Food For Sport with Owen Farrell: "I've never been into cheat meals... you leave yourself with a lot of making up to do"
In the latest edition of our Food For Sport series, England captain Owen Farrell opens up on how his diet and sleep contributes to his relentless pursuit of self-improvement.
“The main thing for me is to listen to your body,” says Owen Farrell.
“Everyone’s different and everyone works in different ways, so you’ve got to find out what works for you while also being open-minded to new things that might help you improve."
Improvement is what drives Farrell and it’s something he pursues with a relentless single-mindedness.
There are not many players who, at the age of 28, could juggle England and Saracens duties and take a part-time university course in management and leadership that includes a 12,000–word essay - but then Farrell is a rare breed.
Aged just 17 and 11 days, he made his professional debut for Saracens - becoming the youngest player in English rugby history.
“You could tell when he was young that he would always be a driven player – driven to be his best,” said England head coach Eddie Jones, the same Eddie Jones that gave the teenager his big break.
Twelve years on from that debut, Farrell is England’s captain, their talisman, their general on the pitch and leader off it. For club and country, he drives the standards.
“He carries respect with him and we all follow him. He is one of those guys you want to follow,” according to England winger Jonny May.
“He is an outright leader, great player and top guy. He’s a big part of this team in terms of his attitude and the way he leads by example.”
His relentless pursuit to be the very best starts at home, with his diet.
Nutrition is increasingly becoming an integral part of high performance and rugby union is no exception.
The high impact nature of the game means recovery is at the heart of top-level rugby and food is the foundation for getting that right.
Premiership winner: 2011, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
Champions Cup winner: 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Six Nations winner: 2016 and 2017.
British & Irish Lions
Series win over Australia 2009
Series draw with New Zealand 2017
European Player of the Year: 2017
Nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year: 2012, 2016 and 2017
“We have a nutritionist who is on hand to help out if we need it,” says Farrell.
“He tends to give us ideas and point us in the right direction but it’s up to us what we eat, which is a good thing.
“I try and get as much as I can from natural food sources.
“My parents were always big on having good foods in the house so that gave me a good basis.
“But I’m always open to anything that helps you recover or get in the best place to play.”
Farrell's willingness to embrace new methods speaks volumes about his drive to improve.
The Wigan-born fly-half reveals he briefly tried a vegan diet after watching the documentary Game Changers on Netflix, “I didn’t last too long with it!” he jokes.
It’s a far cry from his early playing days, when a rookie Farrell was more regimented in his preparation.
“I used to have rituals with food," he says. “I was more routine-based when I was younger.
“I had to have certain meals and things had to go a certain way leading up to the game.
“That was probably to settle myself mentally, more than anything, rather than being linked to performance.
“Gradually I’ve tried to go away from that, to a place where I know what works for me but not rely on it too much.”
One of the tweaks he's made to his routine is to move away from foods containing gluten, like bread and pasta.
“I try to eat less gluten so I feel less bloated before a game," Farrell adds.
“The meals that are provided for us before a game are massively carb-heavy and sometimes you don’t always feel the best after that so I try to replace it with some gluten-free alternatives.”
The sleep science
Supplements play a crucial role in recovery and performance at the elite level of sport. Packed schedules and endless travel often make it impossible to eat the right foods for maintaining peak physical and mental condition.
The brutal nature of the sport means rugby players are subject to a litany of injuries and many players suffer from shortened careers due to a build-up of pain and injury.
In 2018, former Ireland captain and BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll lifted the lid on his usage of painkillers towards the end of his career.
O’Driscoll revealed that he would be offered prescriptive painkillers such as Difene and co-codamol before matches, before retiring from the sport in 2014.
With chronic pain and the risk of serious bodily harm that could affect later life, rugby players are taking a more proactive role in safeguarding their bodies from the rigours of top-level competition.
One way in which they seek to protect their body against the harsh reality of the sport is cannabis oils and other CBD products.
Last year Farrell’s Saracens team-mate George Kruis started his own CBD company, claiming the products helped him recover after games and limited the amount of painkillers he required.
I’ve put a big emphasis on sleep for a long time now. I’ve always been someone that needs a good night sleep to be able to turn up the next day.
“George talks about it very positively and he’s made big strides in that area,” says Farrell.
“It’s been said that there are many benefits to it but the big one is sleep – and being able to have a deep sleep.
“I’ve put a big emphasis on sleep for a long time now. I’ve always been someone that needs a good night sleep to be able to turn up the next day.”
Sleep will be at a premium in the Farrell household of late.
In March last year, on the eve of Saracens’ crunch Champions Cup quarter-final against Glasgow Warriors, Farrell’s wife Georgie went into labour.
In true form, the Sarries fly-half was adamant he would still feature in the game.
“Owen’s wife went into labour on Friday night,” said Sarries director or rugby Mark McCall. “And at half eight this morning he was pretty confident it would all happen.
“He phoned me at half past two saying ‘in the next half hour’…. I said 'Owen, the game starts at quarter past three!”
Tennis great Roger Federer and NBA star LeBron James are both advocates of sleeping for upwards of 10 hours per night and research shows the performance benefits of proper rest for athletes.
A Stanford University study showed one restless night is enough to weaken the immune system and increase the risk of illness. Sleep poorly for 64 hours or more and strength and power is reduced.
“I wish that I could nap in the day but I’m not a great napper,” says Farrell.
“I think that would help my recovery but it’s not the easiest thing for me to do, especially when you go home to your family.
“But I put a lot of value on getting a good night’s sleep in the evening.
“I used a 'Whoop' band over the course of lockdown. It tracks your sleep and heart rate variability around exercise, which I was interested in.
“It’s a bit tougher now because of training and wearing during training.
“But it’s been helpful during lockdown when you’re not so sure what you’re going to get out of training alone so I tried to keep a track on it."
The perfect balance
It’s no surprise Farrell paints a picture of remarkable self-discipline. There are no cutting corners if you want to be the best.
The pictures of team-mate Alex Goode celebrating Saracens’ third European Cup in four years with a three-day bender in full kit went viral in May last year, but does Farrell allow himself the same kind of post-season blowout?
“I’ve never been into having cheat meals or cheat days,” he says. “I’m all about trying to have a balance.
“I guess there are times when you can afford to be more relaxed than others, but I never go overboard too much because then you leave yourself with a lot of making up to do.
“Trying to be in decent condition all-season round is the goal for me so I adapt my diet to that.
“Obviously we all know what’s too much in terms of alcohol, especially when you have to maintain the kind of schedule we have.
“I won’t be too regimented with it, I won’t say ‘I can’t drink this and I can’t eat that’ – it’s about having a sensible balance.”
It's all change for Farrell next season as Saracens prepare for their enforced exile from English rugby's top flight.
For a man who feeds on the sweet taste of success, Farrell is facing uncharted territory in the Championship but it will be business as usual for 'Faz'.
His decision to extend his stay at the club despite their impending relegation for salary cap breaches will come as no surprise to those who have known him since he began playing at the club with dad Andy.
A third tour with the British and Irish and Lions is on the horizon - potentially as captain - but home has always been where the heart is for Farrell junior, and priority number one will be restoring his club to their rightful place at English rugby's top table.
Watch Farrell return to action this weekend as Saracens face Bristol Bears exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD & BT Sport Ultimate from 4.15pm on Saturday 15 August.
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