From one-pot curries and speedy fajitas to his mum’s roast dinners and his neighbour’s carrot cakes, triathlete Jonny Brownlee shares his no-nonsense guide to healthy eating
“I have a simple philosophy when it comes to all this talk about food and fasting,” declares Jonny Brownlee, with endearing Yorkshire bluntness. “There is so much out there about fad diets and this and that but, for me, healthy eating is a simple calculation of food in and energy out; what you burn and what you can eat.
“I eat healthily, with lots of fruit and veg, and yoghurt to look after my bones. But I am a simple man so I enjoy normal weekday dinners like fajitas, Thai green curries, stews and fish pies.
“When people start worrying about strange diets or starving yourself on certain days, it just over-complicates things. And 95pc of what we do as athletes is about keeping things simple so that you can make it routine. Eating a normal, healthy diet gets you a long, long way.”
Amid the confusing daily swirl of cult diets, extreme weight-loss regimes, fasts and detoxes, Brownlee’s refreshingly simple approach to food blasts through the nonsense like the winds which rake across his beloved Yorkshire Dales. The 29-year-old Rio 2016 silver medalist, who lives in the West Yorkshire village of Bramhope, routinely tucks into healthy raw fish bowls of ‘poke’ but still enjoys a bag of fish and chips. He cooks veggie-packed stir-fries but is happy to spoil himself with some crumble after a winter run. The result is a balanced and sustainable blueprint for healthy living, based on adapting your food intake to your volume of exercise; preparing quick but healthy home-cooked food; and prioritising satisfying meals which will leave you feeling happy, healthy and energised for exercise.
And it’s a strategy that can help time-crunched workers and busy families as well as hungry athletes.
“When we are training hard we need to cook simple meals made with good quality food at the end of the day because you need to get the food in quickly,” explains Brownlee, who lives just a few minutes away from his older brother and training partner Alistair. “A slow cooker is great because I can dish it straight out when I get home. I also like one-pot dishes like stir fries and curries. I am the guy who likes one chopping board, one knife and one pan. I just hate sitting there eating knowing I have to wash up ten pans so keeping it simple works for me.”
The psychology of food is just as important to Brownlee. He admits that if he cut out the food he enjoys, he’d be miserable. But following a flexible diet – which is founded on nutritious fruit and vegetables but allows room for treats – helps to nourish his focus and motivation. “There are times when I have been out on a long bike ride and I’ve told myself: keep going because at the end of this you can sit down and have a nice meal. It is just what your mind needs. You wouldn’t keep going otherwise. So food has become an important part of my motivation.
“I have fish and chips probably twice a month. I don’t plan it. I might just be on a long bike ride and smell a chip shop and think: I will get some tonight. But that’s not a problem when my other meals during the week are healthy. It’s about balance.”
The Leeds-born triathlete credits his parents, Keith and Cath, for teaching him about the physiological and psychological value of food. “A lot of it comes from my mum’s cooking,” he explains. “We were brought up in a family where food was very important because with both parents being doctors they were very, very busy and dinner time was the one time in the evening when we could sit down together. We ate simple, healthy food.
“Finishing with a nice dinner is still part of my routine. I always finish training before the evening meal and I never train post-dinner time. Dinner symbolises the end of the day. That meal means my work is done: now it is time to chill and relax.”
On a typical training day he has a breakfast of porridge with blueberries and strawberries, and some toast with jam. For lunch he has a ham and cheese omelette on toast and a bowl of Greek yoghurt. Dinner could be a sausage casserole or chicken fajitas. “I subconsciously adapt to the seasons so in the race season I might have a healthier dessert like Greek yoghurt with fruit but when it is cold and dark in winter I might fancy a bacon sandwich for breakfast or some custard and crumble after a run.”
Brownlee takes a much more detailed and scientific approach to his nutrition around race day, prioritising energy-dense carbohydrates beforehand and muscle-repairing protein afterwards. But the practical manifestation of this sports science is still surprisingly simple. “I used to have a pizza before a race as my theory was that you are getting in carbs and protein and you can’t get food poisoning because it is so simple. But as I have grown older my stomach has become more sensitive so my pre-race meal is now rice and chicken. It sounds bland but you are just trying to get calories in without any risk.”
Brownlee is sponsored by the sports nutrition brand OTE and he uses their products on race day, starting with a natural energy bar two hours before the start, followed by a 750ml drink of water and two energy gels on the bike leg – one after 10km and one after 35km, just before the run. “Afterwards I get a protein bar in to help my muscles, then I have a shower and go out for a burger. Honestly, you just fancy nice burger and chips after a race and I know I’ve trained hard so I enjoy it.”
Following the infamous incident at the World Triathlon Series race in Cozumel, Mexico, in September 2016, when Brownlee, jelly-legged from dehydration, had to be helped over the line by his brother Alistair, he submitted himself to scientific testing and now has a strict strategy to avoid any repetition. “Heat is a big topic with the Olympics in Tokyo next year and we are training in heat chambers to adapt to that. But the main thing I have learned is that I have to drink and drink and drink. I am not a massive salt-sweater, like some athletes, although getting a bit of sodium in beforehand does help. But I am a big sweater in terms of volume so I need to drink a lot. On the running leg I used to just pour the water over my head but now I drink it – albeit in small gulps rather than big hits.”
Brownlee is hoping to push on from his World Triathlon Series win in Edmonton, Canada, last month with a big performance at the Olympic qualification event in Tokyo this Thursday. But whatever the result, Jan, his elderly next-door neighbour in sleepy Bramhope, will have a cake waiting for him on his return. “She always bakes cakes for me,” he chuckles. “I used to get lemon drizzle cake but now I prefer carrot cake. I drop hints and get a cheeky request in for when I fly home, like ‘I’m in a carrot cake mood.’ That normally does the trick.”
Jonny Brownlee is sponsored by OTE – visit www.otesports.co.uk for more information.
Follow Jonny on Instagram – @jonnybrownleetri