How a Premier League Star Got Himself Back in Shape

Chelsea's Raheem Sterling took the road less traveled back to top form

Raheem Sterling skipping on the field in training.
The English striker zagged this offseason. It's paying off.
The FA via Getty Images

Last year was a laughingstock season for Chelsea FC, a club accustomed to calling itself the “Pride of London.” In their first full year under the ownership of American billionaire Todd Boehly, the Blues were in the news for three consistent reasons:

  • Losing or drawing a match they should’ve won
  • Firing their manager (they had four by the end of the campaign)
  • Signing superstars — or hotshot prospects — to lavish contracts

The third bullet was an attempt to right the ship on the fly, but a lot of Chelsea’s high-paid players underperformed last year, including Raheem Sterling, the former Manchester City striker who’s been capped by England more than 80 times. With only six goals to his name, Sterling took a lion’s share of the fans’ ire. In fact, I heard him roundly booed while visiting the Stamford Bridge last spring. (Not that those jeering him had much hope left anyway. An upset supporter in front of me texted his friend at one point: “I can’t wait for this fucking season to end.” Chelsea went on to finish 12th in the EPL table.)

While Chelsea is off to a rough start in the 2023/24 campaign, there’s been one bright spot thus far: the play of Sterling. He looks faster than ever at 28-years-old, already has a pair of goals and has been way more aggressive in the box.

Steph Curry’s Hack for Controlling His Heart Rate
The Golden State superstar runs laps around the league for a reason

An Offbeat Offseason

Sterling found his footing again by heading into the offseason with an open mind. First, he worked closely with a nutritionist and a private chef to determine a diet that will (a) help his muscles refuel, without (b) him feeling too heavy on the pitch. (Sterling suffered from a hamstring issue throughout much of last year.)

The dietary appraisal gave him the energy and confidence to attack different forms of training with Dr. Ben Rosenblatt, who has one of the most illustrious sports medicine CVs in the United Kingdom. He’s coached strength and conditioning at the British Olympic Association, the English Institute of Sport and The FA, and recently founded 292 Performance. Dr. Rosenblatt has also long been associated with the Camberley Judo Club in Surrey, outside London. We don’t know for sure whether Sterling was mastering joint locks this summer, but in one video he’s out in the woods with judo pupils, running straight up a steep forested trail. Martial arts trainees are quick on their feet, to say the least, but Sterling absolutely dusts them.

Why Cross-Training Works

In the comments section of that video, someone wrote “but it isn’t sport specific” (with the laughing-crying emoji). It’s a common refrain whenever athletes cross-train throughout the year, and it’s still dumb no matter how many times people say it. Training in other disciplines can offers different kinds of physical challenge; it can help in overall muscle development, which can reduce the risk of sport-specific injuries (pretty important for someone like Sterling, looking to regain explosiveness in his lower half). Judo is an excellent choice, considering trainees are renowned for their solid cores and strong sense of balance.

And that’s to say nothing of the added mental benefits of this sort of workout. How often does Sterling get to torpedo a hill in the woods? How often does he get to build camaraderie with a “team” outside of the realm of world football? How often does he get to focus on his fitness away from the ball? Each time I’ve seen Sterling explode towards the goal this year, I’ve thought of him hot-stepping over those rocks and roots. I remember former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber doing the same thing on a hill in New Jersey back in 2001.

For some, it might sound silly — why should pro athletes, with assault bikes and altitude machines at their fingertips, need to rough it in the woods? But that should tell you a lot about fitness — about what works, what’s worth returning to and what you can replicate in your own training, whether you’re looking to return a club to glory or just feel better about your 5K.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.