Interview | Will Bayley MBE

Four years after taking silver in London 2012 Will realised his dream of becoming Paralympic champion in Rio and his celebration provided one of the most iconic images of the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Will joined the GB Para table tennis team in 2006 and after representing Paralympics GB in Beijing in 2008 he returned to China on his own for several months to train with the best in the world. From then on Will has been one of the best players on the planet, picking up European, World and Olympic gold medals.

We got a few moments with Will before his training for Strictly Come Dancing gets into full swing…

So, ahead of a game, let's say the night before, what sort of meals/foods are you having? “I try to have a mix of carbohydrates – generally pasta - for concentration and protein – generally chicken or turkey - and vegetables”.

Do you eat much in the morning of a game? “I don’t have a set plan and it depends on the time of my first match. If I am playing at 09:00 I just have snack – maybe one slice of peanut butter on toast with bananas – but if I am not playing until later then I would have a bigger breakfast such as eggs, an omelette or porridge with honey.”

Are you eating much after a game or competition? Can you eat pretty much anything you like? “I can have to play up to five matches a day sometimes and I won’t eat much in between – maybe a cereal bar, wrap etc – then I’ll eat supper when I’ve finished. What I eat during tournaments does depend on where I am and what country as you have to eat what is available at the hotel”.

I’ve struggled with my diet over the years. At one time I was eating as few calories as possible to try and slim down but I’ve realised that the most important thing is to be focused and happy so you have to find a balance
— Will Bayley MBE

Does your diet change much over the year? Are you taking on-board more calories during the summer or winter? I’ve struggled with my diet over the years. At one time I was eating as few calories as possible to try and slim down but I’ve realised that the most important thing is to be focused and happy so you have to find a balance. To play table tennis at the highest level you have to be so switched on mentally and if you don’t eat enough calories then you get tired both physically and mentally.

It’s not like being a boxer who has to make a weight. I feel better now when I’m not too skinny as I’ve got more power and I feel mentally sharp. I’m also much healthier. When I tried to live off 1000 calories a day I was always ill but this year I haven’t been ill at all which has made a difference to my level of play. At the end of the day it’s not about having a six-pack it is about winning matches and you have to accept your body type”.

Do you eat much when you are training; do you have a protein bar or shake within easy reach? “After a gym session I’ll usually have a protein bar or shake but I’m quite small so I don’t eat as much as some of the other guys”.

How important is hydration to an athlete at your level? “Massively – even more important than food as focus is everything in table tennis and if you’re well-hydrated and feeling good then it makes a big difference to your mood and you feel better prepared”.

Max Lahiff (rugby player over here in the UK) came down to our studio and said sleep and nutrition are king for recovery, do you find the same? “Sleep is very important although being a dad with a young daughter I’m struggling with that a bit when I go home at weekends. I sleep very well and if I don’t get the sleep I need then it does affect me. During a recent trip to a tournament in Japan we had to cope with the travel, time difference and jet lag as we only had one day to recover before the competition started so it is important to learn to adapt”.

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What are the most common meals in your house? Do you have to make sure you're eating XX amount of calories per day/week? “When I’m at home I tend to eat what my daughter eats so a lot of pasta and vegetables. Generally we have healthy food. I don’t count calories any more as it doesn’t work for me”.

What is your 'cheat' recipe? “My favourite ‘bad food’ is cheese on toast with loads of cheese”.

Is there anything you actively avoid? “Diet Coke – I used to be addicted to it and drink far too much but the doctor said I should avoid it”.

Will your diet change much, do you think, now you are training for something other than table tennis? “No I don’t think so. I train six hours a day for table tennis plus additional work on strength and conditioning and in the gym so I’ll just keep trying to have a good balance of carbs and protein”.

Final questions away from nutrition: Do you have a favourite place to compete? “Slovenia – we have a tournament and a training camp in Lasko every year and I’ve had a lot of success there”.

Is there a particular game that stands out in your career so far? “I think the best game I’ve ever been involved in was the final of the World Championships in Beijing in 2014 when I beat the Ukrainian Maksym Nikolenko in five sets. It was a very high quality match and we were both playing so well. There were ups and downs throughout the match and it was so close in the end”.

Lastly what piece of equipment is in your bag, that people might be surprised about (for example, a tennis ball for stretching, or a particular toiletry, or piece of clothing)? “I have stretching bands for warming up and a Pulseroll massager”

Find Will on Instagram to follow his journey to Tokyo 2020 and get the behind the scenes info on his Strictly Come Dancing training.