, it was quite a difficult time because my appetite was still there but I wasn’t training as much, and experiencing that hunger was horrible, and knowing that I can’t eat all those things [that I used to have] was quite difficult.
My diet changed again when I became pregnant, because suddenly you’re looking at being this vessel for another human-being, and you’ve got to be healthy and have nutritious foods; a good way of thinking about it for me, was that I thought about food as fuel again. Instead of eating food for energy for training, now it was about making sure I had a good amount of vitamins and minerals, and I’m hydrated, and I’m functioning really well – this is actually even more important now because being a mum to a 4-month old, I don’t get a lot of sleep so my nutrition is what is giving me my energy, so if I rely on things like sugar, I really notice that I’ll start to struggle through the day. Whereas before I could have a nap to get over that, that’s not possible anymore! So I really have to keep looking at my diet, and with breast feeding and things like that – everything that I eat will contribute to my sons well being as well”.
So specifically, ahead of a race like the Olympic final, what sorts of meals or foods were you having the night before?
“So when I was competing, I would generally get pretty nervous and with that, my appetite would decrease, so what I found really important was the week of a race, making sure my nutrition was really good because that’s when I was able to eat, and I knew that if I fueled my body well from seven days out, the 48 hours before [the race] would look after themselves and I would feel confident that I had a well fueled body.
So the night before I would get down what I could, make it a really simple meal; pasta, as a protein source I would have chicken or fish not read meat because I felt that would make me more lethargic the next day. I wouldn’t worry about having too many vegetables, anything with loads of vitamins for long term health gain would be in my [diet over the week], but the night before a race it was all about energy”.
And of the morning of one of these big international races?
“Morning of the race I had a routine that pretty much stayed with me for my whole career, when I woke up first thing, I would have some slow-release carbs, like some porridge or some cereal like Weetabix, then after our warm up or ‘pre-paddle’, I would have a banana, maybe some biscuits and an energy gel that contained some caffeine.”
What about post-race? A lot of athletes made a big deal on social media about heading straight to McDonalds and binge-ing on everything they weren’t allowed to eat before…?
“Post race it really depends, often we have heats, semi-finals & finals, so after the heats and semi’s, the nutrition you get into your body straight away is really important, there’s a really short window where you can aid your recovery if you’re racing the final the next day, so I always made sure I had a recovery shake; easy to digest, got some good proteins and carbs, to get everything back into the body as quickly as possible, plus lots of fluids.
After racing a final… generally I didn’t have much of an appetite after racing a final, and I love my food, so not having an appetite is a bit unusual for me, but when you’ve pushed your body that hard it takes a little while for your stomach to start wanting food and for me I generally didn’t want full meals… I’d spent so much of my time training, and eating big, full, well-balanced meals that actually all I wanted to do for quite a long time after the Olympics was just pick on whatever I fancied and not having to worry if it fitted in with my training schedule”
Obviously the training involved in being the worlds best rower must have been intense; what sort of exercises were you doing during your pregnancy, if indeed you could exercise, and what are you doing now?
“So during my pregnancy my training took a massive step back; I was still training everyday, but it was a step back from what I was doing as a full time Olympian. So I was training everyday, but it was much more low-level things, making sure my heart rate didn’t get too high. I did some cycling, but on a stationary bike, I didn’t really want to go out on the roads; kept a nice low heart rate, basically on a level or setting [on the bike] where you could have a conversation with someone, and maybe sweat a little bit. What I found really useful was keeping up a little bit of weight training because you lose a lot of muscle mass when you stop weight training, so just doing enough but being careful because your ligaments change and stretch, so to avoid injury I never lifted too heavy, but I kept my core strong and I kept a good amount of strength, which I think is key to recovery post-pregnancy”
How did you relax during, and then post pregnancy?
“During my pregnancy… I guess training was how I would relax, I would sit on the bike for an hour and get my legs spinning, and actually feel like me… I feel like myself when I’m training. It wasn’t me being pregnant, or me about to be a mum, I was just me doing some exercise. Now that I’ve got a baby, the way I relax is quite similar; if I get an opportunity, while Logan is having a nap, to do some training I feel so much better afterwards, I feel like that’s been my relaxation time for the day. I know a lot of people say ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, but I train when he sleeps, this gives me the energy, and makes me feel like myself. If I had a sleep and I missed that opportunity to train I would regret that for the rest of the day I think”.
DNA testing is taking hold among professional athletes, and is slowly creeping into everyday life: What would you have done differently pre, during & post pregnancy if you had had your Muhdo DNA results then?
“I think for anyone starting on this journey, if you are looking at becoming pregnant, or you already are it’s actually a really good time to take a Muhdo DNA test because you need to know what your body needs right at the beginning of your pregnancy journey. I know for me, it would have been really useful to know what vitamins were going to aid me. Now knowing that, I feel like I can get the right things into my diet, so I can get more vitamin D for example, and do all the things I know are important for my overall well being… the earlier you can get onto that, the better.”
What were you hoping to learn from your DNA test & your results? What information would be most useful to you as a new mum?
“For me, the most useful thing to find out is what I am deficient in because I feel like I have a really healthy diet, and if you look at my daily eating habits they’re pretty good, but clearly everyone has areas that they miss without realising and it would be great to having something come back that was totally personalised, so not only can I see what I am deficient in, I can see in a very clear way what I need to eat, or what I need to do in order to totally correct that.”
Going back to your career as the World Number 1, how important was hydration to an athlete at your level?
“I think hydration is one of the key elements that most people miss out, when we were on training camps, every morning our urine gets tested for levels of hydration, and that’s a really useful tool but it’s something everyone can do in their daily life just by looking at the colour – you really don’t have to go to a physiologist with your pot of wee, to send it through a machine, to find out if you’re hydrated… for me it made a big difference to my training because it changes your levels of alertness, your levels of perceived exertion, and your levels of fatigue, and as an athlete that’s important, but as a new mum it’s probably more important.
If I’m dehydrated, especially from breast feeding, the rest of the day becomes a struggle; you tend to eat more to get through the day, you tend to be more tired, your skin starts to suffer… so a really useful lesson from being an athlete was getting into a habit. It can be a simple as having a water bottle in your car that you sip on the way to work or on the way to the gym, and suddenly you’ll realise you’ve drunk 500ml more than you used to”
What was the recipe you relied on the most when training?
“I think when I was training, I was always so tired when I got home, that if it was simple, quick and easy then I would do it, so something like a stir fry with plenty of fresh vegetables, a good source of protein and noodles, it meant you had the main food groups on your plate – very quick, very easy… basically I just wanted to go to bed when I got home from training. Now that I have a little more time, and I’m not rushing around from training, I like to take my time, so I like making stews, particularly now that it’s getting cold… some stews and spaghetti bolognese, I’m not the best cook but I do enjoy it”.
What was your cheat meal?
“I never really had a cheat meal because… well I don’t really believe in cheat meals, if I deprive myself of something it’ll be all I want, and all I think about so that when I do have it I just got to town! So I’ll always let myself have what I feel like, but my borderline obsession is chocolate. I’ve always been a chocoholic, I love it and I can’t keep it in the house because it doesn’t last!”
A number of athletes have said that sleep is the most important thing for recovery, have you found the same?
“Yeah I was probably one of the biggest sleepers on the team, I would go to bed as early as possible, I’ve been known to go to bed at 1930/2000 at night. I also have an amazing ability to nap at any point, if we had 20 minutes between training sessions I would be asleep in the corner. I just found it made my recovery so much better, your inflammation response to weight training, my focus, and my motivation were all massively affected by sleep. When I was pregnant, all my friends were joking about ‘how was I going to deal with the lack of sleep’, but it is amazing… there must be something in your body that kicks in when you have a baby because it’s not been easy, but I’ve been dramatically more sleep deprived than I ever was as an athlete and I’m coping fine. As an athlete, when you have the choice and the luxury of time, sleep is the gold ticket”.
Was there anything you actively avoided, either because you thought it was bad for you or you were allergic or other?
“I think that I am much more aware now of sugars affect on the body… I was always aware when I was training that I shouldn’t each as much sugar as I did; I ate a lot of sugar, but because I got away with it, I did… and I didn’t hinder me at the time. The one thing I did avoid actually, was alcohol; I remember there was a race in 2011, the last race Heather [Stanning OBE] & I lost because we were unbeaten for the next 5 years, we lost the race by 0.004 seconds, and I remember after that World Championship race, getting the silver medal and looking at it thinking, ‘that could’ve been gold, and I’m going to do everything, leave no stones unturned’, and one thing I decided to do was not drink [alcohol], and I wasn’t a big drinker, I just thought that I want to sit on the start line in London and in Rio and know, categorically know, that I’ve done everything.
For me it was actually more of a mental thing than a physical one, would a glass of wine in the evening have affected my Olympic performance, probably not, and if you choose to have a glass of wine in the evening and that’s how you relax and get into your best mental state then absolutely do it, but for me, knowing that I had done everything was really important, so I didn’t drink, I slept well, I tried to stay hydrated… sugar was my only downfall, though at the time it probably got me through a lot of training sessions by giving me some extra energy.”