David Flatman: Summer's here, so it's time to start worrying about relaxation

From the Front Row: I hold my breath as I walk past cake shops, in case there are calories in the air that will implant themselves in my midriff
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The Independent Online

There are many adjustments for the retiring rugby player to make. He must quickly get used to working full days, being unavailable for midweek breakfast with friends and wearing clothes that aren't budget, branded items, made of polyester. But not every adjustment is so difficult. At last he can stay up late watching B-movies, choose the garlic bread with cheese and book a holiday without ensuring there is a gym close by.

While there are always a few very lucky players who could bathe nightly in salted butter and still remain lean and mean, most of us have minor eating disorders. By this I mean that with every mouthful of naughty food comes a minute but perceptible drip of guilt. And this often goes for periods of physical stillness, too. A lazy fortnight by the pool sounds divine but I do not think many professional players could achieve it. There is fear that others are lying less dormant, not ordering cold lager with their lunch. True relaxation is rare.

I suppose this defines an elite athlete. Wise people often remind us that we are only competing against ourselves but I always scoff at the noble-sounding notion. You see, pretty much every time I have played a game of rugby there have been loads of blokes playing back. So we are in fact competing with others all the time. Even over a summer break.

What I have found useful in recent years is to regard the off-season differently. To remain sane, there has to be a true "down" period with no training or thought given to carbohydrate intake and saturated fat. Invariably, as this year, I arrange for this period to be two weeks long. But I know I won't last. This is not because I am a fitness fanatic – my coaches will attest to this – but because after a week I will start feeling fat. And, thanks to Mother Nature, I will be right. If I lived in Alaska I would be revered as the man so well insulated that he could visit the shops in nothing but a Tarzan thong.

You see, I have a knack of finding fat everywhere. I hold my breath as I walk past cake shops, in case there are calories in the air that will permeate my skin and implant themselves in my midriff. Keeping all this in check has taken a lot of work. And I am by no means the worst case, so for many rugby men this summer's respite will be lived out with the constant, quiet fear of those first few days of fitness testing and that first appointment with the angry man with the callipers.

Yet the summer break remains a wonderful time. OK, so for 10 or 15 years we cannot ever quite relax completely but this, for me, is a small price to pay. We are a blessed few and we are very lucky that our ultimate goal – running out to play for great clubs with our mates – motivates us in an instant.

I am sure that in the horrible midst of a nasty fitness session, every player at every level uses visualisation to get them through. Some dream of that first huge hit, some dream of scoring tries, some just dream of the session ending.

Naturally, without ever having to think about it, the only vision I have needed in a very long time is one of me pulling on my sacred Bath jersey – the same one worn by Chilcott and Hilton – and feeling desperate to do it justice while I have the chance.

Pudding, sir? Better not.