The good people over at Meridian foods invited The Performance Kitchen along to a breakfast in central London, which was being hosted by none other than British & Irish Lions, England and Wasps star, James Haskell. After filling up on a huge selection of porridges, oats and other foodie goodies, we had a moment to chat to James about his nutrition.
James' career at the elite end of rugby now spans over a decade, in which time he has made over 200 appearances for Wasps, and has enjoyed successful spells at Stade Francais in France, and The Highlanders in New Zealand.
Sitting down with us on some plush, red leather sofa's, James, at 6ft 4 and with his grizzly beard, was looking every inch the successful and famous International rugby player, and was candid about how he fuels himself ahead of a game...
"So my diet stays relatively the same throughout the week, I don't carb-load before a game, I try and keep my diet really consistent. [Ahead of a game] if I'm at home, as opposed to staying in a hotel, I'll have eggs in some form... maybe three of four eggs, two bits of toast, protein oats with some nut-butter and I'll have a protein shake with some oats & nut-butter again, and that'll be my breakfast.
A couple of hours later I'll have... and I always try & have the same thing if I'm at home, a salmon fillet, brown rice, and vegetables. I'll also have about four & a half litres of water too.
How about at half time or after a game?
"The only things that I would ever have a half-time are water, maybe a bit of a caffeine drink, and maybe an energy drink; I would never eat. For example, if a game is at 3 O'clock, I'll finish eating around 12.
After a game, I'll always have a protein shake. Honestly, I'm never massively hungry straight after playing, but I'll re-hydrate quite a lot. When I get home, I'll have a proper meal... [a long time ago] it would have been a pizza, as I was a bit more relaxed, but now chilli and rice, or something like that".
Your partner Chloe Madely is a popular, and successful journalist, nutritionist & presenter, is it tricky cooking for the two of you at home? Can you both eat a similar diet?
"Oh, she's way healthier than I am, in better shape than I am, she's the real nutrition heartbeat of our relationship. Y'know, post-game, if we're making chilli, she'll eat that but have Zero Noodles instead of having it with rice".
Does your diet change much between off & on season?
"Yeah, so I'll try and eat healthy, or relatively healthy, all the way through the season. In the off-season, I'll take two or three weeks off to let my hair down. So we'll (James & Chloe) go on holiday, we've been to Ibiza for the last couple of years. At the hotel, I'll have a massive omelette, pancakes... I'll have cold meats, a couple of donuts maybe, obviously I'll drink a lot more when I'm on holiday, love a bottle of rose, love wine... I'll eat what I want really.
When we're about two weeks from getting back into pre-season, I'll tighten things back up again".
Are there any foods you actively avoid? Perhaps sweets, or sugary drinks, and things like that?
"So at the moment, I wouldn't eat anything like cake... I'll give you an example, recently at Wasps, the boys managed to sort out an ice cream van which came down to the club after training, and everybody to a man had an ice cream, but I didn't. I'm on a plan at the moment, to get me into great shape, and it just didn't fit into it".
On the recent Lions tour of New Zealand, was it difficult to stick to a diet as you would have had less control over what food was available to you before and after a game?
"It's hard with the Lions because you're playing on a Saturday and playing on a Tuesday, you've got two different teams operating... they'd let you have a pre-match meal and a post-match meal, obviously the post-match meal was much more relaxed, and that was happening twice a week.
So the nutrition was pretty interesting, it wasn't a rigorous as I would have normally had things. There obviously was options to have [healthy meals], but even then I just tried to avoid [the junk].
The problem is that you're in a perpetual state of trying to recover, trying to re-load, and trying to train, so your nutrition is really important, but you've also got to be aware that you're depleting your body, so having some fried fish or some chips is not gonna be the end of the world. But certainly it was different from, say, being in the England camp, where you're not having those games every week... you may have burgers & chips post-game, but even then, you get healthy versions".
A number of athletes that we've spoken to mention hydration; how important is it to you at this level?
"Oh huge, I drink about 6-8 litres per day.. obviously I'm not advocating that people start doing similar to that, you just need to find what works for you. It's massive for me, I find if I don't hydrate throughout the day, I feel terrible, I under perform, I get a headache, I can't concentrate... I get dehydrated very quickly, so I've got a 2 litre bottle I take with me everywhere, and it's something I use all the time.
In terms of recovery, some athletes have spoken with us in the past, nutrition is a large part of it, but sleep is the best too, you have at your disposal...
"Yeah, sleep is the biggest tool to recover across the board; it's important that you fuel your recovery well, and the hydration is important too. We all weigh ourselves before and after a game, and understand that you'll have lost, say, 2.5kg of fluid, and you've got to replenish that. You have to understand that you've put your body under a load of stress, so it's all well and good having a pizza after a game, but you'll want to try and eat well first, then make sure you get a good amount of sleep. Sleep, rehydration and food, I'd say, are the key to helping you recover".
Obviously eating healthy is a key component to your lifestyle and rugby performances, but do you have a cheat meal James?
"I haven't for the last 8 weeks... the loosest thing I've had in the last few weeks was after our last game [for Wasps], I had a donut. One of the boys had some donuts, and we'd just lost our 5th game in a row, and my head was coming off, so I decided to have a donut. But other than that, I've not touched anything in 8 weeks.
I think cheat days are great, I think they work for some people, but I'm a lot more mercenary about this kind of stuff than most people. If you want to get amazing results then you've got work hard. You can reward yourself however, and it's not the end of the world to have one bad meal because it can bring you balance, and give you something to look forward to".
You've been a professional player for a decade now, So do you think your diet has changed much over your career?
"Oh yeah, I always thought I was eating well... I started doing work with Matt Lovell, who's been a nutritionist for years, since I very first started playing when I was about 20. He came down to Wasps and started trying to educate me... I did a lot of work with a guy called Phil Learney, and trained with him for 6-7 months... I was eating 5-6 meals a day with him, I was eating 300g of carbs, 250g of protein, and unlimited green veg at every single meal.
Slowly, he began introducing me to things like nut butters, and using fat as a fuel, but it's only really been in the last 4 years that I've been tracking everything. So my diet has changed, but it's more that now I understand what I am putting into my body, I understand how to change my body, so that I can quite quickly put on a lot of size, or lose a lot of size... I understand about eating for performance, rather than eating to be a Mens Health cover model, which is a mistake a lot of people make, especially in sport.
I went through a stage where I did some stuff with Aiden Goggins, where you drink green juice every morning and all that kind of stuff, but there's been no... there is no miracle, there is no one miracle thing that will work for you.
What I would say, my diet has always stayed moderately the same, but what has come into it, is control, volume, a better understanding from me, and tracking what I do".
Something I ask every athlete we interview for The Performance Kitchen; do you have any pre-game rituals before you head onto the pitch?
"Well I always prepare the same, so I'll always have music... I put my right sock on first, that's probably the only thing that I would do.
The only problem with having traditions and all that kind of stuff is that; what happens when someone comes along & messes with it? Having played around the world... I was very lucky at Wasps, that we were very professional with Warren Gatland & Sean Edwards, from a very early age. When I went to France it was completely different.. we'd end up having a 7pm KO at night, and waking up at 7 in the morning, and they'd make us train; so what happens if your routine is to sleep in late? If you define yourself by that, and someone comes along and messes with that, thats your prep ruined.
I just don't think any of that stuff really works, you've just got to find what is comfortable [in your prep]. Y'know, putting the right sock on first is a bit of a silly thing, but other than that, I just prepare the same everytime; just with music, and I've got a couple of notes that I make and read through pre-game".
What sort of music have you got playing pre-game? What's the last track you want to hear in the dressing room?
"I change my music all the time because, the whole point about music is that it needs to be emotive, it needs to make you feel amazing. I DJ, so my music tastes have changed dramatically over the last ten years. So at the start I might listen to Coldplay, then Walking in Memphis to some quite aggressive techno... the same way I would build a music set for a performance, is the same way I build my game day playlist. So you've got stuff for coming off the bus like, something feel good, then into a couple of bangers building up into something a lot more aggressive.
I vary that [playlist] every six months, because after a while the music starts losing its effect".
OK, so final question, a bit off topic; something a lot of people don't really get to experience is the coach bus up to games. These journeys can take a long, long time; are you focusing on the game, relaxing, something else?
"I don't think about the game at all. I don't focus on it at all. I get on the bus, my laptop comes everywhere with me; I'm either writing a book, editing a book, answering e-mails, editing video, putting a DJ mix together, watching a movie, reading a book... I'm always working.
So say we've got 4 hours down to Exeter, I'll put a DJ mix together, go down & listen to music, stay the night, then on the bus to the stadium the next day I'll watch Netflix. Before some of the biggest games in my career, I was probably watching Alan Partridge.
You don't help yourself by playing the game before-hand. But, as soon as the bus gets to where you're going, you put your music on, and you switch into that game-mode".