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In his new book Coming Up For Air, Tom Daley reveals his private battle with an eating disorder in the build-up to London 2012. Wounded by comments about his weight from his coach Alexei Evangulov, Daley began cutting out carbs, fasting for whole days and getting up early to do fat-burning cardio before breakfast. Guilt and shame haunted his every meal. He welcomed each lost kilogram with a grim sense of pride. If he dared to eat cake, he would make himself sick afterwards.
Today, Daley is willing to discuss his ordeal because he knows many others are still suffering in silence. The charity Beat Eating Disorders claims that a quarter of people with eating disorders are male, but men’s traditional reticence about health issues means the true number may be higher.
“I guess there is that stigma around eating disorders that problems with eating only affect women, and it’s just not the case,” insists Daley, 27, when we speak via Zoom. “I have felt the pressure not to talk about things because I didn't want to bother people with it. Or people might not understand. Or they would be like ‘oh, don't be silly, you’re fine’.”
As Daley gesticulates, I glimpse the Olympic rings tattooed on his right arm. It seems strange to hear this celebrated Olympian discussing body anxiety, given that most chaps would readily agree to a body-swap with the chiselled diver. But his experience proves that even ostensibly healthy people can have body image issues.
“If I was to really think rationally about it, it all seems very silly,” admits Daley, who lives in London with his husband Dustin Lance Black, 47, and their three-year-old son Robbie. “But at the same time that’s kind of part of the problem in that you feel silly but you can’t help the way that you think, and the way that you feel when you look at yourself, and the things that you've been told from other people.”
Having to routinely stand in front of TV cameras, while sporting only a pair of trunks, left him feeling even more exposed and anxious. “It’s not like I’ve got anywhere to hide,” he explains. “I don’t wear a T-shirt on the diving board.”
Between December 2011 and July 2012, Daley lost over a stone in weight, dropping from 76kg to 67kg. But as London 2012 grew closer, he could no longer endure the debilitating fatigue that accompanied his disordered eating. Aware that his medal hopes were now at risk, he committed to eating properly and went on to claim bronze in the 10m platform event. “I was able to handle more training, I wasn’t hungry all the time, and I didn’t find myself binging because I was (now) fuelling myself correctly,” he says.
In the years since London 2012, Daley has carefully refined how he eats with the help of his nutritionist and hours of self-education. “I have moderated my carb intake, depending on what my training sessions and needs are. On days that I’m doing double training, I need to fuel adequately for that. And on days where I’m doing a recovery session, I don’t need as much. I still need some. But I don’t need a big bowl of pasta. I always used to be quite unsure about carbs. Realising that they are there to help you, not hinder you, is something that I’ve figured out.”
Regularly permitting himself a few treats has also helped him to avoid binge-eating. “If you want to have a treat, have a treat on a day that you’ve done your workout,” he advises. “I used to really restrict myself all week and then on Sunday I just used to be like, Oh my God, give me all the food!”
Ahead of last summer’s Tokyo Olympics - where Daley won gold alongside Matty Lee in the synchronised 10-metre platform as well as bronze in the individual 10m platform – he was able to shift another habit still lingering from his 2012 ordeal. “This was actually my first year where I didn’t have caffeine as part of my competition plan,” he reveals. “Before, I would time some sort of caffeine hit immediately before, or sometimes halfway through, a competition, just to give me that energy.”
The Plymouth-born diver now takes a much more holistic view of his personal health, blending hearty family dinners and relaxing meditation alongside gym work and mood-boosting cardio. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s positive for mind, body and soul,” he explains. “It is not just about how fit your heart is and how healthy your lungs are, it’s about that mental wellbeing for me.”
And food is no longer his nemesis. “Once you have more of an understanding about it, you’re not so worried and afraid of food,” he insists. “I have actually learned to enjoy food again.”
Ahead of a tough training day, Daley has two glasses of water followed by four scrambled eggs, a bowl of porridge, and sometimes an extra bowl of cereal for breakfast. “That is something I would never normally do,” he reflects. “I used to just have eggs on their own and that was it, no carbs, no nothing. How do you last through a two-and-a-half-hour training session without eating?”
For lunch, he might have some chicken, rice and veg, or leftovers from the night before which could be chicken and prawn paella or a tofu stir-fry. “I have dinner quite early, about 5.30-5.45pm, mainly for my son, because we all like to eat together,” he says. “I make dinner for the three of us. After putting Robbie to bed, I then make myself a casein (a slow-release protein) overnight protein (shake) and that massively helps my recovery. And depending on how hard my training session was, I sometimes have tart cherry juice (to aid recovery) as well.”
Daley says experimenting with recipes for his family has injected some much-needed fun and balance into his diet. “I like making a lot of Thai and Korean and sometimes Indian or Japanese,” he says. “I also like to just use up whatever I have in the fridge.”
He has his mum Debbie to thank for this frugal family habit. “When we were younger, and there wasn’t really much in the house as she had to go shopping the next day, I would say: ‘Mum, what are we going to have for dinner?’ And she would say: ‘IFIT!’ I’d say ‘what does IFIT mean?‘ and she’d say: ‘If it’s there, you can have it!’ That challenge of creating something from what you have in the fridge is really fun.”
Daley continues to push himself hard in the gym because diving places such extreme demands on his body. “We hit the water at 35mph, from the height of two double-decker buses and half a car piled on top of each other, so that’s quite intense,” he explains. “There’s a lot of impact for the shoulders, triceps, arms and wrists. Actually, 65 per cent of our training is done on dry land, whether that be yoga, gyrotonics (a pulley machine which blends the movement patterns of yoga, dance, gymnastics, swimming and tai chi), gymnastics, weight training or cardio.”
He now spends a lot more time stretching and doing yoga at home. Daley is an ambassador for Vodafone and has helped to produce a free yoga workout for their YouTube channel to help people still working from home. “People have spent on average about six hours and 20 minutes (per day) sitting down throughout this pandemic, which works out to be 93 days of the year,” says Daley. He insists that home yoga workouts are an easy way to “get people off the couch” and “get moving”.
Determined to broaden his own health perspective, Daley now considers relaxing mindful activities a key part of his health routine. “I do 10 minutes of mindfulness every day where I sit down and close my eyes,” he explains. “I find yoga to be really mindful. And knitting and my crochet also help me to switch off and have a little bit of time to myself and be very present in the moment. I was on the Tube today and I thought: ‘I’m just going to sit and knit on the Tube’.”
As a diver, Daley doesn’t really need to do cardio workouts to enhance his performances, but he has come to relish short 12-minute HIIT workouts, bodyweight circuits and hill sprints for their rich mental health rewards. “I feel like it really clears my mind,” he insists. “Sometimes I might think ‘I can’t do this workout, I feel terrible or awful’ but once you do it you're like, wow! You never regret a workout.”
Tom Daley has teamed up with Vodafone to create VodaYoga, a yoga class designed to get the nation flexible, to celebrate the launch of Vodafone EVO – its new flexible mobile offering. For more information click here