Derval O’Rourke reveals her fuel for body and mind

THE 2004 Greek Olympics was a “wake-up call” for Derval O’Rourke. A bout of severe food poisoning and appendicitus meant she was in hospital for six days just four weeks before the games. Doctors’ advice was to remove her appendix, skip the games, and recover.

Derval O’Rourke reveals her fuel for body and mind

She refused (“No athlete ever knows for sure if they will make an Olympics”), lined up and “trailed” home in seventh place. Sitting slumped outside the stadium after the race, she knew her stint in hospital had wiped out any chance of her competing well.

“I started to think about how everything in my life had a connecton to my health and fitness. Everthing is intertwined. If Iwanted to achieve my ultimate performance goals, then I needed to make sure that I was paying attention to lots of things in my life.” Her realisation that, in order to be one of the best in the world, she had to be holisitically healthy led her to a phalanx of psychologists and physiotherapists and (via an email to Sonia O’Sullivan) to Limerick-based nutritritionist and pharmacist Andrea Cullin. After one hour with Andrea, the then UCD student had changed the way she thought about food forever.

“When I lived at home, my mum used to cook everything from scratch and so I ate well. I was probably quite spoiled. And so when I went to college, I was eating whatever was the cheapest, the easiest and if you’re in a canteen and you’re broke and chips, beans and sausages are cheap, well then what’s you’ll eat.”

Derval began to eat good breakfasts, protein and vegetable fuelled lunches and dinners, and snack on wholefoods and fruit. She began to cook and in March 2006, became World Indoor Champion in 7.84 seconds. Cooking and wellbeing had also become a passion; she admits to being a cookery book fiend.

“I used to write out recipes and I’d go to athletes’ houses and I’d sellotape them on their cupboards. I’d be like ‘I know it’s hard but just look in your cupboard!’ And they’d be like ‘oh, right’,” she says laughing as she downs seafood chowder at Cork’s Farmgate restaurant and talks 19 to the dozen.

Four years later she shared a room before a race with a Norwegian who had written a cookery book for the Norwegian Olympic Association. It had sold so well it was republished. This sowed a seed in Dervla’s head but she wanted to go to cookery school “to give any future book legitimacy”.

“So after I came back from the 2012 Olympics and went to cookery school from 9am-5pm every day for four weeks. It was very calming for me. I’d just walk there as it was near my house and in the evenings I’d go out and jog. It was nice for resetting my mind, it was a really good process.”

The holder of four European Championship medals also began to ask questions about tweaking recipes so they met her nutrition and fitness goals.

“if we were doing recipes in cookery school, I just started to change them: put in greek yoghurt instead of cream for instance. I’d ask can I swap this for this and my teacher would either yay or nay them.”

And that is what makes Food for the Fast Lane different: Derval’s first cookery book ( she’d love to do more) is all taking tasty receipes that she likes and tweaking them so the fat content collapses but the nutrition content explodes. It is also a terrifically unpreachy book; she “likes to eat and train, not diet and exercise”.

In amongst the warm quinoa with lemon, pistacho and harissa and baked avocados with eggs are dark chocolate banana bread, sweet and sticky pecans, and Jamie Heaslip’s Brownies. “We used to joke at training, sometimes you just need coffee and a slice of cake. I don’t have strict rules, I have guidelines. I think your diet has to be sustainable. I don’t think most diets are sustainable. I trained in the UK one year, there was a nutritionist who had us all on a high protein, low carb diet and I couldn’t sustain it and I love cooking. I ended up feeling really bad and eating shite.”

Life has changed a lot for Derval in the past 18 months, she married Olympian sailor Peter O’Leary and announced in June that she was hanging up her spikes. She also moved from busy Stillorgan in Dublin to the seaside village of Fountainstown in Co Cork. She walks the beach every day now with dogs Berlino and Chas.

“It’s a big change but in terms of quality of life it’s better down here and my husband is working in Cork. We always knew that we were going to move back so it was never a big surprise. I was excited about moving back because I still had friends here but I miss Dublin because I was there for 14 years.”

Mentally adjusting to retirement is also “hard” she says.

“I had a really structured life, now there’s no structure so I have to be very organised myself about fitness. I have certain rules like I write down everything that I do in my diary so I can look back at the end of the week to see what fitness I did. I think that’s really important for me to stay fit. I have a big value on that so I write that down,” she says.

She also goes to a reformer pilates classs on a Thursday at 8am . “I’m actually not very good at it,” she says when I giggle at how all the others must love seeing an ex Olympian stride into the class.

“I’m probably the worst out of the five there and I’ll just have to accept that. The competitive side of me has to be left at the door... I get frustrated because it’s so slow compared to what I’m used to.”

She also has a column with the Irish Examiner, co-hosted Newstalk’s Off the Ball last week and this autumn is on the panel of mentors in RTE’s Ireland’s Fittest Families. Her rival coaches are Davy Fitz, Jason Sherlock and Kenneth Egan.

“The Fittest Families came at a good time. They didn’t know I was retiring. I had pretty much decided but hadn’t told anyone so it’s been good to dive into it. It’s 10-hour days and is definitely bringing out the competitive streak in me as I’m literally so annoyed when my families aren’t winning,” she says.

International athletics has inculcated in O’Rourke a need for structure and organisation in her life. So what are her plans?

“I have mini plans. Sometimes I wish I had absolute direction like to be a doctor or vet. At the moment I have a few different areas that I am interested in and I still have an interest in high performance sport and wellbeing so I’m trying to consider everything.”

But while life undoubtedly feels strange without a rigid training routine, she has a sense of freedom these days. She’s off to New York later this year with her sister Clodagh, a trip that she could never do while training as she had to be near a track. She “wogs” with Clodagh too — it’s their version of “walking, jogging and chatting”.

She likes be on the move. She tells me that a German doctor, who worked for Bayern Munich, once told her that “you stop moving, you’re dead”. Surely a case of once an athlete, always an athlete?

* Food for the Fast Lane: Recipes to Power your Body and Mind (Gill & Macmillan), is out now, €19.99.

Special offer for Irish Examiner readers: 20% off Derval’s cookbook. To order call 01-5009570. Quote IE, free delivery within Ireland.

Derval's Granola recipe    

100g spelt porridge flakes or jumbo porridge oats

50g flaked almonds

50g hazelnuts, crushed

50g pumpkin seeds

50g sunflower seeds

50g walnuts

6 tbsp coconut oil, melted

3 tbsp agave syrup a pinch of salt

I get frustrated at shop-bought granola and granola recipes that are loaded with butter and sugar. It is totally unnecessary to eat unhealthy granola when healthy granola is so easy to make.

You can eat this granola for breakfast, as a snack or as a dessert topping. If I’m going on a long drive, I’ll throw a handful of it into a sandwich bag so that I’ve something nutritious to munch on in the car. I have made this granola with all sorts of nuts and seeds – it works every time. And once the granola has cooled, you can stir in dried fruits, such as mango, pineapple, raisins or goji berries.

This granola will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks and the recipe makes enough for one week.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.

Place all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix until combined. Tip the granola into an ovenproof dish and bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Happy, Healthy Bread (one loaf)  

145g porridge oats

135g sunflower seeds

90g linseeds

65g brazil nuts, roughly chopped

4 tbsp psyllium seed husks

2 tbsp chia seeds

1 tsp fine sea salt

1 tbsp maple syrup

3 tbsp coconut oil, melted

350ml water

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the maple syrup, coconut oil and water in a measuring jug. Pour this into the dry ingredients and mix until combined.

The dough should be very thick. If it becomes too thick to mix, add a few teaspoons of water. Pour the dough into a silicone loaf pan and leave it sit at room temperature for at least two hours. The dough is ready to be baked once it retains its shape when you pull the side of the loaf pan away from it.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Place the loaf pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the bread from the loaf pan, place the bread upside down directly on the oven rack and bake for another 30-40 minutes. The bread is cooked once it sounds hollow when tapped. Place the bread on a wire rack and leave it to cool fully before slicing. Store in an airtight container for up to five days or slice and freeze.

In the past, I didn’t eat a huge amount of bread. But once I started baking Happy, Healthy Bread I got hooked. I baked it regularly throughout the indoor season and I even brought some in a lunchbox on the plane to the European Indoor Championships. I ended up winning my fifth medal when I was there, so maybe the bread had something to do with it? Happy, Healthy Bread is full of wholegrains, nuts and seeds. It is high in protein and fibre, and it contains psyllium seed husks. These husks suck up water and bind the bread together, so you don’t need to use any flour. The bread is very easy to make, but you will need to let it sit for two hours before baking and you will also need a silicone loaf pan.

Oaty Chicken Strips (serves 4)

4 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried rosemary

1 tsp dried sage

1 tsp dried tarragon

A pinch of salt

4 skinless chicken breast fillets, cut into strips

60g porridge oats

These Oaty Chicken Strips are my idea of healthy chicken goujons. They make a gorgeous lunch if you have them with a big salad on the side. They could also be part of a very tasty dinner.

And since they are marinated, they are tender and full of flavour.

Mix the soy sauce, olive oil, dried herbs and salt in a large bowl. Add the chicken and use your hands to massage the marinade into the meat. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Spread the oats on a plate. Roll each chicken strip in the oats. Place the coated chicken strips in an ovenproof dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, until each chicken goujon is cooked through with a crispy coating.

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