The Chelsea legend on how lung-busting runs in the off-season turned him into a box-to-box star
Is there such thing as an off-season for a Premier League player?
I think the off-season is important for a Premier League player, but for me it didn’t mean I put my feet up. Typically I had three or four weeks off during the summer and would balance that with pure relaxation, where I’d put the ball away to give my mind and body a full rest. After that, I’d spend a few weeks working my way up, ready for the start of pre-season training. It’s important you don’t spend too long not moving – you’ve got to look after your body and ensure you’re prepared for pre-season. If you’re playing catch-up you will get found out, as everything is monitored these days. The data will show if you are behind physically.
Did you adapt your diet during those two weeks of rest?
I was always very conscious of my diet when I was resting. It’s easy to control your diet when you’re in the routine of training at a club or playing at a major tournament, because all the food and drink is provided. Whenever I went on holiday, I gave myself freedom to enjoy the foods I might not be allowed to eat during the season. It helps you to relax, but you have to stay on top of your diet. If you afford yourself some leeway, you can’t take it too far.
As you got older, were there elements of pre-season which became harder?
It definitely got tougher. I was always a player who enjoyed pre-season, and I liked running and pushing my body to its limit. Pre-season is always difficult, and it needs to be to give you that base fitness before the season starts. In the latter years of my career, the recovery was harder. I had to make sure I didn’t overdo it and looked at ways to recover quicker, like sleeping better, stretching more often and using ice baths.
Did you do any specific sessions which gave you a physical edge on the pitch?
From a very young age, I became aware that I needed to do extra work to get to the level I wanted to be at. I did a lot of running as I wanted to be a box-to-box midfielder, so I’d do box-to-box sprints once or twice a week, in groups of eight to 10 runs, to replicate the demands of a match. I would literally run from the 18-yard box at one end of the pitch to the other, at 75-80 per cent of my top speed with brief recovery times, to put myself under pressure. I’d then mix it up with shorter sprints for speed, endurance and power. I’d do shuttle runs – forwards, backwards and sideways – to replicate a game situation, and work on my agility and speed from a standing start. I used to do six to eight sets over different distances, which I felt would be similar to what I’d be doing in central midfield. I felt if I did that work, it put me ahead of my competitors in terms of pure fitness.
How long were your rest periods between those runs?
I was quite old school – I wasn’t on the clock as such. If I did a box-to-box run, my walk back to the other penalty area would be the rest period, which I think took about 12-15 seconds. The run lasted a similar amount of time, so the work and rest periods were about 50-50. The rest wasn’t very long because I wanted to keep putting myself under pressure, as you have to replicate the intensity of a game. All of the sprint work would be done over a distance no bigger than the 18-yard box. I’d sprint from the penalty spot to one corner and back, and then repeat that for the other three corners. That was one set, and then I’d rest for a short period before repeating the drill six to eight times.
Your goalscoring record was as good as some of the best strikers – how did you hone your finishing?
I worked incredibly hard on my finishing throughout my career. As a youngster, I decided that I didn’t want to become a run-of-the-mill midfielder who could just stay central and affect possession, but not affect a game in terms of goals. I knew I needed to train hard to hone the technique. I worked on my arrival into the 18-yard box, and the timing of those runs. I did that by watching my other team-mates and seeing exactly where they liked to cross the ball from – or if it was a striker, where they liked to hold the ball up, so I’d be in the right place at the right time. So much of that was mental, repetitive work. In terms of my shooting, I tried to practise every type of finish I could imagine. I worked on long shots from distance and instinctive finishes inside the box, and I’d always ask for the pass into my feet to be hard to control, so that I’d be ready during a game. I didn’t like clean passes; I wanted to put myself under pressure. I worked on six-yard box finishing a lot. I didn’t think people would expect a central midfielder to pick up those positions, and I wanted to get into those areas.
“I’d always ask for the pass into my feet to be hard to control. I didn’t like clean passes; I wanted to put myself under pressure”