Brian O'Driscoll exclusive: How pilates and intermittent fasting help Ireland legend retain his competitive edge

In the first of our brand-new Food For Sport series, Ireland and Leinster great Brian O'Driscoll reveals how attitudes to diet were forced to change as rugby embraced professionalism, and provides a glimpse into how he uses intermittent fasting and exercise to stay in shape post-retirement.

Published: 8 April 2020 - 3.13pm

Welcome to the first of a new series exploring the changing role food and nutrition plays in elite-level sport.

In an era where the difference between success and failure is often defined by the smallest of margins, understanding how nutrition contributes to peak athletic performance has become a multi-million-pound industry.

Before his triumphant return to the octagon at UFC 246, Conor McGregor revealed he had overhauled his fight-camp preparation after learning NBA star LeBron James spent a reported $1.5 million yearly on health and nutrition.

In order to gain a first-hand perspective on how important health and nutrition has become over recent years, BTSport.com sat down with another iconic Irish sporting figure, Brian O'Driscoll.

With just over 15 years separating his debut in 1999 and his retirement in 2014, few are more qualified to chart the evolution of the role of food in sport than the former Ireland and Leinster captain.

“In 1998 and 1999 we were professionals in name, but we were really like paid amateurs”
- Brian O'Driscoll

In a fascinating chat that touches on diet, health, exercise and how it affects mental well-being, the BT Sport pundit reveals how attitudes to diet were forced to change as rugby embraced professionalism, and provides a glimpse into how he uses intermittent fasting and exercise to stay in shape post-retirement.

When a fresh-faced, shaggy-haired O'Driscoll burst onto the scene in the late nineties, the rugby landscape was barely recognisable to today's game.

Fired by the success of the 1995 World Cup, media moguls threw money at the sport and the International Rugby Board declared rugby union professional - ending the amateur era. 

Although O'Driscoll's senior debut came four years after that watershed moment, his first experiences of professional rugby remained stuck in a bygone era where alcohol was a staple of a largely unregulated diet.

O'Driscoll's Honours

  • Pro 14: 2002, 2008, 2013, 2014.
  • Heineken Champions Cup: 2009, 2011, 2012.
  • Six Nations: 2009, 2014.
  • Six Nations Grand Slam: 2009.

"In 1998 and 1999 we were professionals in name, but we were really like paid amateurs," he says.  

"It took a good decade for the penny to drop as to what the expectation was.

"When I first came into the Ireland setup I remember looking at the snacks that were there: wine gums, Jaffa Cakes, people were piling loads of stuff into their bags!

"These days they have breakfasts laid on and lunches laid on, so there's only one meal a day you have to worry about.

"Whereas there was none of that in the early years, you were sent off to fend for yourself. 

"You were given some education on what was good and bad and what to steer clear of, but ultimately it was the individual’s decision.

"Am I a better professional than I was in the early years from a diet perspective? Absolutely!

"But a little bit of it was that I was getting away with it! I didn’t know what that standard was but slowly the penny did drop.

“I was able to put on good muscle mass but if I wasn’t very mindful about what I ate I could put on 'bad' size, too."

The amateur era was synonymous with a drinking culture that O'Driscoll admits bled over into his early years as a professional.

As the poster boy of Irish rugby, it wasn't long before he had moved into the most affluent areas of Dublin, enjoying all the trappings that come with being young and single for someone once voted 'the sexiest man in Ireland'.

"The idea of ‘win or lose, on the booze’ was definitely a thing," says O’Driscoll. "But alcohol is far less prevalent in rugby than it was before.

"I came into the environment as a professional, but I was coming into a team with players who had been amateurs for five or six years.

"We almost needed a full cycle of those amateurs to retire to create a clean slate in terms of what the expectation was around diet and lifestyle.

"If you have a taste of amateur rugby and then come into professionalism, it’s very hard to shake those bad habits.

"The mid-noughties was a real turning point where players realised: 'there is a higher expectation of us here'."

The new expectation that players needed to meet loftier standards in terms of their diet paid immediate dividends for O'Driscoll and Leinster.

The former centre has previously admitted he was 'treading water' as a player in 2007, reporting back for pre-season so overweight that one friend mistook him for the retired prop Paul Wallace.

Ireland failed to get out of their World Cup pool later that year. The disappointment proved a line-in-the-sand moment, inspiring the Dubliner to focus on 'fine-tuning' his diet in order to get himself into peak physical condition.

By the time he retired in the summer of 2014, he had won three Heineken Champions Cups, two Six Nations titles, and Ireland's first Grand Slam in over 50 years. 

"Over time it evolved, and the quality of the food became more scientific and specific to our needs," adds O'Driscoll.

"Even in the five years since I’ve been retired I’m sure that evolution has gone on to another level.

"You look at the physiques of the players now, they’re like race horses.

"You wouldn’t get away with how we ate these days. Young players coming out of school now are already phenomenal professionals.

"At 16 years of age they already have an understanding of the components of their diet, the importance of hydration and what gives you the best opportunity to hit peak performance every day – not just getting it right for matches but getting it right in training.

"That means taking the correct nutrients at specific times to maximise potential."

As one of the senior leaders in the dressing room, did O'Driscoll feel he had to lead by example and embrace the more scientific approach to nutrition?

Brian O'Driscoll talks about practicing intermittent fasting during retirement

"Over time it evolved, and the quality of the food became more scientific and specific to our needs," adds O'Driscoll.

"Even in the five years since I’ve been retired I’m sure that evolution has gone on to another level.

"You look at the physiques of the players now, they’re like race horses.

"You wouldn’t get away with how we ate these days. Young players coming out of school now are already phenomenal professionals.

"At 16 years of age they already have an understanding of the components of their diet, the importance of hydration and what gives you the best opportunity to hit peak performance every day – not just getting it right for matches but getting it right in training.

"That means taking the correct nutrients at specific times to maximise potential."

As one of the senior leaders in the dressing room, did O'Driscoll feel he had to lead by example and embrace the more scientific approach to nutrition?

"Yes – but it’s also helped by younger lads coming in who only know that way, too,” he says.

“They were all coming out of school thinking ‘I want to be a professional rugby player’.

“When I came out of school I didn’t think that would be a viable career move.

“The game had just turned professional when I came out of school, so I wasn’t thinking ‘I want a 15-year rugby career’.

“I was thinking 'I’d love to play rugby as a part of whatever else I’m doing in my life'.

“That mindset has changed. For kids now, their hopes and aspirations are to be a professional first and foremost, and academics second, whereas that wasn’t the case for us.”

The extraordinary physical rigours of elite-level rugby coupled with an ever-more crowded calendar means the use of supplements now play a huge role in facilitating recovery.

However, O'Driscoll reveals supplements didn't make up an integral part of his diet as a professional.

"It was really only protein that I took," he says.

"I was never someone for multivitamins even when I was a player.

"Carbohydrate drinks were obviously a huge thing after sessions and I should probably take one now after my session this morning, but I tend not to."

Speaking to O'Driscoll now, not long after his 41st birthday, it's striking to see how physically fit he remains five years on from hanging up his boots.

Central to maintaining his physical wellbeing has been a continued focus on diet.

“For a couple of years I did what I wanted, ate what I wanted and there were no repercussions except I started to lose my shape and get a bit soft!" he says.

“But then I came to a crossroads and had to decide whether that was my new life after retirement, or whether I wanted to pull it back in and hold some form of professionalism into my next world.

“The huge thing for me, which took me a while to understand, was the quantity of what I was eating.

“I realised I could survive on a lot less food than I was as a player and if I could control portion size then I could stop the bigger person in me coming out – because I’m naturally pre-disposed to being big.

“I’m not a calorie counter but I’ll keep an eye on the negative stuff and try and keep a cap on it, so maybe 100-120 calories for snacks.

“Weight is a big thing for me, so I’ll set myself goals. I’ll weigh myself twice a day, once first thing in the morning and again last thing at night.

“I have a number that I want to maintain and I know I’ll lose somewhere between 1kg and 1.3kg over the course of the night so I know I’ve got a little bit of wriggle room for the next day.

“I also do intermittent fasting from 9pm in the evening until 1pm the following afternoon.”

“I fully invest in all bad foods on hangovers!”
- O'Driscoll

The former British and Irish Lion says intermittent fasting, a technique involving alternating cycles of fasting and eating, has helped him stay in control of his weight since retiring.

With the emphasis still very much on size, the common perception of rugby players is that they all eat calorie-laden plates of pasta as part of a 5,000-calories-a-day diet.

But O’Driscoll insists a number of active players are also practising fasting.

“It stops you from doing the late-night snacking,” he says.

“Last night was a good example where I had my dinner at 6.30pm but I was still hungry so I had a protein shake at five to nine, knowing I had to fill up because I was going to be up for the gym.

“That’s a long time without food so I knew I had to fill up before nine.

“So it’s about planning those things the night before. I must’ve had three cups of coffee this morning to keep the hunger at bay!”

For O’Driscoll, fasting also offers its own mental rewards as well as physical.

The act of self-denial helps him retain an element of competition that is lost in retirement.

62%
Percentage of rugby players surveyed who said they had experienced poor mental health since retiring.

In 2018, a report compiled for the Rugby Players’ Association revealed almost 62 per cent of those approached had experienced poor mental health since leaving the game behind.

In a recent interview with BTSport.com, former Wasps and England back-row Lawrence Dallaglio revealed his own struggles to adapt to life after rugby.

“I found, having exercised every day of my life for the best part of 20 years, no one gives you a manual on what to do when you retire,” he said.

“A lot of players don’t know what to do – physically – after they retire.

“Players need a manual of physical wellbeing because once you have that it goes a long way to helping people become mentally very strong as well.”

The importance of retaining an element of regime and discipline is not lost on O’Driscoll, who uses intermittent fasting and weight lifting as a way of encouraging better mental wellbeing.

“That’s the big thing for me, the wins, and those little moments where I quite enjoy the denial part," he says.

“I miss that about playing and it’s hard to get that in a non-team environment. When you’re on your own, it’s only yourself that you’re letting down.

“I know that other ex-players aren’t denying themselves or going a stint without having booze.

“For me, to take the most difficult decision, I get a thrill out of that, and I suppose that’s the professional sportsman in me.

“In my head, it feels like a small success, it’s like a little game with yourself. I quite enjoy the feel-good factor from that."

While O'Driscoll is undeniably a lot leaner than in his playing days, it's evident he has lost none of the musculature.

But juggling a career in television with a raft of other business projects surely doesn’t leave him much time to maintain his physique, so what's his secret?

“You have to lift weights,” he says. "But for me now it’s more of an aesthetic piece rather than a functional piece. I’m lifting now to aid appearance rather than help performance."

“I lift probably four, five times a week – but I’m not as big as I would’ve been as a player but I’m totally okay with that.

“It’s a little bit unscientific what I’m doing in terms of intermittent fasting, training quite hard and lifting high repetitions but I know that it works for me and I’ve got control of it.

“I’m sure some nutritionists or strength and conditioning coaches would say ‘what are you doing?’ but it works for me.”

O'Driscoll's new life as a pundit on BT Sport's rugby coverage means he also has to be versatile with when and how he exercises.

“I work with a personal trainer, but as his training partner. So I get the quality of his sessions, but I’ll manipulate it sometimes as well," he adds.  

“I train four or five times a week, so this morning was the only time I was going to get a session, which was a pilates session.

“But I knew it had to get to the airport to get to BT so it’s all about planning these things.

“Next week I’m in Abu Dhabi so I know I won’t be able to train as often, so I’ll plan and make sure I get at least two really good training days in the bank and then go bigger at the weekend when I have more time.

“I’m really driven by seeing what kind of shape I can get myself into.”

O'Driscoll paints a picture of remarkable self-discipline - but does he allow himself the odd cheat day?

"I definitely go through reset periods over the course of the year and then I’ll have a little splurge," he smiles.

"But I won’t go bananas because I know I’ve worked so hard throughout the year. 

"I love chocolate. I’ve got a real sweet tooth after a meal. I try and get a chocolate hit where I can.

"I also fully invest in all bad foods on hangovers!

"I don’t try and exercise or anything – I just get into the foetal position and try to make the next day a better choice!"