Olympic gold medalist Neeraj Chopra bagged silver at the World Athletics Championship 2022. His journey has been mounted on a disciplined fitness schedule ever since he bagged the top position in Tokyo Games.
After creating history at Olympics, Chopra was often invited at various programmes and special ceremonies. He became a part of seemingly never-ending felicitations and his cheat days extended to a few weeks as the who’s who were waiting to host him for a meal.
However, soon after his proposal for an off-season training in the USA was cleared, he, his coach Klaus Bartonietz and long-time physio Ishaan Marwaha landed in California. That’s when his strict fitness schedule began for project Eugene.
In conversation to Indian Express, Chopra’s physio, Marwaha said, “It was almost like starting from zero because there was a four-month gap, he was overweight and had put on about 12 to 14 kilograms.”
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Chopra and Marwah are now associated for more than five years. The physio has been a backbone for Chopra’s fitness and after landing in California, the first goal was to shift the gears for World Championships medal.
Team Chopra’s key objectives to begin with were to control his diet in order to make him lose weight and at the same time improve his flexibility and strengthen joints.
“When we reached Chula Vista our first aim was to reduce the weight. Immediately the sugar was out of the diet. No refined sugar, no sugar in drinks or adding to coffee. Sugar coming from food was fine. We reduced the carbohydrates and increased the protein intake during those four to five weeks. Chicken, salmon, and a lot of salad was the basic source of protein. And also the eggs. Protein supplement is just an add-on. For carbohydrates there were potatoes,” Marwaha detailed the plan of the camp dietician Mihira Khopkar.
Before World Championships tournament, Neeraj Chopra himself told Indian journalists, “I lost around 12 to 14 kilos (after getting back to training after the break following Olympics) Losing weight is not a big deal. We can lose weight in 10 days. The challenge is how does weight be turned into strength and that is the struggle.”
The body fat percentage matters a lot for athletes. Chopra’s percentage was around 16 in December and currently it reads 10. “For a javelin thrower, around 10 and 10.5 is good. Below that you are going down way too much,” said Marwaha.
Chopra started to race on 400 metre track but initial days were quite tough for him. “It was difficult for him also because he has not run with that kind of weight. He has not been 97 kgs since the time I have been with him. It was tough for him to start running long distances initially. Then we kept on increasing the distances of his runs upto 5K,” Marwaha added.
In about two weeks, Chopra lost two kilograms. Once he began weight training he became leaner. The protein-rich diet helped.
“We were using the time wisely. But we were not pushing. We had less time and we had to cover a lot of training. That was a little tough initially but hats off to Neeraj, he was dedicated… with the diet and everything.”
Chopra also tackled the Tabata circuit every alternative day. The app-aided routine involves a 20-second high-intensity exercise followed by 10-15 seconds of rest. There were 10 exercises in one circuit and he did three sets.
Tabata circuit is known to be Chopra’s favourite because of the abdomen and core workout. “I tell him to keep it to 20 seconds but sometimes he will push it to 30 seconds of work and 20 seconds rest.”
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Weight training involving squats, snatch is an important routine for athletes.
In case of Chopra, his physio said, “There were squats, snatch, weighted lunges, and a time circuit. We made nine stations. Twenty seconds on one station and then you move to the next station. So we worked on the cardiovascular part also and overall general strength. But we do this in the off season. We have reached almost 90 to 95 percent of what he was in Tokyo.”
Chopra also started ball-throws and sometimes used to replace the ball with a javelin just to get the feel of throwing. However, the major throwing practice began after he made his move to the Gloria Sports Arena in Antalya, Turkey.
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For an athlete, most important part is to remain injury-free. That, in case of Neeraj Chopra was taken care of through proper recovery after intense training, ice baths, contrast baths (in warm and cold water), deep tissue release, and a complete sleep.
“Deep tissue release is about going deep into the muscle and opening a nerve. Sometimes I have to use my elbow also. We do a deep tissue release for him at the end of the week. Or if there is a heavy session we do it after that also.”
The recovery methods can usually come to naught if the athlete does not get a good sleep. Thus, Chopra’s sound sleep was always advantageous for him.
“Optimal sleep above all. About eight to 10 hours is required. He has understood that no matter how many recovery options we choose, sleep is the top most. If you don’t get proper sleep then you cannot recover well,” Marwaha added.
The camp in Chula Vista at the start of the off season was where Chopra worked on ‘previous shortcomings’ – increased flexibility of the shoulder, hip mobility and ankle strength. Not being a thrower who relies on brute power, flexibility is key for Chopra.
“If you want to keep an athlete injury-free, you need that flexibility. If the hamstring is not flexible enough for a competition, there will be an injury or a micro tear. Neeraj is not a power thrower. Neeraj relies more on flexibility. He wants his body to be relaxed when he goes for the throw. Some throwers are power throwers, they don’t need that flexibility as they have power to push. But flexibility helps you keep away from injury,” said Marwaha.
While javelin throw, flexible shoulder helps transfer the force into the javelin and if the shoulder movement is restricted then the elbow will advance and it will lead to a poor throw. Along with flexibility, hip mobility and ankle strength are also key for a javelin thrower.
Chopra has taken a leaf out of the book of world record holder Jan Zelezny. “Jan was very fast on his right hip and that is what we tried to achieve.”
Marwaha mentioned that long hours of training for making joints strong and flexible, required Neeraj’s right attitude at training.
“He is over-enthusiastic in training. It is not that I tell him you have to do 10 minutes and he will step down at 9 minutes and 50 seconds. It will always be 10 minutes or beyond 10 minutes. That makes him different from other athletes, you need that dedication level,” added Marwaha.
In 2019, Neeraj Chopra went through an elbow surgery. Post that, he became smarter and wiser as he stopped punishing his body if he felt a strain or discomfort. He had been out of action for a year and couldn’t risk another injury. Thus, his wiser understanding of the body has made him more sensible in preventing an injury.
While talking about Chopra’s zone during the game, Marwaha said, “He is best when under pressure. If he is not under pressure, he won’t be able to perform in the stadium. In one competition we told him to just relax because it was not a major competition. But in the first two-three rounds he could not throw well. Then he went into the zone. He had to switch on the ‘Neeraj-Chopra-inside-the-stadium button’. He is a different guy when he goes inside the stadium, he does not even look at us.”
Fitness-freak Chopra has now won the silver medal at World Athletics Championships final. While answering, Is Chopra going to have a cheat day after the World Championships final? Marwahas said that it’s a rare day on which Chopra can keep the salads aside and dig into pizza.
“On his own he says ‘no, I don’t want to have it.’ Because he knows how he will feel the next day.”
Chopra will now be seen in action at Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, slated to begin from July 28. Chopra had earlier said, “There is the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (July 28 to August 8) where I will defend my gold (won in 2018 CWG).”
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