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World’s Strongest Man Sees His Autism As A ‘Superpower’

You might think that walking around with the official title of ‘World’s Strongest Man’ would push their ego through the roof and leave any humbleness for dust. But talking to Tom Stoltman we get quite the opposite impression as he proves that living with Autism is his greatest power.

If you’re not familiar with Tom, he’s the reigning World’s Strongest Man, and Britain’s Strongest Man, after triumphing earlier this year. Tom is also autistic, a disorder that makes communication and social situations difficult to navigate, and makes things like routine vital to mental wellbeing.

Born in a tiny town called Invergordon in Scotland, Tom worked his way up to the very top of the Strongman ladder, whilst having to learn how to manage his autism along the way. We spoke to Tom to find out how he manages his Autism, how grueling his training plan is, what nutrition makes a Strongman, and what his next ambitions are – spoiler: they’re BIG.

“Luke knows me inside out”

If you’re familiar with Tom, you’ll no doubt know his brother Luke too. The Stoltman brothers have certainly made their mark in the Strongman world, and with Luke being a few years older than Tom, he was able to guide him from the start.

“From day one he was the first person I was in the gym with and he’s been by my side ever since, so he’s been a massive influence and a massive reason why I’m probably who I am today. He was there to just help me get past hurdles in the gym, past the people, past the cameras. He’s helped me get my head down in the gym and helped me be able to talk to people and enter competitions. It’s been really good to have Luke there by my side because when I get stressed or overwhelmed, he understands me and helps me calm down and helps me get my head back on.”

“I can always make sure everything is 100%”

One of the hurdles that Luke has helped Tom get over is managing his autism. Tom has been a massive inspiration for others with hidden disabilities like autism, often describing it as a “superpower”. But he also talks candidly about the difficulties of living with a disorder like Autism, particularly when plans change.

“With strongman you wake up, you eat at the same time, train at the same time, recover, it’s all the same thing so I can always make sure everything is 100% because it was so easy for me to follow.

But the negative side of things is if something changes without me having a few days’ notice or if I missed a meal of if I was on a long journey and didn’t have as much food or didn’t prep myself well enough or interviews and stuff like that, that’d when the autism is at its worst because I’d get stressed out and over think things and it can be really bad at some points.

The negative outweighs the pros because when its bad it can really affect me big time.”

As well as Luke, Tom’s sister who trained to work with autistic people has also been a massive support.

“My sister learnt to work with people with autism when I was a kid and she still helps me to this day with it because obviously it doesn’t just disappear, I’ve just learnt how to manage it. But there’s still days where it can get on top of me and get me really stressed and worried when I shouldn’t really have to.”

“I put myself in as many uncomfortable situations as I can”

Tom has also put some practical things in place to make sure he’s always working to support his mental health, and boost his confidence, particularly in social situations which is so often difficult for those with autism.

“My mental state is 90% better than it was but there’s always days that are much harder for me than normal people — there’s silly wee things that’ll do me for a whole week. I still put myself in as many uncomfortable situations as I can now and it’s just to help me better myself as an athlete. Outside of Strongman as well, because I own a business and a gym I need to be able to talk to people and I used to shy away from that kind of stuff. So yeah, it’s just me putting myself in uncomfortable situations which just helps me mentally.”

“Strongman’s not going to be there forever”

Talking to his wife is another huge help for Tom, whether it’s about the mental challenges that come with Strongman, or just navigating the difficulties that come with life. Tom is also very aware that the attention and praise that comes with being a Strongman champ won’t last forever, and his wife has helped him to grow a successful business that will outlast the title.

“My wife and my mum before she passed away was the only person I’d talk to about problems I had, but then when she passed, my wife Sinead is probably the only person. There are still things I don’t say to her but she’s really helped me.

Obviously, Strongman is good and I’ve been successful but you don’t want to just … Strongman’s not going to be there for the rest of my life, so it was more about helping me adapt to being confident around people, helping me grow a business and stuff like that. And I was one of the first people to get married in my family and move out and I lived that independent like at 20-21 years old which nobody in school said I would do, and I got a wife at 21 so I grew up and matured quick but she really adapted to me and helped me out.”

“I kept to my diet 100%, and the results show”

As with any sport, nutrition is key. But what sets Strongman apart from a lot of other sports, is the kind of food which Tom says is essential for performing at your best. Here’s what he had to say about his nutrition leading up to a competition like World’s Strongest Man.

“I’ve got someone called Nathan Payton who’s probably the best nutritionist in the world – I think he’s got 6 or 7 WSM titles for his athletes. Nutrition is a massive one. You can do two days in the gym but as long as you eat right you’ll win any competition you do. That’s what was really good for me in worlds. I didn’t miss a meal – kept to my diet 100% and the results show.”

Remember the 10,000-calorie challenge? That’s light work for Tom.

“It’s weird with nutrition cos when you’re 8-10 weeks out of a competition you’re on 7-8000 calories which sounds a lot but for strongmen it’s not and that’s a lot of eggs, red meat, rice, fruit and veg. I don’t touch pasta or anything like that – only on cheat meals.

Then as you get closer to the competition that’s when the cheat meals add – so I’ll maybe have a cheat meal before a training session, plus an extra cheat meal at the weekend but I’ll always have 70-80% good food in me as well. The worst diet was the week I was out of WSM. Obviously, that’s just about getting fuel in your body and at this point I was at maybe 11-12000 calories and it was just all fuel – burgers, chips, lasagne, pasta – really high-carb. Then when I got out there it peaked even more to like 12-13000.”

That pre-workout cheat meal Tom talks about is said to be his most vital meal. And it’s certainly not just an extra scoop of pre-workout.

“Before the gym would be the most important, that would be the added meal which would be like burger and chips and if you don’t eat that, you’re not gonna get that fuel and you’re not gonna put fat on you. If you eat that meal your session will be like 60% more effective than if you were still on your diet from a month or two ago. We don’t really have ‘cheat’ meals – those cheat meals are just a part of our diet.”

Although Tom tells us that burger and chips is easily one of his favourite meals, it soon gets old for him.

“It’s nice for the first week but then you eat another burger or another pasta it’s like ‘Jesus, it’s just food now’”.

“The diet goes up; the training comes down”

A newbie’s assumption of Strongmen might be that they’re in the gym day and night right up until a big comp. But what this neglects, is the importance of rest and recovery. Something that Tom knows all about.

“The training kind of reverses so the diet goes up, the training comes down. You need to be as rested and as fuelled as you can. If your competition is in 8 days and you’re lifting all the way up to two days out then your body’s not gonna be fully recovered.”

Tom gave us a full run-down of his regimented competition prep, and it’s clear he gives it his all.

“For WSM for example I did the 12-week prep so the first 4 weeks was like volume, getting me fit and conditioned, being able to move the weight. Then the next four weeks was strength so we took away the reps, we took away the conditioning stuff and we just focused on just strength.

Then we’d have a de-load where we did just really light weight to get the body recovered. Then the last four weeks would just be – the first two would be a mix of conditioning or strength stuff then the last two would be maybe two days a week in the gym to really get everything recovered.”

Knowledge and timing are everything. Ego-lifting has no place in Strongman training.

“Your nervous system will be fried, everything will be fried but then when you have that big rest, that big de-load and get that food in you, you feel amazing. Training and doing the training right is so important. De-loading at the right time, knowing when to back off at the right time, not pushing it just for your ego.”

“Back-to-back champion”

Once you’ve taken one of the most coveted titles in the world, thinking “what’s next?” must be daunting. How do you top World’s Strongest Man? By becoming a back-to-back champion, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Tom tells us he’s planning.

“Big focus on next year for World’s Strongest Man. I want to go for back-to-back champion and I just want to be consistent with my competitions next year. This year with World’s and all the media and travel, I just couldn’t get back into a proper routine and with covid as well. So hopefully get this year over with, get a few good results and then next year really bang on the training again, get Worlds sorted and then get consistent podiums on all the competitions I do.”

After talking to Tom and seeing his passion for his sport and everything it’s done for him, we like his odds of becoming a back-to-back champion. His honesty with both the highs and lows of living with autism are motivational to so many, and his triumphs are proof that hard work and dedication always pays off.

 

 

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Emily Wilcock

Emily Wilcock

Writer and expert

Emily is studying Business Management & Marketing at the University of Birmingham and is currently on her intern year. She has a keen interest in both writing and fitness, so is happy she can now combine the two. She likes to spend time with her friends, both in & out of the gym.