Snooker may not seem the most athletic of activities, but at the top level of the sport, the leading players seek any edge over their rivals. Neil Robertson turned vegan two years ago in a bid to improve his stamina, and has never looked back.
At the biggest tournaments, snooker players often compete for up to eight hours in a single day, which requires physical stamina as well as intense concentration for long periods. Despite winning the World Championship in 2010, Robertson found that he was frequently left drained by tough matches and his energy levels would fluctuate.
The 34 year old Australian decided to try a plant-based diet in 2014, on the advice of another former World Champion, Peter Ebdon, who has spread the word about the benefits of veganism since he made the change in 2011.
“It’s coming up for two years since I switched to a vegan diet and it’s going great,” said Robertson. “I used to get tired during matches and I would rely on coffee to give me a boost in the middle. Now I’ll have a banana smoothie throughout the day and that helps maintain consistent energy levels rather than going through peaks and troughs. I feel so much better for it and my recovery in between matches is far better.
“I wish I had done it a long time ago because it has really helped my career and my health. But I’m glad I made the choice to do it while I’m still young and my results have reflected the benefits I have got from it over the past two years. I have won four tournaments over that period and got to a few other finals – I don’t think any other player has got to as many finals as I have in that time.”
Neil grew up in Melbourne and was introduced to snooker by his father who ran a billiards club. After showing remarkable natural talent for the sport as a junior, he won the World Under-21 Championship in 2003. He moved to England, where most of the pro tournaments are staged, with nothing more than £500, his treasured snooker cue and a burning ambition to succeed.
Settling in Cambridge – where he still lives with partner Milla and their six year old son Alexander – he quickly rose through the professional ranks and won his first major tournament in 2006. He has gone on to become the most successful non-British player of all time, winning a total of 12 world ranking events. In the most competitive era snooker has ever seen, he strives for supremacy against other top stars like the mercurial Ronnie O’Sullivan, unshakable Mark Selby and Chinese ace Ding Junhui.
Snooker’s international circuit comprises 25 events a year, in locations around the world including Thailand, India and China, with a global TV audience of over 400 million people. “The travelling can be demanding, and sometimes it can be difficult to find the right foods to eat in other countries,” said Robertson. “We have a lot of tournaments in China because snooker is massively popular there, but generally it’s easy enough to get fruit and vegetables in the hotels we stay in. And there have been a few cases of players getting food poisoning through eating meat, which obviously is a risk I don’t need to worry about.”
As well as the health and fitness factors, there are also ethical reasons behind Robertson’s commitment to veganism.
“When I started doing my research I realised that we don’t really know what happens before meat ends up on our plate,” he said. “So many people deliberately turn a blind eye to it, and I was one of them. The more I found out about what happens at slaughterhouses and dairy farms, the more I felt that I couldn’t be part of that and I could never go back to eating meat or drinking milk.
“If someone else wants to continue to do so that’s fine, though I think everyone should at least do some research on it. So many of the myths about needing meat and dairy in our diet, for the protein and calcium, have been debunked. I can get everything I need on a plant based diet, the food tastes great and I feel fantastic, so why do we need to kill animals?”
NEIL’S DAILY DIET
I start each day with a big glass of water. People tend to confuse hunger for dehydration so they eat a lot for breakfast when what they really need is water. I make a big smoothie with about ten bananas, some blueberries and a variety of other fruit, plus maybe nutmeg or cinnamon or chocolate soya milk. The smoothie has around 1,200 calories and I drink it throughout the morning while I am practising at the snooker club.
When I’m back at home I have something like avocado and tomato on toast or baked beans on toast, or maybe a vegan pie. I know from friends that ten years ago it was much harder to get a range of vegan food, but these days it’s available everywhere and there are so many great variations.
In the evening I have something like spaghetti or lasagne with a vegetable sauce, or vegan curry. The options are limitless because you can make any meal and just substitute meat for vegetables. The one thing I really missed when I first turned vegan was chocolate. I used to destroy a family size box of Maltesers. Now I’ve found plenty of kinds of great vegan chocolate so that’s my treat.