Phil Newton talks to England’s evergreen former world no.1 about his recovery from a serious hip operation.
I caught up with James the day before he joined the England squad at the European Team Championships in Birmingham. We recalled the last time the Europeans had been held in England, 16 years ago in Nottingham. That event provided James with his first England cap and launched an immensely successful international career that has netted 15 European team titles, three World team titles, three Commonwealth Silver medals and one Commonwealth Gold medal.
I mentioned James in my last article about hip surgery, as he had gone under the surgeon’s knife back in 2014. James had been struggling with hip pain, which threatened to end his professional squash career. The fact that five years following the surgery, James is now the second highest-ranked English player in the world and recently collected his 15th European team gold medal is proof enough that the hip surgery was successful. However, I wondered if the journey that James had gone through had changed his approach to squash and what, if any, lessons could be of use to a squash player suffering similar injury misfortune.
James spoke of the importance of patience and of having clear rehab goals. Post-surgery rehab was a lengthy process for James, taking several months before he could get back onto court. “The support and guidance from my physio, Alison Rose, was vital,” he recalled. “Alison has provided physiotherapy for me for many years. Her input was crucial to me getting back on court.” Alison worked with James when setting rehab goals and ensuring that training progressions were timely and sensible.
James also recalled how some of the lessons he learnt as a junior and as a young professional stood him in good stead. “The things that I learned early in my career from Damon Brown, when he provided sports science support to the England Squash programme, provided the foundation for most of my training and equipped me to deal with the injury setbacks that most professional squash players will face,” he said.
Willstrop in action against Miguel Rodriguez at the World Championships in Chicago
Our conversation then turned to the present and I asked James about his current training schedule. “My training has certainly changed,” he reflected. “Most of my exercise is now low-impact, so instead of hard running sessions, I’ll do exercise-bike interval training. I’ve also changed my strength and conditioning routines. I now use lower loads or just body-weight routines, like split squats, Bulgarian squats and sumo squats. I will frequently combine resistance exercise into circuits, so that I get a simultaneous cardiovascular workout.”
James then went on to explain how this new way of training not only fits in well with the management of his hip, but also with his life away from squash. As all parents of young children will know, spare time is often a precious and rare commodity, so training smartly has become a necessity as well as a choice. “I now train for shorter periods than when I was younger,” he explained. “My training sessions tend to be more focused, but always with high quality in mind. As many of my routines only involve body weight, then if I’m pushed for time, I can do them at home.”
Combining training goals was a key theme that came out of our chat. In addition to combining strength with CV workouts, James also optimises his time by performing yoga. “I find that using yoga is a great way of keeping flexible and at the same time maintaining strength,” he explained.
“Like many professional squash players, when I was younger, much of my training was probably done out of the fear that others were doing more. But the downside of that approach is that training quality can suffer. Now, my sessions are shorter, but of higher quality and I am much more chilled between sessions, which means that my recovery time is more effective.”
As James approaches his 18th year as a professional squash player, it was fascinating to hear how his training has changed over time, becoming more focused, purposeful and time-efficient. However, some things have been a constant for James, such as having good physiotherapy and sports science support, and possessing an unrivalled work ethic. These factors have thankfully combined to add longevity to a brilliant sporting career.