Lockdown: In power sports, athletes deal with weighty issues

Written by Mihir Vasavda
| New Delhi |

Updated: April 4, 2020 12:13:13 am

Boxer Sachin Siwach training on the outskirts of Bhiwani

For athletes, who seldom work from home, the last 10 days or so have been unique.

On the edge of a pond at his village in the outskirts of Bhiwani, Sachin Siwach is furiously pounding a punching bag. The boxer records a 23-second video, one of many made through the session, and sends it to chief national coach CA Kutappa, who monitors the session from his home in Coorg.

Over at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala, weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma lives in a hostel room that is just a couple of blocks away from former world champion Mirabai Chanu’s. Strict social distancing rules mean training at the weightlifting hall is out of question. So, Sharma has been supervising Mirabai’s practice via video calls. It’s a far cry from the strenuous sessions they generally have: instead of the 150kg Mirabai casually lifts, these days it’s just one barbell to do some modified lifting in her room.

After the Tokyo Olympics were postponed by a year due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, all Indian athletes have been ordered to halt training and stay indoors to observe the 21-day nationwide lockdown. But through technology and common sense, the athletes and their coaches have been navigating through an unprecedented scenario.

In normal circumstances, they would have been at the peak of their fitness and training during this period. Instead, all of them find themselves locked down in their hostel rooms or homes, waiting for normalcy to return.

Earlier this week, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) held tele-conferences with multiple stakeholders – from government-backed federations to private organisations that support athletes – to take stock of the training patterns of all Indian athletes who have qualified for the Tokyo Games and those likely to make the cut.

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It emerged that there has been a sharp reduction in the training levels of athletes, in most cases down to less than 50 per cent of their actual potential. The trend, though, has hardly surprised anyone since suddenly, from training seven-eight hours a day, the athletes are down to hardly a couple of hours of work and that too, just physical fitness.

But they are faced with unique hurdles, especially in power-based sports like wrestling, boxing and weightlifting. In these events, athletes are classified by their body weight so any change in that could have dramatic implications, including making them prone to injury. At the same time, gaining weight is also a big possibility as even though the training level has fallen drastically, the number of meals remains the same.

“The number one thing during this period for me would be the food intake,” Delhi-based physiotherapist Shrikant Iyengar, who has worked with some of India’s top athletes, says. “At the national camps, things are managed pretty well in terms of the diet. But if you’re coming back to your home, you know how families could be in terms of feeding their children. Then, there are some athletes who come from a background where to get proper food two or three times itself could be a problem.”

So, a nutritionist has been assigned to monitor the diet of each athlete. “For Mirabai, we have completely stopped additional protein she normally consumes. No carbs either. Right now, she is on a very basic diet,” Sharma says.

The boxers, who are all at their homes, have been asked to disclose their weight twice a week, Kutappa says. Coaches at Chhatrasal Stadium, where several top wrestlers including Olympic-bound Ravi Dahiya and Deepak Punia train, have noted down the weight of each grappler before they left the training facility. But maintaining weight is just one aspect. There has never been a period when athletes haven’t trained at all.

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According to Sharma, Iyengar as well as former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha, now the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, it could take an athlete up to ‘three or four weeks to recover from one week of training lost’.

“But they need to remember that every athlete in the world is going through the same phase so in that sense, it’s a level playing field,” Iyengar says. “In weightlifting,” Sharma adds, “another challenge is to ensure the lifter does not lose muscle mass. So we have given Mira a barbell, and she does some basic lifting in her room so the muscles don’t become loose.”

If maintaining muscle mass is an issue for lifters, muscle memory is a problem for boxers and wrestlers, for whom sparring is the most critical element in training. To ensure the boxers’ punching range isn’t affected, Kutappa and his team of nine other coaches have started to remotely monitor training of the 15 elite male boxers – five who have already qualified for the Olympics and another 10 who are in contention.

The boxers are encouraged to visualise match scenarios and land their punches accordingly while practicing alone. They record their training sessions and send it to the coaches. “So today (Friday), we told them to practise long-range punches. Next week, it will be mid-range and so on. We tell them what could be the possible match situations and the rest could be their imagination,” Kutappa says. “We don’t know how long this will last. So, we have to find solutions and ensure the athletes stay in shape.”

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