Good sense is most important ingredient in diet of champions

It’s January and people everywhere are talking about resolutions, weight loss and healthy living.

They’re getting on health kicks, juicing, slicing and steaming their way to better health.

My twitter feed is flooded with diet-related posts and talk of TV shows like Operation Transformation. I’ve always been into healthy eating and I wonder if there are lessons that can be learned from sports nutrition for everyone.

Nutrition has become a key area in elite sport. Professional sports teams everywhere work with nutritionists to figure out the best food plans. I get asked all the time about what I eat. Some people seem to think I can eat whatever I want because of all the training while others believe I must be incredibly strict with every morsel. Diets can be of huge importance to successful sportspeople.

I’m a massive Serena Williams fan and I was intrigued to hear she’s been following a raw food diet. Those in favour of this diet have been quick to claim it’s a huge part of her current success. I think she’s tried a new approach, mainly to support her sister Venus who has been following this diet in order to help with the symptoms of Sjogren’s disease, an auto-immune illness. Serena may not be completely strict on her raw vegan diet, she has said she does her best with it but will break out and eat in other ways.

Another tennis player, Novak Djokovic, brought out a book called Serve to Win in which he discusses his approach to eating to perform well. Djokovic does not eat gluten, dairy or tomatoes. He mainly eats fruit, vegetables, quinoa and lots of manuka honey. I have the book and use some of his recipes. I like his approach for the most part but I’m not as strict as he seems to be.

It’s clear there are different ways of eating to perform, whether that is Djokovic eating manuka honey or Usain Bolt munching chicken nuggets, as he did at the Beijing Olympics. I think both of these are on the more severe end of the scale. In my experience from spending lots of time training and travelling with other athletes most people have a balanced approach. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all plan to food and performance.

I first started looking into nutrition after I got food poisoning before the Athens Olympics in 2004 and spent five days in hospital in Greece. I lost a lot of weight and was very run down. I decided that being healthy was a huge part of my life and my running. I sought advice and I learned as much as I could about nutrition. I really focused on recovering from training sessions in order to train well again the next day. I try to make sure that I hydrate, eat carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen and have quality protein for repair.

I regularly have meetings with my nutritionist about the types of food I eat. If I need some carbohydrates to recover I try to eat the ones that have the healthiest nutritional profile.

For example, I’ll eat sweet potato instead of potato for its slower energy release. I don’t count calories but I do have a rough idea of what is too little and too much in terms of amounts.

I also have a keen awareness of good fats in my diet and eating foods that are flooded with vitamins and minerals to keep me healthy. As a result, I try to eat lots of nuts, seeds, fruit and veg.

In recent years I’ve noticed more athletes are developing their culinary skills. Last summer, David Gillick demonstrated his ability in the kitchen by winning Ireland’s Celebrity Masterchef. I think being able to cook is one of the most important skills for anyone and essential for those in sport. It’s important to fuse together the knowledge of what to eat with the skill of how to cook it.

I try to read up on what’s going on in the world of nutrition but I also try to remember the basics. I think getting too far away from keeping things simple can be a problem. If my basics are good; healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner with some healthy snacks thrown in, I feel I can’t go too far wrong. I was lucky enough to spend some time in cookery school, which has been a massive asset in my approach to food.

No matter how healthy a food is I think it’s important to know how to cook it in a tasty way. Life is too short to eat bland meals.

Sports supplements are a big area for debate in the world of sports nutrition. I feel they have their place but that they cannot fix a bad diet.

I think if my diet is good then a couple of different supplements are a great bonus, especially during very hard training phases. The issue of supplement contamination is a big one because I am responsible for everything that I eat and drink: if I take a supplement that contains a banned substance and test positive then I am accountable. Whether the substance was shown on the packaging or not. My approach is to use a company that has a strict testing regime and will fully stand behind everything in their product.

Being a professional athlete for the past 10 years I have seen so many diet trends come and go. I’ve seen people swear by the Atkins diet or the Zone diet and recently there’s massive hype about paleo. I hear many athletes insisting gluten is the enemy. Athletes can be obsessive and anything that gives a perceived edge is often seen as the answer. Of course, some people are genuinely allergic to gluten but I think everyone tolerates gluten differently. Gluten-free doesn’t automatically translate to world-class performances. After seeing all the different approaches I believe in moderation, the odd slice of bread, glass of wine or bar of chocolate are not going to cause me to spontaneously combust. I’ve always found being sensible is the key.

As January rolls on and people try to achieve their New Year’s health aims, I think most sportspeople are probably doing what they do the other 11 months of the year.

If there is something to be taken from sport and nutrition, I think it’s to remember there are 12 months in the year and each is as important as January. Be sensible and consistent, with the occasional side of chips!

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