Injuries, restrictions big concerns as Vinesh Phogat, M Sreeshankar and Co. return to training

"If the Olympics are held on schedule next year, I have nearly 13 months. That's more than enough time to prepare," says Vinesh Phogat. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

A few weeks back, even as he and the other residents of the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala hunkered down amidst the nationwide lockdown, Vijay Sharma, the national coach of the Indian weightlifting team, received some news from an acquaintance in the Chinese Olympic Training Centre. "Because the Olympics had been postponed, their national weightlifting team had held a competition by themselves. There were many personal bests and apparently there were three world records that had been broken too!" he says.

The Indian weightlifting squad is a long way from personal bests. In the two months of lockdown, they haven't even stepped into the weight training hall, though it is located inside the NIS Patiala campus. Indeed, while the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced 10 days ago that sports complexes could open across the country and a few days later the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had issued guidelines on how sports could resume, the weightlifting hall has remained shut. It is expected to open sometime next week.

Slow start

But even when it does open, no one is expected to be heading there immediately. "At least for the first couple of weeks, I don't see us going into the gym. When people ask me what percentage of weight we will start with, I tell them that we are going to be at zero per cent. We will mostly be doing bodyweight training initially. Right now we don't want to rush anything," Sharma says.

With India's lockdown seemingly winding down, sportspersons across the country are making plans about how they would restart the training regimes that have been put on ice for the last several weeks. While the overwhelming sentiment is of gratitude to be able to return to their boxing rings, wrestling mats and running tracks, there is also the understanding that it's best not to push themselves at this stage.

"The first priority will be simply to see what state the athletes are in right now. We are part of the same campus but the girls are in a different hostel. So at least initially I will need to know what kind of shape they are in. Some athletes would be able to return to training faster than others," says Sharma.

It's a theory that's echoed in the SAI Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) too. The document has asked coaches and high-performance directors specifically to ensure athletes don't push themselves too hard once they return, especially since the SOPs look to minimize the use of physiotherapists and masseurs, at least initially. The guidelines issued by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) too stress on the same. "Over-heavy training is something that has the side effect of weakening the immune system and that's something we are looking to avoid when we return to training after a long break," Santiago Nieva, BFI's high-performance director, had told ESPN.

Avoiding injury

Athletes seem to recognise this as well. "You are going to see a lot of injuries among athletes," says wrestling world championships bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat. "Whenever you return after such a long break, you have to be really careful about what kind of load you can put on your body. Most athletes will really want to push themselves after being away from training for so long, but the body just won't be ready," she says.

Speaking to ESPN, women's 100m national record holder Dutee Chand mentioned just how sore she felt after her first day of restarting training in Bhubaneswar. "I usually start my workouts with a one kilometre run on the track. Normally it takes about five minutes but it took me nearly seven minutes on the first day. My muscles simply have not got used to that. On the next day, it took about six and a half minutes to run the warm-up. After about one week, your body starts to get comfortable running once again," she says.

"The recovery will be very gradual," says world No. 10 ranked badminton doubles player Chirag Shetty. While all athletes have done their best to carry on their fitness routines at their homes, this hasn't been possible in all parts of the country, such as Mumbai, where Shetty resides. "I can't push myself. It has been two months since I have played or trained. The lockdown in Mumbai is very strict, so I can't just go down to the streets for a jog. Whatever training I have done at home won't keep me super fit. It just kept me active. It's nowhere close to the training we usually do and the pressure we put on our body," he says.

While it appears a strange checklist to follow for someone who has been playing badminton at a high level for close to a decade, Shetty says the first few days of training would just be about familiarising himself on the courts once again. No chance of a 350 kmph smash just yet. "For the first couple of weeks, the sessions would be as short as possible. Maybe an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. I'd just be playing some standing strokes in the first couple of weeks just to get the hand feel back," he says.

Although Shetty knows it's critical to get physically active once again, on court match time isn't the way to do it just yet. "I'll have to get my heart rate up, but I can't start by playing badminton because that has a lot of jerky movements. It's much safer to do running because the movements are linear," he says.

"You are going to see a lot of injuries among athletes. Whenever you return after such a long break, you have to be really careful about what kind of load you can put on your body." Vinesh Phogat

Track running a big positive

One presumes running is an activity that could be done anywhere, but most athletes say running on tarmac isn't helpful. "We aren't used to running on cement. I tried doing so for a couple of days but I developed shin pain, so had to stop," says Shetty.

As such, the option of running on track is the immediate positive most athletes are looking forward to. M Sreeshankar, the national record holder in the long jump, isn't like most athletes who have found working out during the lockdown next to impossible. The native of Palakkad, Kerala was able to set up a weight-training facility at his home just prior to the lockdown and while jumping was obviously ruled out, he has managed to make significant gains in strength and endurance.

"My deadlift has improved by 20 kilos. I also did a lot of stair workouts so I was able to maintain my endurance too. I'm not in such a disadvantage in these two areas when I return. But when we resume training in the ground, I'll be hoping to do a lot more speed training. That isn't something that was possible to do at home, since it needs a length of track to train on. During the lockdown, the only kind of running I was able to do was on the road next to my house. That is a very hard surface. It's not something that we are used to and it started to pain in my legs," he says.

What's the best-case scenario?

Once they do resume training, athletes are guarded about just how much time they would need to get competition-ready. Shetty compares it to recovering from an injury. "After I suffered an abdominal injury last year, it took me about about three weeks to get match-ready after I had physically recovered. So if I really push myself, it could take about five or six weeks to get back to competitive shape," he says.

But Shetty also knows that's not something he will need to do. "There's no need to push myself and risk injuring myself in the process. Even in the best-case scenario, we don't expect international badminton to resume before September. So even assuming that I have about three months to get match-ready. Normally, I'll actually start focused training for a tournament about two weeks before it begins. That's going to be the same this time too. Once we get some certainty about when a tournament is about to begin, I'll be able to start preparing just before that," he says.

For Vinesh Phogat, there is even more time. Having already qualified for the Olympics, Phogat knows she has over a year to work with. "If the Olympics are held on schedule next year, I have nearly 13 months. That's more than enough time to prepare," she says.

But Phogat, Shetty and the others know that returning to competition fitness won't be a straightforward matter. "This isn't just like getting back from an injury. In that situation, everything depends on you. Right now you are dealing with matters out of your control. A lot of athletes are very worried about the coronavirus but if you are thinking of training seriously, you have to put that fear behind you. You can't let that fear overwhelm your life," says Phogat.

Unpredictability a concern

What worries Phogat more than the current restrictions athletes have to deal with is the uncertainty over the same. "Even if we start training in June or July, it's more than enough time. But we need a proper plan. We can't drift for six months. The biggest problem is if we don't have a clear plan of what to do when we start," she says.

Sreeshankar has already dealt with this. "Right now, we aren't sure just what the future will hold. When the government first announced that the sports complexes could open, I was pretty happy to get back to training in Palakkad stadium. But within a few days as the number of cases started to rise, the district administration applied Section 144 and closed the stadium once again. So I had to stop all my training once again," he says.

This unpredictability is why athletes aren't planning on committing to a training pattern anytime soon. Wrestling has already decided not to host a national camp for the foreseeable future and other sports like shooting are also thinking on similar lines. "Gopi sir [P Gopichand] called me a couple of days back and asked me when I was thinking of coming to Hyderabad. I told him I'll come there once the airports are able to function properly again and you don't have to self-monitor for two weeks like you to have right now. I'll try to get back to average fitness in Mumbai and then go to Hyderabad. If I go back just now, I might be stuck in quarantine and start once again at zero. That's not feasible for anyone," he says.

No athlete or coach is under any illusion about the scale of the challenge they are up against. "In a sport like weightlifting, losing a single day of training can really set your progress back. So to lose two months of training is very serious," says weightlifting coach Sharma. But there's little point moping much about it. "I think it would have been worse had we been the only country that had been affected. But with the exception of China and North Korea, I think athletes from every other country are in the same situation we are in," he says.