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Thursday, 24 June 2021 23:13

Q&A with Mack Middleton

We sat down with weightlifting Champion Mack Middleton, to talk about what it takes to compete at both national and international level when it comes to nutrition, training and mindset.

When did you start your training?

When I was 14, I was playing rugby and I started strength training to improve my play, then after a few years I’d picked up a few injuries and decided rugby wasn’t for me, I knew someone who trained at what is now my gym and thought I’d give weightlifting a go and that’s when I transitioned to solely Olympic weightlifting, age 17.

Did you test out various forms of training before you focused on Weightlifting?

The only training I did prior to taking up the sport was generic strength and conditioning training, most of my journey up until starting was pretty much on my own so I would only do what I would see reading and watching things online.

What has been your greatest sporting achievement?

My first GB representation in the European championships in 2019.

How many competitions have you taken part in/won?

I’ve competed in 2 internationals and 4 national champs, I also won all of the nationals.

When did you realise you could make a career in weightlifting?

When I won my first British champs, I was moved onto the Commonwealth Games pathway projecting to move further onto the Olympic games pathway. I’d always felt capable of taking things to a higher level, but this was that external validation to clarify that I was realistically good enough to succeed.

You have travelled the world with your career, where has been your favourite place to visit, train and compete?

Bucharest, Romania had a fantastic environment. The competition venue was in the same hotel as the training hall and where we were staying so the atmosphere for the entirety of the trip was phenomenal.

When was your first ever competition?

My first competition was a northern open when I was 17, surrounded by much older and better lifters. I bombed on my snatches so did not finish, it was a very humbling first competition experience, but I oddly enjoyed it nonetheless; the failure on the day really just fuelled the fire for the next one.

Where did you train going up?

My whole training career I’ve always trained in the same gym in Adlington, Lancashire, apart from when I first started doing weights whilst playing rugby when I just had some basic equipment in my bedroom.

How important is teamwork and surrounding yourself with a positive support system?

The main thing in weightlifting, as cliché as it might sound, is to be your own support system. Being self-reliant and confident in yourself is second to none. The reason being, if you can’t back yourself up then the best teammates in the world aren’t going to make a difference. Olympic weightlifting is ultimately an individual sport, it requires a lot of focus, drive, and grit; it can be hard to find a team that will share those traits and be willing to commit to the same goals. It can make the tough times worse, being alone, as the sport is innately punishing and demanding, but I’ve definitely come out stronger because of it. I do have my coach and my loved ones at home, but again, when you’re stood over the bar it’s only you and no amount of support is going to lift the bar for you.

Do you adopt other forms of exercise into your training?

Most other training, I do will be in the form of metabolic conditioning or ‘bodybuilding’ work. I also walk the dog as part of my daily exercise.

What does a daily training programme look like for you?

Day to day my program changes depending on the time of the week and place in the cycle. Roughly 2-3 times per week in a typical competition build up I’ll have ‘heavy’ sessions which could involve snatches or clean and jerks to relatively high intensities, respective pulls and then back or front squats. Then accessory power work, bodybuilding and conditioning, usually some rehab work to iron out problems that arise as well. Outside of competition build up, I’ll either be off season doing more strength work and less technical practice; this means more squats and pulls, more general strength work such as deadlifts, rows, bench, press etc and fewer snatches and clean and jerks. On the flip side, in between competitions in season but before the build up to the next one I’ll typically be doing maintenance work which would involve somewhat prolonging a base level of condition so that I can be fresh for the next build up, assessing and tackling any problems from the previous cycle whether that be technical issues, specifics with the program that I didn’t respond well to (or even potentially increasing something that I responded particularly well to), or more usually focussing on rehab or specific work to correct issues with my body or my form.

How big of a part does nutrition play in your career and how important is it?

Nutrition is of course a massive part in the big picture. The cliche of 95% of the progress made being in the kitchen isn’t far off truth because training would be completely impossible without optimum nutrition. Firstly, proper energy consumption (carbs especially) is integral to having enough energy to carry me through sessions. Secondly, energy and protein consumption facilitate proper recovery for the next session. Being the thing that is so often overlooked by most people, it’s probably what I find myself drilling into people most - nothing is possible in your training life without addressing nutrition, that is not just limited to training itself but even stretches to mindset and injuries.

What is your pre competition nutrition?

As I said before, with nutrition being such a key player in my day-to-day training, I keep my eating habits consistent through the year regardless of season. However, it is worth noting the mental strain of maintaining clean, high calorie eating long term, so I usually relax my habits after competition especially in the 1-2 weeks after so I can maintain a positive relationship with my diet.

How do you prevent potential injury and what does your recovery programme look like?

Injury for me is a massive part of training unfortunately. Coming from rugby and training in an ‘old school’ gym, the general attitude towards injury is just to get on with it and to push through the pain, which has left me more significant and more complex issues that I’m now having to work through. Preventing injury all revolves around ensuring proper training in every sense, that means good technique, careful intensity selection, monitoring volume and its relative intensity and how that is impacting me day to day and keeping a varied and thorough selection of exercises not only specific to the sport but also to keep my body working how it should. Then, recovery from injury has a lot of similarities but with the focus shifted; even more focus on the surrounding exercises and less of the specific work so I can optimise recovery and not dig myself deeper into the hole. Recovery also involves a lot of physiotherapy and rest as well, despite the archaic ideology around injury being that ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ – or other totally misguided tropes like that – pain will not get better by ignoring it and in fact usually gets far worse if left unaddressed. After so many cycles of injury recovery and prevention, now I ‘m quick to address any pain that persists more than a couple of days.

Have you ever experienced a serious injury, and how did this effect you both physically and mentally?

Probably the worst injury I’ve had was the torn rectus femoris tendon in my left knee, in large part because of the mental stress I suffered because of it. Sustaining the injury coincided with the beginning of the January lockdown and consequently the halting of my business and training completely. Dealing with an injury ordinarily isn’t too bad for me usually, however this flash flood of things really affected me. I managed to just about maintain a positive mindset by keeping regimented with physio and prescribed rehab, setting myself easy lockdown goals like longer plank time, more pull ups etc, and constant interaction with my coach and my physio to validate my strife and reassure me.

How important is Mindset for you when it comes to your profession/training/nutrition?

Mindset is huge for performance, probably just as important as any training you can do. I face challenges in training, competition, and even my eating day to day that I have to tackle and of course that means mentally I have to be on top. Mindset can be improved by a few things though, of course conscious positive thoughts and reflections help as it can clarify negative emotions and rationalise things, but just getting a quick walk in the morning for some fresh air and sunlight can be good or allowing yourself to do something without guilt that you usually restrict and instead of treating it like a reward for training well or eating well, treat it as a necessary and productive step to help maintain your discipline. The basics shouldn’t be overlooked however for a positive mindset - good sleep, good food, good hydration.

Do you think it’s important for people wanting to achieve their fitness to get guidance from a professional coach?

Seeking out a coach isn’t necessary if you simply want to be fitter. However, if you are at all serious about your goals especially in Olympic Weightlifting then a coach is 100% necessary. For me, from every perspective my coach is my rock and keeps me on the straight and narrow; having someone to keep me accountable, direct me in my day to day and also long-term training, and talk to about any and all problems I have are only a few of the things that he does. For Weightlifting specifically, having a keen eye to watch each lift I do in the gym is crucial as the technical side of the movements are extremely fine and can be pretty much impossible to feel on yourself whilst you’re doing them. If you are starting out interested in Weightlifting, you should definitely seek a coach to guide you.

What words of advice would you give those wanting to start training?

If you are looking to start training, some things are required to be understood:

Firstly, the goal is to become so familiar with the lifts that it’s like a second language to you, that can only be achieved through experience and time put in. There is no quick route to being an advanced athlete and oftentimes if you do try to rush the process it can lead to even more delays; training too heavy, too often, or with too much volume can just lead to stagnation or injury and is a trap all too easy to fall into.

Secondly, to a certain extent you need to be happy and enjoy the hard and boring parts of training. You can’t always do the fun max out sessions or the gritty PB sessions that give you that positive feedback, most of the sessions - especially after that first 6-12 months of training - will be tough, maybe boring, work and the improvement yield will diminish. But like with any goals you set in whatever you do, when you do achieve them then those boring working sessions are all worth it, you just need to push through to get there.

Lastly, as much as you want to achieve your goals and meet the bar you’ve set for yourself, don’t pile too much pressure on and give yourself a hard time over everything, that means being realistic with goals and planning out tangible improvement pathways and then modifying that plan over time. Take the wins where you can and keep yourself disciplined enough that you can hit your targets but if you fall short at any point, change the next step of the plan to something you can obtain rather than keeping it where it is and ending up even further away.

All of this is coming from personal experience - these are mistakes I’ve made myself and I know all too well the damage they can do. Also, as a bonus (obvious but always overlooked) piece of advice that could be more important that literally anything else I could say – sleep. Proper sleep has a comparable effect to PEDs on training but also enhances every aspect of your life, no one was ever unsuccessful because they got enough sleep and the motivational bullshit online that says you need to sleep max 3 hours a night to be successful are lying and anyone who did succeed doing that did so despite that, not because of.

What words of wisdom would you give a power lifter in the first competition?

First competition is usually a nervous one, similar to a point I made earlier, be realistic. Your first time with anything is going to be an unpredictable experience and it can be soured if the bar you set for yourself is too high. Just enjoy the day out, try your best on the platform, and treat it first and foremost as a learning experience.

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