Saturday 20 August 2016

How i got in to working with elite Boxers and MMA fighters

Despite the fact i've never wanted to be pigeon holed as working within one sport, it's fair to say that most people who know me through my nutrition work will do so from the work i have done with professional boxers. I have however worked with athletes across many professional sports, including: football, rugby, cycling, triathlon, long distance running, powerlifting, bodybuilding and probably  few others i've forgotten about (which reminds me, time to take my Omega 3).

With this in mind and considering i have been happy to let my public profile as a performance nutritionist take a back seat whilst i focus on developing and growing Nourish, i am still contacted for advice and consultations regularly by a wide range of people. I have however mainly focussed my limited time on working with boxers of late. The main reason being, that only having a small amount of time for client work i wanted to take on work that not only challenged me, but i could also get excited about. Work that made me want to read more journals, speak to more industry professionals to share ideas and work that i knew i'd be happy to work through the night for, to get the job done. Which is exactly what is required when working with professional boxers.

The reason for writing this article was this past week i was asked again how i got in to working with boxers and how i saw my role within the support team and more specifically what my main role was as nutritionist. The answer i gave to the latter in terms of the most important parts of my role was  "setting a diet plan, implementing performance improving strategies and weight manipulation for making the weight" Those 3 aspects cover the core of what is expected of me from a client. However, most boxers when asked will first mention the making the weight aspect, it has become the most important aspect in their minds of the nutrition plan in recent times, with fighters draining weight to fight in lighter categories than they naturally should be.

But this doesn't answer how i ended up working in this area, considering i've never fought professionally. Whilst at University studying for my nutrition degree i had already achieved a certain amount of success working with bodybuilders, again despite never competing myself. Bodybuilding is a strange sport, it is extreme, it requires the competitor to be completely self centred and yet push themselves to very dark places emotionally, they may not be getting punched  in the face but it is still a brutal sport for those who actually want to win. There is also an aspect of making a weight as they compete in weight (or height) categories. It was at this point i started to really look at the intricacies of making weight and how the body responded, i was also really getting in to nutritional biochemistry too, which helped me join a lot of dots up but also understand the 'why's' behind certain protocols success and others failures. Bodybuilding and boxing are nutritionally quite similar (thought they shouldn't be), if a professional boxer is getting nutrition advice from their coach these days they are missing a trick, the diet to make weight from my experience will be geared to weight loss, whilst ignoring performance improving strategies, while bodybuilders know they will sacrifice performance in the gym to cut weight. Many boxing coaches diets simply resemble an old school bodybuilders 'cutting' diet. My first task with a new client is always to break down their preconceptions about fat loss and show them how we can improve performance whilst still losing weight. Show them how it should really be done.

It was during my time at University that i took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I had done a bit of Thai boxing for a couple of years and thought i'd try a new discipline. Again this was a sport where making weight was a factor of competing and whilst speaking with the BJJ coach i offered to help out the guys competing and pointed out a few issues i had overheard. Again what i discovered were guys using very outdated methods, some with no real science behind them or even logic in some cases. What i also realised was there was a culture of dismissing just how important a factor to performance this aspect could become. If you don't make weight the right way, you cannot expect to fight and perform to the best of your ability. Guys were spending hours each day the week of a competition in the sauna, whilst loading on salt, going for runs in sweat suits and thinking that this was the only way to make the weight. After working with a couple of guys who were competing and explaining to the coach how he should implement a culture more focussed on the nutrition aspect, my details were passed to an MMA coach in London to help with his fighters. Through this i began to get work with different coaches helping them set up and implement basic strategies to help their fighters make weight along with going along and overseeing the weight making process too. At the time MMA was a sport that was growing rapidly, but like today there's still very little money in it at the bottom, but the fighters fight because they love the sport and they want to improve in anyway they can. This was a perfect environment for me, being around people who wanted to learn and who appreciated having professional advice on board. I found the coaches i worked with to be very forward thinking too. Whilst there are ego's aplenty, the coaches are often specialist, so they respect what others can bring to the table. Whilst i was travelling around working with different coaches and their fighters the money wasn't great and whilst this has never been a factor for me, my main money source was coming from working with athletes within the growing physique type competitions as well as bodybuilders, at this time i was very much cherry picking who i worked with, because i could. This was an area i found very easy to work in and it's fair to say unless i was working on a huge transformation or with someone expected to win a competition it didn't really challenge me enough.

At this stage i began to work with a few amateur boxers, one's who were looking to turn professional through a coach i had been introduced to at an MMA event. I had already worked with a couple of UK professional boxers at the time and my network and contacts was growing and it was then i met a coach from America who had brought his MMA fighters over to the UK to train with a couple of fighters i'd worked with. I was fortunate to be introduced to him and from there my details were passed to a couple of boxing coaches in America. I then began advising boxers in both the UK and America and soon picked up a couple of clients in Europe too, throughout this my links all came from recommendation by coaches and fighters i had worked with, rather than a social media presence. It was a time where the importance of nutrition was filtering down to boxing, a sport which does seem to be a good few years behind when it comes to sports science. A perfect example of this is the lack of education coming from the british board of boxing control in comparison to say the football or rugby associations, who heavily invest in education.

It was in 2012 when i began working with Kell Brook, at which point my profile and the subsequent boom in social media meant i became more recognised for my work in boxing. It is fair to say that if you know and understand boxing you would be aware that Kell was known for struggling with making the weight, but whilst working alongside and S&C coach the process, once adhered to yielded excellent results both in terms of improved performance and recovery and as Kell was well on his way to becoming what he is today there was the obvious press interest, of which i wasn't always happy about (face for radio) but cannot deny it helped my profile. Since finishing working with Kell in 2013 i have worked with a number of boxers from amateurs to professionals, from all over the world too and have been involved on many different levels, some require more work than others and the service i offer very much comes down to what i feel is required to meet the clients expectations. What i always ensure is that i work a way in which i am happy with. Nutrition is a huge passion of mine, as is helping people, but i have found the quickest to lose passion is to work a way in which doesn't suit me. I happily admit i'm not suited to working with everyone and not every client relationship has ended happily!

When studying nutrition my intention was always to go down the public health route, i wanted to be able to work in an area that could help as many people as possible, but as this became near impossible due to government cuts when i was graduating, i found myself able to make a positive difference in sports i had a huge passion for. Combining my passion for nutrition and interest in these sports has been something i am immensely proud of, as are my achievements in nutrition, considering when i begged my way on to my nutrition degree my only scientific studies had been GCSE level.

I simply fell in to working with boxers and MMA fighters, i never set out with a plan to work in this field, but my natural enthusiasm, professionalism and ability to make a positive difference are what kept me progressing as a nutritionist and within the sports. Overall there have been many positives and some negatives too, but it has also been very satisfying to see the positive impact i have made.

As for the future, it is likely i'll focus more time on Nourish, pick my jobs and clients wisely and maybe even look at focussing more time on clients within different sports again. But one things for sure, i'll still always be following and working with MMA and boxing.

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