James Haskell is not one to mince his words. The 77-cap England international, British and Irish Lion, and now prominent voice in the rugby media landscape, has been called a few things since retiring – shy and retiring aren’t among them.
Post-rugby, Haskell spent a bruising year training to become a MMA fighter, only for his debut to be put on hold due to the pandemic.
While his outspoken approach rubs some people up the wrong way, plenty others applaud his refreshing honesty. And when Men’s Fitness sat down for a chat with The Unbelievable ALT ambassador, he was quick to call out the bogus fitness information, fad diets and ‘miracle’ weight-loss cures flying about the internet.
Beneath the complex training plans and nutrition protocols, says Haskell, getting in shape comes down to moving more and eating better – and it’s difficult to argue with that.
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You’ve admitted you took the mick out of vegans in the past – so why the change of tack and this partnership with The Unbelievable ALT?
The Unbelievable ALT is such a unique brand in terms of what it’s doing (“We’re not meat, but we’re for meat lovers”). It’s not about whether you’re vegan or not, it’s about whether you want to add something different to your diet.
I take the piss out of everyone, and I’ve always taken the piss out of vegans because you get a reaction, but just like meat eaters there are always those with extreme views. With social media all context is lost, too, so I find it quite fun to pull the pin out the grenade and watch people go mad.
Is plant-based protein something you’re beginning to embrace?
I have never given my body a rest from eating meat, and obviously there are the environmental reasons to reduce meat consumption, so I wanted to see if I could try something different. The taste and texture is incredible: there’s very little difference between this stuff and actual meat.
My whole nutrition approach is lots of protein, and plenty of plant-based fibre. The Unbelievable ALT ticks all boxes, and the company isn’t really bothered whether you’re vegan or not, it’s just creating a different option for people.
What do you think most people are missing when it comes to nutrition?
Nobody understands nutrition. The government doesn’t get it, your average reality or social media stars who are flogging nonsense don’t get it, and people on the street don’t get it.
They couldn’t tell you whether something is a complete protein or not. I love it when people say stuff like, ‘You get more protein in a bucket of broccoli than anything else,’ but it’s not a complete protein, so your body can’t process it effectively.
Stop worrying about what diet you’re on, and understand what good food is. I’m in a transformation process at the moment, trying to get lean: 12 weeks ago I was 120kg, now I’m 114kg. And that’s all through diet – there are no magic pills or ‘skinny teas’ or any of that nonsense. It’s all about eating the right food and making good choices.
What does your diet look like at the moment?
It’s very simple: I try to get 220g protein a day, and about 3,100 calories. I get most of it from my food; the only time I top it up is if I have a shake after training.
What I try to do is have 1,000 calories at each meal. If I’ve got excess calories, I’ll make myself some protein oats, or have a Grenade par or something, just to get that extra hit.
Coronavirus put your MMA debut on hold, but how did that type of combat training compare to rugby?
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was in the cage, sparring, three days a week, and I loved it, but it absolute broke me. I had all my bloods done, and my creatine kinese levels – the stuff that shows muscle breakdown – was the same as if I had played back-to-back test matches against South Africa, and that was on a day off! One day I got choked out eight times in a row and couldn’t swallow for a week.
The guys at Shootfighters [the MMA gym Haskell trained in] are incredible coaches, but they’re not messing around in there. I learned a lot about myself – I don’t mind a tear up, in fact I quite enjoy it – but it was all-consuming. And I knew that going into it, but I was back being a full-time sportsman again.
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What are some of the biggest fitness mistakes you think a lot of people make?
Terrible technique is first and foremost, which often comes down to the male ego: blokes trying to lift big weights that they can’t control.
People always look for the sexiest thing to be doing, and the same thing goes for nutrition, but the truth is this is how to change your body: calorie deficit plus exercise. That’s it. But people go, ‘No, it can’t be that simple.’ It is!
People haven’t grasped the basics. There are no shortcuts and there are no miracle fixes: eat less, move more. Each diet works in its own way, but ultimately it’s all about getting into a calorie deficit so you lose weight. I’m just jealous, because I haven’t invented some shit thing that I can flog for millions!
Men, in particular, don’t realise that trying to get big is a ball ache, and that’s partly why there’s an epidemic of steroid abuse, because blokes set out to build muscles, but don’t realise how much work it takes to get there.
Do you still train with a similar intensity as you did when you were playing rugby?
I’m training four or five days a week, but it’s a variety of training. I used to only have two modes: on or off. So when I was working out I wanted to end up being sick in a bucket and lifting heavy. But now I’m a lot smarter with how I go about things.
I’m trying to get leaner at the moment, so four days a week I’m lifting – with a focus on hypertrophy – and two of those days I’ll put in some high-intensity cardio at the end.
James Haskell is working with The Unbelievable ALT., the no-compromise meat-free alternative for meat lovers that tastes and bites just like real meat. For more information, check out theunbelievablealt.com or @unbelievablealt on Instagram.
Interview: Isaac Williams