10 fitness tips from England women’s football captain Steph Houghton

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Steph Houghton says that the secret to feeling at your best is to follow a reliable pre-exercise eating routine
Steph Houghton says that the secret to feeling at your best is to follow a reliable pre-exercise eating routine

1. Short, sharp sprints

As an all-action footballer, with more than 120 caps for England and over 80 appearances for Manchester City, Steph Houghton boasts a diverse range of physical qualities, from cardiovascular fitness to explosive power. “You need a bit of everything,” explains the 33-year-old defender. “You’ve got to have good aerobic endurance and good anaerobic endurance; you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be powerful, and you’ve got to be robust because of the amount of games that we play.”

Houghton boosts her cardiovascular fitness with high-paced runs and high-intensity intervals, which develop maximum fitness in minimum time. “We don’t really go for long runs like 10ks,” she explains. “The longest we do would be four minutes but at quite a high tempo and intensity, and we’d repeat that three or four times. In lockdown our England team sports scientist would get us doing five 1km runs with one minute rest in between each run, and you had to keep beating your times.”

2. Do the leg work

Houghton is a proud gym bunny and has even converted her conservatory at home into a gym, equipped with barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. “You see me in the gym all the time,” she admits. “My main strength sessions are squats, lunges, and hip thrusts with the bar.” These leg workouts enhance her strength, boost her stability and reduce her risk of muscle injuries.

By balancing her gym work with cardio training she avoids packing on unwanted muscle mass, which would reduce her mobility on the pitch. “With the amount of running we do on the pitch, I think it’s impossible to put too much muscle on,” she explains. “We’ll do three or four sets, with four or five reps for each exercise.”

3. Fuel your training

On a typical training day Houghton will have porridge or eggs on toast and a coffee for breakfast, followed by chicken and rice or lasagne and salad for lunch. In the afternoon she will have a smoothie, made with strawberries, banana, milk and protein powder, then some fish, rice and veg or fajitas for dinner. “Sometimes we change it up so we might try a few curries or some chilli or pasta bakes,” she explains.

However, she says that the secret to feeling at your best is to follow a reliable pre-exercise eating routine. “I always have the same meal the night before a game – salmon, veg and sweet potato – followed by porridge in the morning,” she says. “People say it is a superstition but for me it is a routine as I like to know that I’m ready for the game.”

4. Plyometric power

To stay flexible, Houghton trains her balance, co-ordination and agility with explosive plyometric exercises in the gym. “We do a lot of box jumps,” she explains. “It’s just all about (quick) contact time off the ground. We also do a lot of plyometric jumps over hurdles, and a lot of single-leg jump work, to replicate what we would do on the pitch, like closing down a player and jumping up for a header.”

Steph Houghton: ‘I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to training’ - Rex
Steph Houghton: ‘I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to training’ - Rex

5. Flex with Pilates

Houghton routinely works her core muscles with planks, reverse crunches and sit-ups, but Pilates has become the most important element of her core training regime. “Pilates goes deeper into your core, so it’s more about how you control your body,” she explains. “It’s really developed my game over the last couple of years, as I have learned how to switch on certain muscles and be a bit more in control. It will also hopefully prevent injuries as much as possible.”

6. Be a data geek

Houghton insists that the best way to improve your fitness is to monitor your training data over time. “I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to training,” admits the central defender, who uses a Stat Sports GPS tracker vest to record her training performances. “I love knowing what I’m doing, and how many reps I am doing.” Tracking your progress gives you motivational rewards to ensure you keep pushing hard. “It’s the same in any form of work,” says Houghton. “You want to know what you are doing and you want to see your progress.”

7. Train with others

The Manchester City star is promoting the Lucozade Sport Virtual 10k Run on Sunday September 12 – an event which encourages women to train and run together in pairs. And she admits that exercising with other people really boosts her own motivation. “Lockdown changed everything because you were by yourself and you needed that inner drive, but the moment we got back into training with each other it was like: OK, girls, let’s push each other,” she says. “It becomes competitive with the stats as well. We always have a max speed race the day before a match. It can make it a little bit fun but competitive at the same time.”

She enjoys training with her family too. “I went for a run with my dad, who was training for the Great North Run,” she says. “We got a little bit competitive. But other people can use a run to go out and just be with people and socialise. The Virtual 10k is an opportunity to go out in pairs, to push each other, first and foremost to exercise, but also to support each other and gain confidence.”

8. Add some supplements

Although Houghton gets most of her nutritional requirements from food, she tops up her diet with key supplements. “We take Omega 3s, which are good for your tendons, and vitamins C and D as well,” she explains. Vitamin C aids immunity, while Vitamin D supports muscle strength and bone health. “For me, it’s just about little wins, to know we’ve done everything we can to be in the best shape possible.”

9. Recover faster

The England captain says that the biggest fitness lesson she has learned during her career is to pay more attention to her recovery after exercise. “You might not feel like eating after a game but even if it’s just eating something little, it allows your body to recover at a faster rate,” she insists. “And I go straight in the ice bath after a game for 10-15 minutes.” She also rides her Wattbike for 20 minutes on the day after a match, “just to get all the rubbish [lactic acid] out of my legs.”

10. Treat yourself

Despite her endless cycle of football matches and training, Houghton makes time for sociable Sunday brunches. “Whether it is with my husband, my family or the girls from football, that social element is nice,” she admits. “But it’s about your choices as well. You’re not going to have a big fry-up, you are going to eat pretty much what you would be eating after training but just in a different location. I think it’s important that you do the majority of your food right throughout the week. But you’ve got to have that balance of being able to let your hair down a bit.”

Her guilty pleasure is a post-match bag of sweets. “I am mad on sweets, if I am honest,” she laughs. “Especially when we have won.”

The Lucozade Sport Virtual 10k takes place on Sunday September 12. The event can only be entered as a pair, with an optional donation to Women in Sport. Visit lucozadesportvirtual10k.co.uk

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