International Rugby Legend James Haskell Reveals His New Year’s Nutrition Secrets For Boosting Performance, Building Muscle and Fuelling Fitness

Northampton and England rugby star James Haskell is as well known for his dedicated attitude to training, his impressive physique and his social media exploits. The British Lion’s flanker has learnt a lot about eating well for fitness and strength during a successful career in which he’s earned almost 80 international caps and been key to beating the Australian team in their own backyard. Now he’s joined up with the England football team chef, Omar Meziane, to reveal the fuelling formula for success, so RSNG met him to find out more...

RSNG A new book, but not your first, what’s the aim with this one James? JAMES HASKELL, ATHLETE ‘The previous books have focused on getting fit for rugby or improving all round fitness and nutrition but this is a culmination of what I’ve learned over years, and more crucially it’s pitched to dispel myths and bring a bit of clarity to nutrition. We cover the fundamentals for fuelling and we showcase recipes that make functional food interesting.’

Nutrition is the biggest stumbling block to achieving the gains or the goals you want to achieve

RSNG Why now? Is there a gap in the market for a rugby nutrition book? JH ‘The timing is more to do with what I’ve learned a lot over the years, I’m approaching a crossroads in my career and I love food, and sharing what I’ve learned about it. It’s not rugby focused as such, although I did get to start working with Omar years ago when he was the chef for Wasps. His ability to make food that benefits performance, weight management, muscle development and recovery, into meals that I and other sportsmen and women really enjoy was some I felt needed to be shared too.’

RSNG You’ve championed eating right for a better physique for a number of years now, where does that passion stem from? JH ‘I realised over the years that nutrition is the biggest stumbling block to achieving the gains or the goals you want to achieve. When I talk to people at the gym and they say they’re eating enough of the right stuff but they can’t bulk up, or they’re eating right but they can’t lose weight. Well they’re obviously not eating enough or eating right! I’m firm believer that 75% of any successful exercise plan hinges on good diet. And that’s where people are going wrong.’

RSNG How do you convert that 75% into boosting your athletic performance? JH ‘Learn how food works. This book has facts on low and high carbohydrates foods, how fats work and what protein does. It gives you the meals that I and other professional athletes really do eat.’

‘It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of misinformation and contradictory messages out there about food and fuelling for sports. I’ve learnt how nutritional changes can change me. I can add or drop 5kg in a matter of weeks simply by tweaking my diet. I track all I eat, recording the macros (macronutrients) and eating right for my goals without needing to spend loads on health supplements or so called superfoods.’

RSNG What’s the best thing people can do nutritionally to kick-start their new year routine? JH ‘Assess how you’re eating and what you’re putting into your body over a typical week to work out your daily average calorie intake. Once you have a number you can tweak it or control your diet completely – when I first did this I was shocked at how little protein I was consuming. Plus the amount of fats and sugar in food I was eating. I track my diet intake with an app (MyFitnessPal). To fuel for rugby my macronutrient split is 49% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 20% fats.’

To build muscle, as a rule, I would add 250 calories a day to your daily intake

RSNG Once you’ve got the ball rolling, what nutritional rules should you follow and why? JH ‘For those wanting to build muscle you need to increase your calorie intake over the muscle-building period. Ideally by raising your protein and carb intake. As a rule I would add 250 calories a day to your daily intake, for two weeks, repeating the process until you've gained the size/ muscle you want. If you’re already eating 2g of protein for every 1kg of body weight then these new calories should come from carbs.’

‘If your goal is fat loss, then eating differently on training days compared with rest or low activity days is key. Have carbs before and after training – but on rest days fats should be your go to energy macronutrient, and leave the complex carbs alone. Crucially you need to be eating fewer calories than you are now if your goal is fat loss, but safely and healthily.’

‘Whatever your goal is, hydration will play a huge role. I neglected water in the past and paid a price in my performance. Now I track how well hydrated I am (via an app). Personally I drink between five and six litres a day, sipping it throughout the day. I drink alcohol in my off-season but as soon as I want to get back in shape I cut out the booze – it’s calorific and it encourages bad eating habits.’

‘Track your progress with measurements – waist, upper arms, upper legs, chest – and take photos, first thing in the morning before taking on food or liquids. When collecting this data be consistent – same time, same light, clothing etc. Doing this will give you confidence and help identify if you need to add or take away calories from your meals. Give it time to work, too.’

RSNG It’s not just about the diet though – you’re still training hard to maintain your physique? JH ‘Absolutely. But just like my diet, my training has changed too. When I was younger training was all about being the biggest, strongest shape for the game I played. I was focused on building muscle, developing strength, bench-pressing every day – though even then I’ve always varied it to include things like martial arts. Now I do one big full body workout session a week away from the training pitch. The rest is rugby-focused work during the season – power sessions or acceleration drills.’

‘I’ve always looked to improve, the entire time, as life is a learning curve and my increased interest in diet, tracking my intake and investigating the importance of hydration and recovery, especially as I get older, has become much more important.’

RSNG You’re also developing the F45 gym franchise in UK now, is that with one eye on fitness once you’re retired from rugby? JH ‘Partly, although we’ve just set up our F45 gym in Bath so it’s very much one of the things I’m involved in right now. I just really like the format because I see so many people at the gym who don’t know what they’re doing. With F45 you get expert instruction, it’s fast for those of us who are time pressured, and the level of intensity is pitched just right. I want a gym that doesn’t feel aggressive or put people off. Just like rugby I want people to experience the benefits of working out with a great team… but without getting beaten up every weekend!’

WHAT NEXT? James Haskell has an entire online training resource on his website, including training tips, dietary advice and motivation videos including the 12-week lean gains programme for a New Year plan to improve your physique through training and diet. Watch this video from it on how to do the perfect squat.

Cooking for Fitness by James Haskell and Omar Meziane, out now £19.95

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.