Retirement of professional athletes: from draconian diet to total freedom, a post-career that is not always easy to digest

I died at 32, May 17, 1987“. In his biography My life as a gameMichel Platini does not avoid his difficulties when hanging up his crampons. How do you move on when you’ve devoted yourself body and soul to sport for most of your life? No more crowded stadiums, cheers, adrenaline rushing into the arena. Little by little, you have to learn to live like ordinary mortals.

To live like everyone else is to eat like everyone else, which is not as simple as it seems. Many athletes experience weight gain at the end of their career, sometimes for very different reasons. How to explain it?

Weight is above all a question of balance between energy intake, which depends on food, and energy expenditure, linked to physical activity. In top athletes, this balance is essential. “For them, diet is more important because it allows them to reach a healthy weight, the weight best suited to exercise according to the individual’s abilities.“, explains Dr. Roger Rua, sports doctor. “If an athlete continues to eat almost as before when there is a sudden stop in the regularity of physical expenditure, he will gain weight“.

Retired since 2016, the ex-international of the XV of France Imanol Harinordoquy observed this phenomenon throughout his career. Even if the “Leaping Basque” brings a nuance: “I had a tendency to melt when I stopped playing rugby. With my metabolism, I was even forced to eat more than others when I was a player, because I tended to lose weight“, remembers the one who played in the third-line position.

The importance of this phenomenon will depend on the discipline practiced, as underlined by Dr. Claire Carrier, also a sports doctor and psychiatrist at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (Insep) for twelve years: “In sports with weight categories, such as judo or boxing, the diet is particularly controlled. It also depends on the amount of energy used. Someone who practices archery will not gain much weight by stopping, unlike a gymnast, who will not have the same relationship to food as him.”

It is at retirement that the risk of dietary imbalance is greatest. But this phenomenon affects athletes throughout their careers. For Alexandre Marles, former physical trainer for PSG and OL, “it is logical and natural. When players have a week at Christmas, they sometimes come back with a kilo or two too many. Even five or six when they come back after the summer.”

An observation shared by Benjamin Nivet, former player of Troyes, who retired from football at the age of 42, at the end of the 2018-2019 season: “In the off-season, as soon as I overindulged, I felt that my body was less well.“, he recalls. Criticized for their overweight on return from vacation, players like Eden Hazard or Dimitri Payet would not be an exception since Alexandre Marles considers that “almost all players are familiar with this type of phenomenon. The important thing is to lose weight for the resumption of competition“.

Benjamin Nivet during the match between Troyes and Olympique de Marseille, at the Aube stadium in Troyes, October 21, 2012. (DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

Even if all athletes know this type of phenomenon, the magnitude is different depending on the person. Former cyclist Laurent Jalabert or ex-footballer Zinédine Zidane, for example, did not experience significant weight gain after ending their careers. Because beyond the physiological aspect, the mental and the perception of the body must also be taken into account. Christian Ramos, psychologist-trainer specializing in mental preparation, distinguishes two types of athletes.

On the one hand, there are those who have been able to define their own benchmarks concerning their body, independently of those linked to the requirements of the high level, and “who have succeeded in setting personal development goals that they will pursue after their career“Benjamin Nivet is one of them.”I have always been very careful with my weight, even after my career, continuing to play sports“.

On the other hand, there are those who have made their body a pure work tool by associating it with high level performance. “The end of regular sporting activity must initially make it possible to reinstall the major motivational levers based on personal accomplishment, the ability to give oneself the means to achieve one’s goals and the pleasure of feeling pleasant sensations for allow yourself to choose the place of your body in your life“, continues Christian Ramos. The body being a work tool that cannot be stored in a closet, it is a question of choosing what you want to do with it, “choice which remains, of course, very personal“.

Imanol Harinordoquy, he took the time to think about it. About six months, seeing a physiotherapist two to three times a week to take care of his body and “to be forgiven for what[il] made him suffer” during his career. Before returning to sport, because “when you’ve been addicted to adrenaline for 20 years, you can’t do nothing“.

The body may well be the working tool of the top athlete, but it remains dependent on his mind. Neymar’s announcement to consider international retirement after the 2022 World Cup shows how mentally worn professional athletes can be. Leaving the sports world for good can be another blow to a strained psyche. “The retirement of an athlete is like the end of any project, a divorce for example“, underlines Dr. Claire Carrier. “This can create a depressive movement that causes there to be a compensation through things that were forbidden until then, such as cakes for example. In athletes, it can take on a dimension going as far as addiction“.

On this point, the former rugby player and the former footballer meet. “When we play, we have the pressure to ‘perform’. The food requirement that it requires is so strong during the career that at the end, you want to enjoy everything you have deprived yourself of.“, admits the former Trojan playmaker, who now enjoys a little more of his wine cellar: “When I want to have fun, I do.“But some habits die hard, as Imanol Harinordoquy explains.”I had it in mind that I was going to benefit, especially in terms of alcohol since I never drank wine on weekdays when I played. But I realized that I almost kept my habits” However, the Basque tells us that he does not understand certain reactions to the physical change of athletes : “I find it out of place. These are people who have made real sacrifices for the sport, even if it was his job. We must not forget all that.

Hence the importance for athletes to be well surrounded, pleads the sports doctor and psychiatrist, Claire Carrier: “We have to help them get through this, because they are not necessarily capable of realizing it on their own. Let us help them put words to it“, she continues, before taking the example of young girls gymnasts. “It is important that we continue to find them beautiful. We congratulate them when they start to have curves whereas before it was seen as something problematic. Help them accept themselves and be happy to have a normal body.

If it is particular, the relationship of retired athletes with food is not necessarily conflicting, as Imanol Harinordoquy discovered. One who describes himself as a “great epicurean” admits to having always been attracted by what revolves around the “great food“, of the “beautiful tables” and “pretty bottles“.


Today, he satisfies this attraction in the two restaurants he runs, in Biarritz and Pau. And he finds there the moments of conviviality and sharing that he loved so much when he walked the rugby pitches.

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