Ronnie O’Sullivan is not interested in jogging. The man nicknamed ‘The Rocket’ likes to run the way he pots snooker balls: quickly; relentlessly.
‘There’s no feeling like ticking along at 6:30-min/mile, in the forest, up and down the hills,’ he says. ‘It’s just a great way to start the day. That, to me, is proper running.’
To hear O’Sullivan speak about running today, in almost religious terms, it’s hard to imagine a time when he considered it a chore. However, as a kid, O’Sullivan was told by his dad, Ronnie Snr, that he had to run.
‘He used to force me to go out,’ says O’Sullivan. ‘He said, “You can leave school when you’re 15, but you have to keep fit. Healthy body, healthy mind.” I never used to enjoy it, but I noticed it made me play better snooker. And I wanted to be as good as I could at snooker, so I kept it up.’
However, when his dad was imprisoned for murder, O’Sullivan stopped running and by the time he was 20 years old, he weighed 15 stone and his waistline that had swelled to 37 inches. Running came back into his life initially as a way to lose weight – but soon became much more than that.
‘Running has kept the things that are important to me – my family, relationships and snooker – much more stable. I’ve noticed I don’t get so moody, there isn’t the same self-loathing. Running just makes me feel so much better about myself, which is good for everyone around me too.’
In many ways, running became O’Sullivan’s new addiction. In his 2013 autobiography, Running, he called it ‘my religion, my belief system’. It replaced the booze and drugs that had characterised large parts of his life until then – and he was good at it too. Having joined his local running club, Woodford Green, he began to train and race like a man possessed. Four years later, in 2008, he was down to 11 ½ stone and running a 34:54 10K. ‘Proper running’ by anyone’s standards.
A lot on his plate
Ten years and several injuries on, O’Sullivan is not running quite as quickly. ‘I could probably only run a 20-minute 5K at the minute,’ he says, wistfully. He is, otherwise, in a wonderful place – physically, mentally and professionally.
Two days before we met, he had just become world number one again in his second-favourite sport: snooker. At 44, he’s the oldest player to achieve this – and he attributes his longevity to regular running and a fresh approach to nutrition.
His new book, Top of Your Game: Eating for Mind and Body, which he’s co-wrote with nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, is a collection of healthy recipes and hard-won insights on food, running and life in general.
In many ways, O’Sullivan is an unlikely poster boy for the healthy eating movement. Moderation, self-care and healthy living aren’t things you might readily associate with a man whose all-night binges would reportedly see him consume 15 pints of Guinness (alongside other, stronger substances).
It’s fair to say he’s made some foodie faux pas along the way, too. ‘I’d always eaten well because my mum was Sicilian,’ says O’Sullivan, ‘so I’d been used to eating fresh produce and good food. My biggest problem has always been that I’ve just eaten too much.’
For instance, when someone mentioned to O’Sullivan that olives were really healthy, he took that as his cue to eat 30 of them in one sitting. Another time, when following a high-fat, low-carb diet, he’d regularly eat two avocados in one sitting. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I do like an avocado,’ he says, ‘but you’re only really meant to have half an avocado a day.’
In September 2017, O’Sullivan says he’d’ ‘hit a wall’ with his physical and mental wellbeing. He was overweight again, despite the fact that he was over-exercising, and everything was suffering as a consequence – including his snooker.
‘I was playing badly because I was so knackered all the time,’ he says. ‘I was following a carbohydrate-free diet to try and drop some pounds, without realising that my brain needed good carbohydrates to function during matches.’
That’s when O’Sullivan started working with Lambert. Together, they got a handle on his portion sizes, cut out certain foods and added others. The results, he says, have been startling.
‘I’ve shed two stone in the past two years, purely through changing my diet, and have never felt so energised. Nutrition has made a massive difference to me. When I stopped running as competitively, some bad habits crept back in. I used to equate running with staying slim and thought the eating wasn’t important. I’ve come to realise it’s actually the other way round: I don’t have to run like I used to as long as I eat right.’
Maestro to mid-pack
With a snooker cue in his hand, O’Sullivan is a phenomenon. The trophies – five World Championships, seven Masters title, seven UK Championships – tell only half the story. For it is not how many trophies O’Sullivan has won – 36 ranking titles and counting – but the manner in which he has won them, that sets him apart. To watch ‘The Rocket’ in full flow is, simply, a thing of beauty. He is the Picasso of the baize or, perhaps, the Kipchoge of the cloth.
With a pair of running shoes on his feet, O’Sullivan is good, but not great. He once finished 189th at the Southern Cross-Country Championships and made it into the pages of Athletics Weekly via a win at a small-scale 10K in Essex.
Yet swapping the bright lights of the baize for the ankle-deep anonymity of cross-country was part of the appeal. With a club vest on, O’Sullivan was no longer a once-in-a-generation genius, with all the expectation that comes with it. He was just another exhausted, imperfect runner.
‘I knew I was always going to have to be one of these untalented runners who has to work hard to get whatever he can out of it,’ he says. ‘Don’t get me wrong, no matter what I do, I like to be at the front. But with running I knew I wasn’t expected to win. I’d look at the winners and think, “It would be great to be them.” But I knew I could never be that good, because I’d never done it seriously as a kid.
‘I used to equate it to someone who was 30 years old who decided he wanted to become a top snooker player. How would he fare against me? He’d never get anywhere near me. Even if he played for the next 100 years and I didn’t pick up a cue, I’d wipe the floor with him.’
While running victories may have remained out of reach, moving from maestro to mid-packer taught O’Sullivan some valuable lessons about himself. ‘Running taught me that I’ve got guts, determination and that I’m happy not to take shortcuts,’ he says. ‘If you want to get the most out of yourself as a runner, you don’t have to have masses of ability. I honestly think if you run 50 or 60 miles a week, with a few track sessions thrown in, anyone can run a sub-3 marathon or a sub-35 10K. It’s all about effort.’
The long game
Had you, in 2009, asked O’Sullivan to rank his top sporting priorities, winning another snooker World Championships might have come second to his desire to represent his home county, Essex, in cross-country.
‘Running did take over for a while, I’ll admit,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t mind, because [running] is a good thing. You don’t mind things like that taking over. Anyway, what else are you going to do with your life – sit around and get fat?’
Nowadays, O’Sullivan prioritises his potting. However, he still packs his running shoes when he heads off to a snooker tournament, regularly popping in on local running club sessions, provided he feels fit enough.
‘When I’m fit, I always join up with the local running club and go for a five- or seven-mile run,’ he says. ‘The last three or four years, my running has gone a bit downhill, so I don’t meet so many people now because I don’t want to slow them down. I just go out and do my own little four-miler at 7:30 min/mile. That’s enough for me at the moment.’
Although some of O’Sullivan’s miles are run on the road, he’s happiest on the trails of his local Epping Forest. And although snooker may have made him a millionaire several times over, but when it comes to running, he likes to keep things simple and gadget-free.
‘I love running offroad, through the forest,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s all about getting away from people, cars, fumes. I once wore headphones for about half an hour, but I threw them away in the forest as it was killing it for me; the beauty of being outside is that you’re away from technology.’
Given his impressive times over shorter distances, it is perhaps surprising to learn that O’Sullivan has never run a marathon. At his running peak, his clubmates told him he was in sub-2:45 shape, but injuries and a hectic schedule have always got in the way. Is it something he’d like to do in the future?
‘I’d definitely do a marathon,’ he says. ‘While I’m still competing playing snooker, it’s hard for me to commit to doing the miles in training, because that would become too much of an obsession. I’ve only got another three or four more years playing snooker – I’ve got to prioritise that. But if I get in decent shape, even at 50 I like to think I could still possibly run a sub-3 marathon.’
Whether or not he decides to tackle the full 26.2, O’Sullivan knows he wants to continue to run for as long as his legs allow him. ‘I look at people at the running club in their 60s and 70s, and they’re still doing it. I look at them, and they look so healthy – I want to look like that when I’m their age. I obviously want to run as much as a I can and, if I can’t run, I’d probably take up a coaching badge.’
Ronnie O’Sullivan, running coach? Don’t expect any jogging in his training schedules.
The interview itself may have been done before the World Championship 2019 even if it’s only published now.