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You wouldn’t know it at a first glance, but playing chess can be an extremely gruelling sport. An ESPN article revealed that chess players sitting down all day playing in a tournament can burn up 6,000 calories a day, “three times what an average person consumes in a day.”
Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky believes that “grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners.” This can lead to some chess players losing 10-12 pounds over the course of a tournament.
For Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, who also spends a lot of time on the road, travelling close to 200 days to play in tournaments hosted around the world, this means his health and fitness is an absolute priority if he wants to retain his World Chess Championship.
People ask what my goal is. I don’t have a goal. It’s fun to play, it’s fun to win. I’ll go on as long as it continues to be fun, whether that’s five, 10 or 20 years.Lunch with the FT: Magnus Carlsen | Financial Times
Carlsen has been playing chess his whole life. When he was five, his father brought home a chessboard and taught his older sister, Ellen, and him how to play. But it wasn’t until a few years later when Carlsen found a passion for the game, and by the time he was 15, he was practically a full-time player with school in the rear-view mirror.
But it wasn’t until 2017 when Carlsen, who had been playing chess for close to 20 years, felt that he needed a change in his life. While he was still winning tournaments and retaining titles, the victories felt draining and his stamina was dropping.
A visit to the performance specialist suggested that Carlsen replace the orange juice he routinely drinks during tournaments with a mixture of chococlate milk and plain milk. “It kept his blood sugar at a reasonable level without too big a variation, and he felt less tired during key moments in tournaments that followed the change,” Carlsen’s father, Henrik told ESPN.
It’s vital that I feel good in my body if I’m going to be in complete control of my faculties. In some tournaments you’re playing five hours a day for two weeks. The physical training is essential for when you enter that fifth or sixth hour of play.Interview : Magnus Carlsen, chess serial killer (and world champion) | Numéro
That was just the beginning of the makeover. Since then, Carlsen has approached training for his chess career like an elite athlete. He prepares his body for the rigorous demands of chess tournaments with running intervals on the treadmill to increase his endurance, yoga and soccer games. “Much of my core work comes from yoga,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m not the type to go to the gym and run through reps and sets of exercise. I need something more fluid and fun.”
Carlsen also hired a personal chef, Magnus Forssell, to keep his diet on track. He described a typical meal plan to the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Carlsen eats a mostly vegetarian diet. For breakfast, he makes a superfood smoothie with ingredients like açaí berry and hemp milk, or he’ll have a fresh pressed green juice, with ginger and lemon. Lunch is a salad topped with avocado, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. He likes Asian flavors and often makes a vegetable stir fry over brown rice for dinner. During tournaments he focuses on getting enough protein to maintain his energy over long time periods. He relies on plant proteins like beans, nuts, seeds or hemp protein and drinks water throughout the tournament.How a Chess Champion Trains for the Big Game | WSJ
The optimisation doesn’t stop there. With chess tournaments typically spanning over 10 days, burning out before you’re finished can be a real problem. That’s why Carlsen has learnt how to relax during tournaments to conserve his energy. “When you allow your body to relax more during a tournament, it means that it will ask for more food, it means you can eat normally, you’re not stressed, so your appetite is normal — that’s what happens with Magnus,” Henrik told ESPN.
Carlsen also suggests not sitting for a full game of chess to give yourself a break. “Whenever it’s your opponent’s move, as long as you don’t leave the playing hall, you can basically do whatever you want,” he revealed to The Guardian. “You can walk away. In general I don’t think you can keep full concentration for very long. I couldn’t bear to sit there for seven hours.”
During tournaments I don’t go out, I don’t party, I don’t even do any tourism. It would be a waste of time and energy. When you play chess at my level, preparation is as physical as it is mental, so yes, you can say it’s like an athlete.INTERVIEW : MAGNUS CARLSEN, CHESS SERIAL KILLER (AND WORLD CHAMPION) | NUMÉRO
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