Thomas Barr reveals how to boost your performance through diet

© European Athletics
Written by Ellie Ross
The record-breaking hurdler and Irish athlete shares his nutrition tips on everything from caffeine to carbs
With a number of titles under his belt – including twice breaking the Irish record in the 400m hurdles at the Rio Olympics – Thomas Barr is getting things right. His track and field success is partly down to the hard work he puts into his diet, from ensuring he eats the right amount of carbs to using caffeine to up his game. Here he reveals the secrets to his diet, from his training snacks to his worst competition meal memory.

With a heavy training schedule like yours, it must be tough to consume enough to fuel your body every day. How do you manage it?

I eat regularly and make sure I eat all the healthy stuff! First thing in the morning, I’ll have a bowl of porridge with some protein powder on top. Then I’ll do my morning training, and afterwards I’ll have a second breakfast, usually of scrambled eggs on toast with some vegetables like peppers. Throughout the day I’ll snack on rice cakes with peanut butter, cashew nuts or fruit.
For lunch I’ll usually have a ham and cheese or chicken sandwich. I’ll have another rice cake snack before afternoon training. Afterwards, I’ll have dinner with plenty of protein, carbs and vegetables – a staple meal for me would be salmon or chicken and with couscous, pasta or rice, with some carrots, peas, broccoli or wilted spinach on the side. It’s far from gourmet – I cook to live and eat for a purpose.

What would you cook if you had a friend coming for dinner?

Probably a lasagne, or steak and sweet potato fries as a bit of a treat.

Do you have a go-to meal for the night before a competition?

I try not to change my diet too much the night before an event. I prefer to keep things normal because the last thing I’d want is an upset stomach. I’d probably take on a few more carbs than usual to make sure I’m fuelled, but I don’t need to do a massive carb load like a long distance runner might. I love pasta, so spaghetti bolognese is my go-to for the night before a competition.
Thomas Barr
Thomas Barr

You’ve previously spoken about how caffeine improves your performance. Tell us about that.

I did a Masters in Sports Performance and one of the tests we did was to see how caffeine impacts on performance. Some of us took caffeine and the rest didn’t. It was a blind test so we didn’t know who had taken it. I was one of the people who took it, and my reaction time improved by 5-10% over ten metres. Now, when I’m in an event where I’m looking for small margins, that bit of caffeine makes a big difference.
I don’t drink tea or coffee because I don’t like the taste, so I drink Red Bull instead to get my caffeine in. It makes me feel like I have a lot more energy and gives me a bit of a boost. Before training, if I’m feeling a bit lethargic, caffeine helps focus my attention on the session. In competitions, I’ll always be sipping away on a can of Red Bull during my warm-up before the race. It wakes me up, gets the heart rate going and makes me that little bit sharper.

What are your thought on using protein shakes?

Protein powder and shakes are a great way of getting an extra hit of that much-needed protein, but the clue is in the name – they are a dietary supplement. Always try and get as much protein as you can from actual food, and then the powder is there to supplement your diet if you need it. Some days when I’m training hard, I need five 25g hits of protein per day. I throw some protein on my morning porridge to get that first protein hit as soon as I wake up. After training, if I can’t eat some protein within half an hour of finishing a gym session, I’ll have a protein shake. I would never become dependent on powders and shakes, but it’s handy to have them there to make sure I keep on top of my protein intake.

You travel a lot to compete, so must try some unusual delicacies. What has been your worst competition food memory?

I remember exactly. It was at an under-23s competition in Finland. There were two options available for us – mystery meatballs or a second type of mystery meatballs, both with spaghetti. The menu was written in a foreign language so I didn’t understand what I was ordering, I just pointed to the one in a creamy sauce. It turned out to be some sort of fish all mashed up into balls. It was disgusting, one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. I went for the other mystery meatballs after that and they were a bit nicer, Italian-style. The fishy ones left a horrible aftertaste.

Do you ever have any big blow-outs, like a greasy takeaway or night in the pub?

Yes, I allow them about once a month – as long as it’s not around competition times. After my next indoor competitions, which finish in March, I plan on having a night out with my friends. We’ll probably get a takeaway and go for some drinks. There’s a chippy near my house that does a really nice thin base pizza. I usually drink gin and tonic – and I love Guinness.

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Now and then I’ll eat a couple of jellies in warm-ups for a sugar boost. Sometimes if my girlfriend and I are chilling out for the evening we’ll polish off a whole bag of sweets between us. So I try not to buy them – if I kept a stash, I’d eat them all.