Watching a supremely athletic Neeraj Chopra add a World Championship silver medal to the Olympic gold , it is hard to believe he huffed and puffed on a 400 metre track in Chula Vista a few months ago. In December a slightly podgy Chopra began getting back in shape after what seemed like never-ending felicitations. His cheat day extended to a few weeks as the who’s who were waiting to host him for a meal. One chief minister cooked ‘rich’ food for the Olympic heroes. Soon after his proposal for an off-season training in the USA was cleared, Chopra, his coach Klaus Bartonietz and long-time physio Ishaan Marwaha landed in California.
Project Eugene began there and then.
“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,” Marwaha says.
A physio and also a friend to Chopra, Marwaha has been part of the inner circle for five years. He and Chopra have stuck together through thick and thin. Marwaha was by Chopra’s side when he underwent an elbow surgery three years ago, and a vital cog in the wheel in the post-Olympic to World Championships medal journey of Chopra’s.
The throw that won #NeerajChopra the silver medal at #WorldChampionship. It’s incredible how these guys know the throw is good the moment they release the #javelin. That roar!
This man continues to write history. And he’s just 24! pic.twitter.com/dhEj7vDD2G
— Mihir Vasavda (@mihirsv) July 24, 2022
Team Chopra’s key objectives to begin with were to lose weight and at the same time improve flexibility and strengthen joints. Though crucial time had been lost, Chopra is known to move mountains.
“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 details the plan of the camp dietician Mihira Khopkar.
Low body fat percentage
The body fat percentage, a key reading for top athletes, needed correction. Chopra’s was around 16 percent in December. Currently it reads 10. “For a javelin thrower, around 10 and 10.5 is good. Below that you are going down way too much,” Marwaha says.
The early steps were tougher than Chopra anticipated. He began with two to three laps of the 400 metre track. “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.”
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.”
Soon, every second day, Chopra tackled the Tabata circuit. 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 also a Chopra 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.”
The next phase involved weight training.
“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,” Marwaha says.
By mid-January, Chopra started ball throws. He would stand on grass and sometimes use a javelin just to get the feel of throwing. He then moved to the runway. But the major throwing began after Chopra moved to the Gloria Sports Arena in Antalya, Turkey.
Keeping Chopra’s body in top shape is akin to ensuring all parts of a bow are working optimally, Ishaan says, borrowing an analogy of coach Bartonietz. “If one part of the bow is not working well, like if the hip flexors (muscles) are tight, then the bow is broken at that part,” Marwaha, a physiotherapist of the Inspire Institute of Sport, explains.
8 to 10 hours sleep
Proper recovery after intense training, ice baths, contrast baths (in warm and cold water), deep tissue release, and a goodnight’s sleep keeps Chopra injury-free and refreshed.
“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.”
An ice bath follows a ‘heavy session’, like a long running session, and helps in healing micro injuries in the muscles. “Usually when we want him to relax we use a contrast one. It involves two minutes of hot and two minutes of cold.”
All recovery methods can come to naught if Chopra does not get a good sleep. Being a sound sleeper works to his advantage.
“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.”
Shoulder, hip, ankle
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,” Marwaha says.
To develop a strong block (with the leading leg just before the release) ankle strength and hip mobility is vital. A flexible shoulder helps transfer the force into the javelin. If the shoulder movement is restricted then the elbow will advance and a poor release follows.
“Working on hip mobility is important because at the block they need hip mobility at the last moment. The right hip rotation is pretty important and if it is not moving properly then your groin is under a lot of strain and your foot will drag. Your foot should rotate. If you compromise on your foot mobility, then you are stretching your hamstring or the groin area.”
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.”
As important as hip mobility is, so is ankle strength. “Ankle strength is also required for the block. It is extreme, 200 per cent of the body weight comes at the time of the block on the left foot. In Neeraj’s case it will be about 170 kilograms of force.”
On the runway, the build-up of energy comes from the ground via the legs. “In javelin throw 60 per cent is in the legs, only 40 per cent is the upper body. If your legs are not moving well, they are not fast and they are not blocking well, no matter how much strength you have in your upper body, it won’t help.”
What helps in keeping all the joints strong and flexible is Neeraj’s attitude to training. He is not a slacker. “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.”
Having to undergo an elbow surgery in 2019 made Chopra smarter and he knows the load his body can take. There was an element of risk involved in the surgery because if Chopra was not able to regain the full extension of his elbow, his career would have possibly hit a roadblock. “Eight out of 10 surgeries of the elbow, you don’t get that full extension. Strength will come, but getting the range was most important. Luckily with time and proper rehabilitation the range came and the doctor was happy. Otherwise he would not be able to throw.”
Smarter and wiser
Post surgery, Chopra 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.
“Initially he would just push himself through pain. Now he has matured. He knows it is ok not to train when he has not slept well. He knows there is no point doing a morning session without full recovery. He will tell us if he is feeling tightness around say the shoulder or the hip. If the coach says you have to do a 90 kg squat or 90 kg snatch and if he feels he is not able to do it he will give his feedback. He knows how to prevent injury.”
Switching on Chopra button
Chopra is extremely confident on the runway once the competition starts. He has been acing the big throws early in competitions and others have been playing catch up. Once inside the stadium, he enters the zone, according to Marwaha. “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.”
Is Chopra going to have a cheat day after the World Championships final? A rare day on which he can keep the salads aside and dig into pizza. The famous Chopra abstinence is gaining reputation. “On his own he says ‘no, I don’t want to have it.’ Because he knows how he will feel the next day.”