For Olympic athletes, it’s starting from zero
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the boxers, a record nine of whom had qualified for the Olympics, would have been at the peak of their abilities right now, waiting for their turn in the ring at Tokyo. Instead, they are starting from scratch.Updated: Jul 26, 2020 10:04 IST
Santiago Nieva, the high performance director of India’s boxing team, and boxer Pooja Rani are positioned at a distance and throwing punches at each other. They need to gauge the opponent and react accordingly — evade or counter — but only from a distance. Shadow sparring is on at the National Institute of Sports centre in Patiala, where the Tokyo Olympics qualified boxers returned to training this week, after almost three weeks in quarantine outside the campus, and almost four months away from the sport.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the boxers, a record nine of whom had qualified for the Olympics, would have been at the peak of their abilities right now, waiting for their turn in the ring at Tokyo. Instead, they are starting from scratch.
“It is completely a different feeling to train again,” said Pooja, the Asian Championship gold medallist, who has qualified in the 75kg category. She now weighs 81kg. “It will take a month or two to return to good fitness levels. I am mentally switched on for the Olympics next year.”
Nieva joined the Indian team in 2017, with an eye on Tokyo 2020 and a meticulously planned three-year training cycle. Just when the pandemic hit and sports came to a halt, the boxers were ready to hit the final phase of preparation of these long plan, the crescendo of physical and mental fitness which professional athletes call ‘peaking’. A state that allows athletes to push their bodies to its limit without breaking down and give their best performance in a major competition like the Olympics.
The pandemic brought the peaking process to a complete halt, like putting the brakes on a speeding car on the highway. It left athletes and trainers in an unprecedented situation, left high and dry at the most critical phase of their athletic programme. For Nieva and his boxers, it meant resetting the three-year clock to just a year.
“Peaking is steering the training towards your best performance. An athlete plans his whole training towards the World Championships or Olympic Games. They manage to improve their performance by one or two per cent, in some cases up to three per cent, with good peaking,” said Nieva before the training camp restarted. It is the 1-3 per cent that makes the difference between a medal or nothing at all.
However, peaking can happen only when the body has been conditioned to a certain level. “What people don’t see is the remaining 98 per cent,” Nieva said. “Training is not a quick-fix. It is a constant process, so you have to set the foundation of the other 98 per cent before you care about the last two or three per cent.”
At some point, the boxers at the national camp will take the Cooper test. It requires the boxer to run 3000m, while a device measures the rate at which oxygen was consumed by the body and distributed during the run. It is a measure of how fast the body can recover from high intensity training and how efficiently it uses oxygen. It will give Nieva an idea of the base fitness levels of his boxers.
“The longer the lay-off, the lower the starting point and the more we have to go back and get a strong physical preparation,” said Nieva.
If the Olympics had gone to schedule, the boxers would have already gone through the toughest phases of training (see graph) by June and started on the last lap of their programme by July.
“Three weeks prior to the Olympics we start tapering -- peaking for the main competition. Here you remove long distance running, shorten down sessions, allow more recovery, shorten length and number of rounds and maintain high intensity. And then you concentrate on specific work and make sure of good sparring,” said Nieva.
Each sport is different, and so are their respective mechanics of peaking. Players in badminton, for example, have to be ready around the year as the calendar is packed with big tournaments.
“We don’t have cycles in which we have to hit peaking stage only once or twice a year,” said Pullela Gopichand, India’s chief badminton coach. “In badminton, there are so many events close to each other that we have always worked with a smaller window of preparation before big tournaments.”
PV Sindhu, who won silver at the Rio Olympics is a great example of an athlete who peaks for the big tournament. She won the World Championships last year—her fifth medal at a major competition. “The last few cycles have been good for us, whether it was the Olympics or Commonwealth Games,” said Gopichand. “Every time we have had a big tournament, we have been able to peak with a certain formula where we’ve been focusing on things which need to be improved.”
One sport in which India was primed to deliver medals was shooting, with fifteen shooters making the cut for Tokyo, and two of them ranking at the top of their category in the world. The shooters had followed an exacting regimen, appearing for multiple trials, and were ready for one last push when the outbreak happened. “We trained our shooters keeping in mind certain time frames. It is all about periodisation, and that has now gone for a toss,” said Shuma Shirur, the junior rifle programme coach. “We will have to rework and redo the entire cycle now, but having the Olympics postponed by a full year is a better deal, because gradually we can work towards getting everyone to peak again at the right time next year.”
Joydeep Karmakar, an Olympian and current coach of top shooter Mehuli Ghosh, said the big picture of the Olympics was always in mind as they prepared for different World Cups and World Championships. “When you are training for a World Cup, there will be times when you will not even think of the Olympics. All your preparations, be it physical training or technical training will be for that World Cup. At the same time, you need to, as a coach, ensure that the athlete stays hungry for the Olympics and for that you may even reduce the intensity of training,” said Karmakar. “Through all this, the micro level planning —such as a 5km run the next day—will need to be made.”
Rushdee Warley, the CEO of JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport, agreed that all athletes will need to recalibrate their programmes, and their will and commitment to succeed will be put to test.
“I think we will see a determined group of athletes, from all over the world, really wanting to prove a point,” Warley, an elite high performance coach, said. “The athletes and coaches are a resilient group of people.”
(With inputs from Rutvick Mehta & Dhiman Sarkar)