From chef to the stars, to fitness guru

He has cooked for the Queen and a galaxy of stars, but when an accident curtailed his kitchen work, John Dillon went into the fitness business. He tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about his journey.
From chef to the stars, to fitness guru
John Dillon of Freestyle for Lifestyle

THE people John Dillon has fed down the years reads like a who’s who of fame and fortune.

He once cooked for Queen Elizabeth on her birthday, and has served up top-notch grub to singers like Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Shirley Bassey.

It’s some CV, and it all took place in a previous ‘life’, when he was a renowned chef in London during an exciting and fast-paced 18-year stint.

John worked as a top chef in the Savoy, the Hyatt Carlton and the Connaught Hotel, as well as owning two restaurants in Dingle which were praised by former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey.

He ran 21 restaurants in London, replacing celebrity TV chef, Anthony Worrall Thompson.

However, following a bad accident in 2003 in which he severely injured his foot in a martial arts session, leading to clots, John spent his two months in hospital, recovering and reflecting on his situation.

He couldn’t wear shoes for five or six years and, to this day, is only comfortable when wearing soft training shoes.

John couldn’t really continue to work in the high pressurised environment of a kitchen with all the standing up involved.

The Yorkshire-born Dillon, who has roots in Kerry, now runs a successful self-devised fitness programme in Douglas in Cork called Freestyle for Lifestyle.

It offers a holistic approach to training and wellbeing which is achieved through a total stretch and tone system.

Having done courses in rehab and trained with sports and fitness experts as well as nutritionists, John has created a second career for himself and is passionate about its benefits.

“I couldn’t train in normal gyms,” explains John.” I still can’t run or go on long walks.

“So I came up with this method of training using resistance bands and I’ve turned it into a whole system, training the entire body.

John Dillon of Freestyle for Lifestyle
John Dillon of Freestyle for Lifestyle

“Because I can’t do a lot of repetitive exercises, I limit the training to a maximum of 45 to 60 minutes a week.”

Working out for no more than an hour a week seems very little. But John says it works.

“I’ve had people with me for as long as ten years who have had amazing results. I’ve had people losing five and eight stone in weight, having trained with me once a week.”

He gives an insight into his fitness plan.

“I put people on a special food plan. It’s just eating wholesome food, keeping it very simple and balance.

“But it involves eating more than most people would eat. It’s good for the metabolism.”

The training, using the bands, “gets really deep into the muscles,” adds John.

“There is a seven-day recovery period. So, after coming in for a blast, clients go away and do recreational types of exercise such as walking or cycling. And if they’re eating properly, they will see the benefits.”

John Dillon of Freestyle for Lifestyle
John Dillon of Freestyle for Lifestyle

John has written an illustrated book which is a guide to the movements. “The bands I use are attached to the wall and I’ve got machines that are either band-resistant or spring-loaded. The equipment is kind of like Pilates-style.”

Slightly more women than men attend John’s studio. He also does rehab work.

Some clients have back, neck, shoulder or knee pain.

 “My system helps to heal people,” says John. “We get a lot of referrals from physiotherapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and consultants.”

Over the years, he has studied anatomy. 

“It’s a personal interest of mine,” he adds. “My family are steeped in sport. I was quite a good athlete when I was younger. I did a lot of county level sport in England in basketball and running.

“My brother rowed in two Olympics. My sister was the first lady rower at Henley Regatta and my dad was a coach in rowing at international level.”

John says that his clients are usually people “who don’t like going to gyms. I generally do one-to-one sessions but we do group sessions as well.”

John has four people working for him, “a combination of physical therapists, a Pilates instructor and a nutritionist.”

He says that the fitness industry has become so popular that it has been devalued.

“There’s not enough people in the industry to service people. You can now do a course and be trained in six months as a personal trainer. You can go online and do a course within three months and qualify and get insurance.

“I go online to look at the competition and there’s some fantastic stuff out there, particularly around nutrition and fitness. But there are people out there that can actually cause injuries.

“I have watched elite athletes training in a certain way. In the fitness industry, instructors are training the lay person in an elite way. I know what that can do to people. It can practically destroy people physically, and that’s my big concern.

“My message is that training hard isn’t necessarily the answer for good health.”

John says there are a lot of myths in the personal training world and the fitness world.

“There are smoke-screens to confuse people. The message is doing more will get more results. But actually, doing more can hurt you more.

“I’ve seen international athletes training to a level where they just become very unhealthy. We’re not into that.

“We are into promoting health and preventing people from getting hurt. In my opinion, you can train too much and that can lead to issues with your body.”

‘No pain, no gain’ is not a philosophy that John believes in.

“However, some of my clients would disagree because the session I do is quite intense — but it’s for a short period of time.

“The way it works is that you’re getting the muscles to connect in both directions. It’s stretching and contracting rather than just contraction. It works on the cardio system as well as being aerobic.

“Some people come in for rehab and I give them completely different sessions. Once the person has done rehab, we’ll move them onto the exercise programme.

“The big one for rehab is the client who has had knee or hip replacements.

“We also have people with back and neck issues, often from working with computers. They get massive relief from the exercises.

“It’s also good for people with osteoporosis.”

John’s clients have ranged in age from just four years of age to a former rugby player of 97 who was in the 1948 Irish Grand Slam team.

For anyone interested in introductory classes, they take place on May 9 from 9.30am to 10.15am and on May 11 from 10.30am to 11.15am.

Phone John Dillon at 087 2906785.

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