I recently started reading a book about one of the most intense rivalries between two athletes that has ever been seen. During the 1980s Dave Scott and Mark Allen were far and beyond the world’s best triathletes and dominated the triathlon scene. Their rivalry came to a head in 1989 during the Hawaii Ironman. After seven hours and 58 minutes of racing side by side, Mark Allen edged out into the lead and broke Dave Scott, who came in second. It was these athletes’ vastly contrasting approaches to their training that really struck a chord with me.
Mark Allen was a natural talent. He was easy going, quiet, insular and even laid back, whereas Dave Scott was an unusually hard worker, incredibly tenacious and anal in his approach to his training lifestyle. He carefully measured and recorded everything, including his nutrition routine (that was so strict he would go so far as to rinse his cottage cheese to remove excess fat) to get the best performances possible. This is an extreme example of an athlete wanting to be in total control, removing any variables that may hamper performance. His method worked for him and suited his personality, but what really fascinates me is that everyone is different.
Nutrition is a major factor in performance and is something we all take very seriously, but I take an unscientific approach to my dietary needs. To me, food is fuel and I have come to learn over the years how much I need, when to have it and what will happen if I don’t eat enough at different times of the day. Each individual is different and we all react differently to quantities and qualities of food; some get it right, some get it wrong, but generally we all hold our weight stable and maintain energy levels day in day out for years.
I have always struggled to eat enough. I’m not someone who particularly enjoys stuffing my face and I will rarely finish my plate and fill it up again out of pure enjoyment. It certainly became an issue in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, when I was constantly struggling to hold my weight. I battled with myself at every meal to force food in just to get through the training. There was no growth or physical development, just purely surviving. Losing weight was so easy; if I missed a meal or didn’t quite eat enough I would feel it in the boat and see it on the scales. So many people said to me that I was lucky to have this ‘problem’, but for me it was exactly the same battle as someone desperately trying to lose weight, the difference being I was trying to put it on. I was training among Olympic champions, people at the top of their sport who were as strong and as fit as anyone can be. A good friend of mine gave me the nickname ‘stick man’, which, although very funny, also affected me. If I was thin then I wasn’t strong, so if I couldn’t pull hard enough to get the scores so I would never be good enough. There was certainly a psychological issue here and something I needed to overcome if I wanted to succeed.
On returning from Beijing where I was Olympic spare, I set myself the goal of gaining 8kg of muscle, which would put me at 100kg body weight. I would be significantly stronger, hopefully post better times in the gym and on the water, and therefore have more confidence and improve overall performance. This would involve a strict weights routine but also a different approach to nutrition. I sought advice from the team nutritionist, at which point we concluded that my diet was healthy and balanced, I ate good quantities and had tried for years to increase body weight but made insignificant changes. I needed something else. As dodgy as this is beginning to sound, it was not of course. I had to go through the correct channels to ensure the supplement I was given was drug screened and suitably tested and certified. Once I was given the all clear I added a Science in Sport (GB rowing team supplier) supplement to my current daily intake. Overnight I doubled my calorific and protein intake by consuming these supplement drinks and, coupled with the strict and intense weights programme, I instantly started to see changes. My weight was rising, my strength was matching this rise, body fat held stable and within three months I had reached my 100kg target and had put on 8kg of lean muscle mass. My teammates had returned from their post-Olympic break by this time and I was already in full flow. I had taken the opportunity to catch up with them while they were resting, and suddenly found I was matching and beating those who I had always been behind. That year I was selected for the coxless four and in September 2009 I became World Champion for the first time, having been sitting on the side lines as reserve 12 months earlier in Beijing.
This sudden change of fortune was not down to one sole factor, but I strongly believe that overcoming my nutritional issues made a huge change to my physicality as an athlete. Five years on I continue to supplement my diet with the carbohydrate protein supplements that are provided to us by Science in Sport. Some do not see it as necessary, but I feel it is an important part of my training routine. We as heavyweight men aim to consume around 6,000 calories a day, but honestly, I’m not counting. I eat five healthy meals a day, eat as much as possible in between, know when I’ve had enough, know when I haven’t and I certainly don’t rinse my cottage cheese.