Fit For The Table
Snooker players may not need the same level of physical fitness as footballers or marathon runners, but as the global circuit grows, so does the importance of keeping healthy.
The World Snooker Tour now incorporates nearly 30 tournaments around the globe. Players are busier than ever, often competing in events for seven or eight weeks in a row before they can take a break.
The notion of “burn-out” – unthinkable ten years ago when there were no more than eight tournaments in a season – is now commonly mentioned. Several players have suffered from physical injuries, particularly to the lower back and neck, partly as a result of the demands placed on their bodies by regular playing, practising and travel.
We spoke to a range of experts to find out how improved fitness, flexibility and nutrition can help any snooker player maintain a healthy body.
Taylor Wilson knows, better than most, the ways in which physical conditioning can benefit a snooker player’s career. A fully qualified personal trainer, he is also the younger brother of world number nine Kyren Wilson, a quarter-finalist at the Crucible in 2016 and 2017 and a semi-finalist this year.
“I have worked with Kyren for a while, he has become fitter, stronger and lost over a stone in weight,” said 22-year-old Taylor. “That has helped him become more consistent and it prepares him for the long matches, especially at the Crucible. I look at him like a Formula One car – if he wants to perform, he has to look after his body and make sure it gets the right treatment and fuel.”
Taylor believes that physical fitness and flexibility are the two key elements. “When I meet someone for the first time I’ll start off with a functional movement screen which tests mobility,” he said. “Then I’ll do a fitness test which might be sixty seconds of non-stop press ups or squats. It’s important to find out a person’s limitations to start with and build gradually into the correct program, because everyone is different. If you start off with a tough gym program you might quickly get muscle injuries. The body has to prepare in phases.
“When I started working with Kyren I got him to stand straight against the wall, and then slide his arms up. It was clear that he had an issue with shoulder mobility so we designed exercises to help that. With another player it might be tight hamstrings, strain on the neck or lower back, or core stability weakness – it’s always a question of hitting the reset button and deciding how to move forward.
“Kyren plays football twice a week so that’s his cardio sessions covered. With anyone I’d encourage a combination of cardio work with mobility exercises.”
Michael Holt, who reached the last 16 at the Crucible two years ago, qualified as a fitness instructor in 2002, partly to give himself back-up in case his snooker career didn’t work out, and partly to help fulfil his own potential on the green baize. “I have learned a lot about it over the years,” said the 2016 Riga Masters finalist. “There are lots of different ways of training and getting fit, but in all of them you have to get outside your comfort zone. Whether it’s weights, running, calisthenics or whatever a person prefers, it’s going to hurt, but in the end you will feel the rewards.
“I lift weights because that’s what I enjoy. That might entail an hour a day of resistance training. It is cardiovascular so it exercises your heart and lungs, and it helps the way I look and feel. My wife Amy is into the same kind of thing which helps – in fact she was training four days before she gave birth!
“I have tried running and done a couple of half marathons, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s all about personal preference. But I believe that being in good shape will help anyone and give them more confidence in everything they do. The best player in the world is Ronnie O’Sullivan and he’s also one of the fittest – that’s not coincidence.”
Shaun Murphy, Mark Selby, Mark Williams and Stuart Bingham are among those to have suffered from neck and back pain in recent years while in the past the likes of Chris Small, Martin Clark and Ian McCulloch have been forced into early retirement by issues relating to the spine and neck.
Orlaith Buckley is Consultant Physiotherapist to European Senior Tour golf, a sport where players experience similar injuries. “If a snooker player has back or neck pain, they should first assess their training and technique,” she said. “If they have a considerable increase in hours spent practising or playing, then it may be they are fatigued or not fit enough to endure that volume of training. Discomfort is the body’s way of telling us to move or change position. Modifying practice into blocks of time, with breaks in between, may be all it takes to resolve the issue.
“Getting stronger in the off-season will also help with endurance. Being fit for purpose allows the snooker player to perform for longer and keep their focus on the game. Any player will benefit from an assessment and a suitable training program. The program could be improved flexibility for one, and more strengthening for another. An individual program is always a benefit.”
You are what you eat
Eating nutritious food and avoiding excess drinking, smoking and sugary snacks are, of course, crucial elements of staying healthy. As Holt put it: “Nutrition is so important because if you don’t eat well, you won’t get the benefits of the training you are doing. I generally cook my own food and I know how to follow a balanced diet. It’s not always easy when we travel to tournaments, but you’ve still often got a choice between something like burger and chips or chicken and rice, so it’s about making the right choices in those moments.”
Ronnie O’Sullivan produced arguably the best form of his career last season at the age of 42, winning five ranking titles. As well as regular running and gym sessions, he works with renowned nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert on making sure his diet helps him to perform effectively at tournaments.
Lambert said: “Snooker requires a lot of concentration. When you don’t eat enough nutrient-rich foods, your body may lack essential vitamins and minerals thus having a negative effect on your energy, mood and brain function. I believe nutrition is important in every aspect of life, including sport. Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet can have a positive impact on your mood and sense of wellbeing.”
The Crucible in particular places demands on a player’s stamina and energy as he can be on his feet in the arena for up to ten hours in a day.
“Pre and post-match fuel is crucial to the body’s physical performance,” Lambert added. “Without the right fuel, you are less likely to get the most out of your exercise regime. Pre-match food should ideally include some sort of complex carbohydrate that will provide the body with slow releasing energy to keep your stamina high. Something like baked sweet potato with homemade beans and mixed salad, or porridge cooked in milk topped with nuts and berries.”
Have cue, will travel
A successful player on the pro tour might spend 150 days a year away from home, including at least half a dozen long haul flights overseas. This presents the challenge of maintaining a fitness and diet regime which might be easy to follow at home, but less so in foreign locations or while travelling.
But Wilson insists where there’s a will, there’s a way. “The hotel you are in might not have a gym, but that doesn’t stop you going for a jog or doing some shoulder rolls,” he said. “Exercise helps the mind as well because it takes a player’s mind off his next match, in a location where boredom might be an issue.
“In terms of travel, on long haul flights I recommend regular walking and stretching on the plane to keep the circulation flowing. And stay as hydrated as possible by drinking a lot of water.”
Buckley concurred: “If you eat well, stay hydrated and sleep well, you give yourself the best chance to perform. Fatigue has an effect on both mental and physical fitness, so training good habits around travel is vital.”
And Lambert insists that being away from home should not be an excuse to submit to junk food. “When you’re on the go and don’t have food prepared, it is up to you to make smart food choices,” she said. “Opting for foods that include essential fats, protein, complex carbs and a good amount of fruit and vegetables is a great place to start. For long days of travel, I would recommend building a lunch box with things like wholegrain avocado and chicken sandwiches, packs of hummus and vegetable sticks and fruit and yoghurt.”
Jet-lag can also be a factor, as it affects performance. World Champion Mark Selby has had plenty of success in the Far East in recent years, winning three ranking events in China within the past 14 months. He stresses the importance of travelling well in advance of the start of the tournament in order to give the body time to acclimatise.
“I usually fly to Hong Kong four or five days before a tournament in China starts,” said Selby. “I feel that gives me an advantage because the jet lag always affects you for the first two or three days, so you don’t want that problem while you are playing.”
So snooker players of all levels, follow the advice above and you’ll soon start seeing better results – on and off the table.
– Orlaith Buckley (follow @ylmsportscience)
– Taylor Wilson (New Evolution Personal Training – see www.newevolutionpt.co.uk)
– Rhiannon Lambert (See www.Rhitrition.com and follow @Rhitrition. RE-NOURISH: A Simple Way to Eat Well by Rhiannon Lambert is available now from Amazon for £18.99)