James Haskell was one of rugby’s most feared players during an incredible 17-year, top-flight career that includes appearances in England, New Zealand, France, and Japan.
And while it is true to say that “Hask” has never been shy of sharing a controversial opinion or making headlines off the pitch, there’s no doubt that his sporting performance can speak for itself. Few rugby players have dedicated themselves to the craft with the same passion and full-throttle mentality.
Now happily retired from rugby at age 35, Haskell is still training hard, and even signed to fight professionally with Bellator, but his MMA debut was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Whatever the future holds for the man that boasts 77 England caps, Haskell is still passionate about fitness, and shares his thoughts on a wide range of issues, including how he generated that explosive power on the field.
You retired from rugby after 17 years at the top of your game. How were you able to withstand such a brutal sport for so long?
I was always seeking out the best in every single field, understanding that you can split your life into manageable sections. So, it’s not just about trying to feel better as a player, but also trying to look after your nutrition, your recovery, diet and sleep. It’s how you train, and who trains you, it’s supplementation. This gave me sustainability and it meant that I was able to focus.
What did you learn from that process?
Like everybody, I’ve made mistakes. For a long period of time, I probably overtrained, but by the end of my career, I got that balance right and really focused on the performance during a game on the weekend, as opposed to trying to win world records in the training room.
Rugby players are big and strong, but they are also deceivingly quick, and require a lot of explosive power. How did you train for that?
I’ve trained with lots of different people during my career, in which I did extra speed work with [sprinter] Margot Wells. I looked at elements of my lifts, like high pulls. Dynamic movements and plyometrics are important. I looked at things like my general technique, and sled pulls, which put you in the perfect body position for rugby. All this helped. I just think it’s a constant process of working. If you want to be quicker, you need to be running, and perfecting your performance.
Were you able to evaluate and improve your explosive power and speed?
The point about being a rugby player, and especially a flanker, is that you need dynamism. You need to be a physical ball carrier as much as you need to be a physical defender, and you need to have an engine on you. Rugby is a game of acceleration and if you run at only one pace, then that’s an issue. I could last, and run 8 km in a game, but where is the change in speed? I worked very closely with [coach] Eddie Jones on the ability to start slow and then go, go, go. We used GPS monitoring to track my acceleration and we would put scores up on the wall so that we could look at them.
Let’s talk nutrition. What is your take on intermittent fasting?
There’s a lot of confusion on the internet about intermittent fasting, in relation to it being used as a weight-loss tool. Intermittent fasting gives your body a rest, to help it repair, whether that be for disease or human digestion, it gives your body a rest, but people make mistakes when they use their fasting window to eat the same calories that they would have spread across the day whilst not on a fast. I would do a 12:12 [12 hours on, 12 hours off] to give my digestion a rest. I’ve done a 24-hour fast. It helps me to sleep better, and gives my body time to repair. The science is there to back it up, but it isn’t a quick fix to weight loss.
You recently made an effort to eat more plant-based foods, what have you learned from this?
I think variety is key. I think that trying new things and coming off of things to give your digestive process a rest it important. Having a lot of color on your plate, and variety is fine, but I found the “Game Changers” documentary to be a one-sided story. Veganism on its own will not make you lose more weight or get healthier. For many people, eating an animal and plant-based diet together is perfect. I really enjoyed adding more plant-based foods, but I wouldn’t become a vegan because it wouldn’t suit me. If you want to become a vegan for environmental reasons then fine, but don’t do it for miracle fat-loss reasons.
What would you say is a sustainable way to lose weight?
Lots of diets do work, but when you examine them, it’s all down to a calorie deficit. It’s down to movement versus the calories that you are putting into your body.
Before the pandemic, you signed with Bellator MMA and trained at London Shootfighters. How did you find that experience?
I’ve trained there since I was 21 years old. London Shootfighters has an unbelievable team, and I was very lucky to be a part of it. I was trained by Paul Ivens and both Alexis Demetriades and Marios Demetriades took me for sessions. It was the hardest thing that I have ever done, and it probably impacted my body more than anything else that I have ever done. The muscle breakdown I endured was huge, it was like playing back-to-back rugby test matches against South Africa.
I loved it, and was extremely well coached, but my first fight was canceled a month out (because of the pandemic). Everything that I do now, outside of Rugby, is public orientated, and I didn’t sign up to fight without an audience, so I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I certainly want to pursue the jiu-jitsu element of it. But whether I go back and fight, I don’t know. I’ve got the upmost respect for anyone who does MMA because they are incredible athletes. I think they are the best athletes in the world, personally speaking.
Away from high-impact sports, you have developed a passion for killer beats. Your latest dance track, “Make You Feel,” is beginning to receive attention. Do you find that music has a calming effect on you?
I’ve always used music as a tool. It was the first thing that my sports psychologist taught me, to use music to prepare for games and get yourself into the right mental state. I started DJ’ing around nine years ago. I’ve found it to be the best natural replacement for playing sport. I’ve probably done one hundred gigs now. For me, music is a great escape, but the only problem is, I take it very seriously. It’s supposed to be a hobby, but like everything in life, once I get into it, I take it very seriously.
Improve your Explosive Speed and Power like a Rugby Union Player
Perform the following with an explosive movement. Rest for 1 minute between sets, and for no more than 3 minutes between each exercise.
Box Jump: Increasing the height to your limit, as you make progress. 1 set, 6 reps.
Weighted Leg Hop: 3 sets, 8 reps
Kettlebell Snatch: 3 sets, 8 reps.
Clean Press or High Pull: 3 sets, 10 reps.
Weighted Sled Pull: Make progress by increasing the weight and working on your distance times