Like so many elite athletes, Nicola Adams found herself somewhat adrift when she retired from boxing.
After a wildly successful career as a double Olympic champion with an undefeated professional record, Leeds-Born Adams hung up her gloves in 2019 after suffering an eye injury – and she admits the period of time that followed was “a struggle”.
Now 38, Adams had her first fight when she was 13 (she won!) and became very used to following gruelling training schedules and precise diets, and found food one of the trickiest things to navigate with her newfound freedom.
“Once I retired from boxing, there was a point where I wasn’t used to being able to eat what I want, because I had such a very strict eating regime,” she admits. “To go from that, to trying to find a stable, healthy way of eating has been quite challenging for me. I’ve finally found a way to say it’s fine to eat what I want and stay healthy.”
For Adams, a big part of this journey was unlearning some of the preconceptions she had about food. “I didn’t like the concept that whenever you wanted to eat something that was nice or more indulgent, it was classed as a ‘sin’ or it was a ‘cheat meal’,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t like those kinds of phrases – it was like I had a bad association with food.”
Adams admits she’s tried lots of different types of diets in the past (“as soon as you veer off slightly, that’s it – it goes out the window”), but now she’s “spent a lot of time fixing that association with food, and being able to say it’s fine to eat what I want”. She’s keen to share this new mentality with others, in the hope it’ll help people realise “they don’t have to feel guilty” for eating certain things.
Adams – who has teamed up with fellow fitness stars Greg Rutherford, Kelly Smith and Mr Motivator to support Smart Energy GB’s new ‘Energy Fit for the Future’ campaign, encouraging us to get smart meters installed in our homes – might not be training for the Olympics any more, but she still has a boxing mentality and exercises six days a week.
Now though, she can have a bit more fun with her workouts. “I like to mix things up,” says Adams. This means doing “a bit of everything – weights, running, the cross trainer” – and prioritising her recovery with hot room yoga.
She’s constantly playing around with gadgets and technology to help boost her performance too: “I use heart rate monitors – everything. I have an app on my phone that checks my heart rate while I’m sleeping.”
Adams keeps up a regular workout routine for her physical and mental health, and it’s not the only thing she does to stay mentally strong. “I meditate as well, guided meditation. I’ve done that all my career, I find it very relaxing.” Apps like Headspace and Calm might be a dime a dozen nowadays, but back when Adams took up meditation, “not many people did it”, she says.
“I started off quite small, sometimes it’s very hard to keep concentration in the beginning. So I started off with one or two minutes, and then built it up so now I can meditate easily for two hours.” And after a long session, she says she feels “unbelievable. It’s like having sleep, but being awake at the same time.”
Talking about mental health is something that’s become really important to her. “It’s definitely something I’ve thought about through my career, but even more so recently, especially with the way a lot of people have been struggling with lockdown and coming out of lockdown,” she says. “It’s important to me, because I feel like it should be an area we do talk about, and it’s not something you should be afraid to talk about. If you’re not OK, it should be OK to say you’re not OK.”
This is hardly surprising for the boxer, who’s been keen to raise awareness around the causes close to her heart throughout her career. “It just feels nice to be able to give back,” she says simply.
Adams is one of the UK’s most visible black lesbians, and is often considered a role model for the way she constantly breaks boundaries – but with characteristic ease, she doesn’t let the pressure get to her. “I don’t think about it,” she says with a good humoured laugh. “I just do what I do. It’s humbling to be looked up to in such a way, but I always remember that I am me. I don’t see it as added pressure or anything.”
She credits this calm and confident demeanour to her role models and mentors growing up – particularly her coach, Alwyn Belcher, who she says helped “build my confidence and turn me into the person I am today”.
So what was some of Belcher’s advice that’s stuck with Adams?
“Only you can judge what you see in the mirror – don’t let other people judge you,” she reveals. And that’s why she wants “to be able to give back to other people, and show them they don’t have to worry about being judged as well”.
Nicola Adams is part of the Get Britain Energy Fit For The Future campaign, encouraging everyone to help modernise our outdated energy system by getting a smart meter. More at: smartenergygb.org/energy-fit-for-the-future