Interview | Dr. Jessica Gallagher

Australian athlete Dr Jessica Gallagher, has a unique training problem; how do you train for the Summer Paralympics and the Winter Paralympics at the same time?

Outrageously talented,  Jessica has represented Australia at the elite level in athletics, track cycling, & alpine skiing. In the process, she has taken home three Paralympic Medals; Bronze in Vancouver 2010 (Womens Slalom - becoming the first ever Australian women to win a Winter medal), Bronze in Sochi 2014 (Womens Giant Slalom) & Bronze in Rio 2016 (1km Time Trial), plus she is the current Womens Sprint World Champion after picking up gold at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in 2016.

With so many major competitions coming around so frequently, surely a day off, or something resembling an 'off season' is not practical, "my off season is usually after a major championship but the amount of time I take away from training really depends on when the next major is and for which sport. In 2017, for the first time in my career I haven’t swapped from summer back to winter sport as I had a tough choice to make, whether I aim for the winter Paralympics (Alpine Skiing) in March 2018 or Commonwealth Games (Track Cycling) in April 2018 and the opportunity to compete at the Commonewalth Games as a Para athlete and on home soil was to good to refuse".

Giving yourself only two years to prep & train, when your competitors get four... how do you manage your time? "Very carefully, as you can imagine it’s a big challenge! Organisation and planning are essential as the greatest risk is injury in the transition period. Ski racing, athletics and track cycling all place very different loads on the body and are functionally very different so there’s a lot of risk involved. The focus always remains on the next major championship but consideration is always given in planning and training around my 2 sports".

It always comes down to knowing I’ve done the work. When you have done the work it gives you the confidence to execute and from there the result usually takes care of itself
— Jessica Gallagher

You've got two Winter Olympics and two Summer Olympics under your belt, do you notice a difference in the level of support in each of the events you compete in? "I don’t think so, not across the sports but what I would say is that with the progression of the Paralympic movement the fans and support have increased drastically in the past 10 years".

Lets talk about your nutrition; as an athlete who has to train & compete in such varied events at the elite level; what do you eat just before you compete, or do you tend to compete on an empty stomach? "In all 3 sports I have represented Australia in I generally have a large meal 2-3 hours before competition and then just snack/graze if I feel I need something closer to my event time. In track cycling time trials are very physical so it’s essential food has settled in your stomach, in ski racing it’s difficult to have anything with you when at the top of a mountain and if you do have food it generally freezes(!) so planning ahead is important to ensure you have appropriate snacks for the situation". 

So what do you eat, if anything, immediately after competing? "I usually struggle to eat immediately after I compete so I will generally go for a simple protein shake or sip an electrolyte drink until I’m ready for something more significant. In ski racing it’ll usually be a hot drink, coffee or tea".

On the days you are not competing, but are instead training, what sort of meal or recipe do you lean towards? "Something quick and simple! I’m a very organised person so I always have meals prepared otherwise I’ll come home and snack which isn’t great when you’re trying to stay lean. My go to meal is your stock, standard stir fry vegetables with lots of fresh herbs and some form of protein. I love cooking so enjoy trying new recipes but on heavy training days when I’m really fatigued simplicity is more important!"

You must be training almost 7 days a week, so I imagine a lot of time is spent in gyms around the world; do you tend to eat or snack in the gym? "At the gym I will only have a protein shake after my session and I usually bulk it up so I don’t need to snack between meals. My shake is a bit weird on paper but it fits with what my body personally needs. It will usually include protein powder, coconut milk, avocado, chia seeds, coconut oil, bone broth, cinnamon and flaxseeds. Sounds gross right? Haha! Honestly you can’t taste the bone broth and I’ll then add different flavours to sweeten it and vary the taste each day so I might throw in things like raspberries, nutmeg, almond butter etc".   

Do you find your diet changing much in & out of competition season? "Not as much as people might think, I’ve always had to work really hard to stay lean. As a sprinter/ ski racer you don’t burn as many calories as some other sports despite being as physically and mentally tired from the training and racing. I’m pretty regimented in what I eat as I have a long history of gut problems from having emergency abdominal surgery when I was younger so my stomach reacts pretty badly to certain food and it’s taken me a long time to figure out what keeps my stomach happy and what doesn’t. I stick to a high protein, high fat, very low carb eating plan with an emphasis on my gut health and probiotics (hence the bone broth in my shake!). Essentially I eat very clean". 

I stick to a high protein, high fat, very low carb eating plan with an emphasis on my gut health and probiotics
— Jessica Gallagher

You're in a unique position, in that you find yourself on the start line on the worlds biggest stages regularly; how do you handle the pressure when competing? What keeps you calm on the start line? "It always comes down to knowing I’ve done the work. When you have done the work it gives you the confidence to execute and from there the result usually takes care of itself. I pride myself on doing everything possible so that when I hit the start line regardless of what transpires I have no regrets about my preparation and the work I have done to get there".

So what goes through your mind in that moment? "[just] to be in and enjoy the moment, it’s what you have worked for and dreamt about for a very long time so soak it up".

So on those rare occasions you get to treat yourself, what is your cheat meal? "Chocolate! I’m a massive sweet tooth and have a 3 ingredient raw chocolate recipe I make so that I can satisfy my sweet cravings without busting my eating plan. Melbourne, where I live is renowned for its food and coffee culture so if I’m rewarding myself I’ll go out to a café with friends and try a dish I’ve been eyeing off on Instagram!" 

Talk us through what a typical day/week of training looks like for a Summer & Winter Olympian? "I train 6 days a week with a mixture of strength and conditioning, ergo, track and road sessions. In with that I work in private practice (I’m an Osteopath) and will have other commitments to attend to as well (board meetings, speaking engagements, sponsor commitments etc.). It keeps me pretty flat out but I love everything I do and need that intellectual stimulation outside of my athletic career to keep my life in balance".

As the only Australian athlete to have obtained medals in the Winter and Summer Olympics, a lot of people look up to you and consider you a sporting inspiration;  are there any athletes, in any sport, that you look up to or admire? "I don’t have any athletes in particular that I admire or look up to, I enjoy all sport and take as much from watching an elite athlete perfect their skill to a young child learning a sport for the first time and seeing that pure joy. I’m fascinated mainly in the back stories, hearing an athlete’s background and how they got to where they are today".  

Finally, for anyone that wants to train in the gym like one of the most successful Australian athlete ever; what are your top 3 work-out tracks at the moment? "I don’t really have any! I’m quite happy to listen to a playlist and be guided by how I’m feeling at the time. Although in saying that my ‘death by ergo’ bike sessions always require a very loud and full on beat!"

Follow Jessica's journey to the Commonwealth Games on Twitter, and Instagram.