Watching the highly athletic Neeraj Chopra add a World Championship silver medal to Olympic gold, it’s hard to believe she huffed and puffed on a 400-meter track in Chula Vista a few months ago. In December, a slightly chubby Chopra began to get back in shape after what seemed like endless congratulations. His cheat day stretched over a few weeks as who was waiting to greet him for a meal. A prime minister cooked ‘rich’ food for Olympic heroes. Shortly after his proposal for an off-season workout in the US was approved, Chopra, his trainer Klaus Bartonietz and physical therapist Ishaan Marwaha landed in California.
The Eugene Project started there and then.
“It was almost like starting from scratch because there was a four-month gap, I was overweight and I had gained 12-14 kilograms,” says Marwaha.
A physical therapist and also a friend of Chopra’s, 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 elbow surgery three years ago, and was a vital piece in Chopra’s medal journey from the Olympics to the World Championships.
To begin with, the Chopra team’s key goals were to lose weight while improving flexibility and strengthening joints. Though crucial time had been missed, Chopra is known to move mountains.
“When we got to Chula Vista our first goal was to lose weight. Immediately sugar was out of the diet. No refined sugar, no sugar in beverages or adding to coffee. The sugar coming from the food was fine. We reduced carbohydrates and increased protein intake during those four or five weeks. Chicken, salmon, and lots of salad were the basic source of protein. And also the eggs. The protein supplement is just a supplement. For carbohydrates there were potatoes”, Marwaha details the plan of the camp dietician Mihira Khopkar.
Low percentage of body fat
Body fat percentage, a key reading for top athletes, needed correction. Chopra was about 16 percent in December. It currently reads 10. “For a javelin thrower, around 10 and 10.5 is good. Below that you are going too low,” says Marwaha.
The first steps were more difficult than Chopra anticipated. He started with two or three laps of the 400 meter track. “It was hard for him as well because he hasn’t raced at that kind of weight. He does not weigh 97 kgs since the time I have been with him. Initially, it was difficult for him to start running long distances. Then we kept increasing his race distances up to 5K.”
In about two weeks, Chopra lost five pounds. Once he started weight training, he got leaner. The high-protein diet helped.
“We were using the time wisely. But we weren’t pushing. We had less time and we had to cover a lot of training. That was a bit difficult at first, but I congratulate Neeraj, he was dedicated … with the diet and everything.
Soon, every other day, Chopra was tackling the Tabata circuit. The app-assisted workout involves a 20-second high-intensity workout followed by 10-15 seconds of rest. There were 10 exercises in a circuit and he did three sets.
The Tabata circuit is also one of Chopra’s favorites due to the abdominal and core training. “I tell him to keep it to 20 seconds, but sometimes he pushes it to 30 seconds on and 20 seconds off.”
The next phase involved weight training.
“There were squats, snatches, weighted lunges and a time circuit. We did nine stations. Twenty seconds at one station and then you move on to the next station. So we work the cardiovascular part as well and the general strength in general. But we do it out of season. We have reached almost 90 or 95 percent of what it was in Tokyo,” says Marwaha.
In mid-January, Chopra started throwing the ball. He would stand on the grass and sometimes use a javelin just to get the feel of throwing. He then he moved onto the track. But the biggest release began after Chopra moved to the Gloria Sports Arena in Antalya, Turkey.
Keeping Chopra’s body in tip-top shape is like ensuring all the parts of a bow are working optimally, Ishaan says, borrowing an analogy from Coach Bartonietz. “If one part of the arch is not working well, like the hip flexors (muscles) are tight, then the arch is broken in that part,” explains Marwaha, a physical therapist at the Inspire Institute of Sport.
8 to 10 hours of sleep
Proper recovery after intense training, ice baths, contrast baths (in warm and cold water), deep tissue release, and a good night’s sleep keep Chopra injury-free and refreshed.
“Deep tissue release is about going deep into the muscle and opening up a nerve. Sometimes I also have to use my elbow. We do a deep tissue release for him at the end of the week. Or if there is an intense session, we also do it afterwards”.
An ice bath follows an ‘intense session’, such as a long running session, and helps heal micro-injuries to the muscles. “Usually when we want it to relax, we use a contrast one. It’s about two minutes hot and two minutes cold.”
All recovery methods can fail if Chopra doesn’t sleep well. Having deep sleep works in your favor.
“Optimal sleep above all else. About eight to 10 hours are required. He has understood that no matter how many recovery options we choose, sleep is the most important thing. If you don’t sleep well, then you can’t recover well.”
shoulder, hip, ankle
Camp in Chula Vista at the start of the offseason was where Chopra worked on “previous deficiencies” — increased shoulder flexibility, hip mobility and ankle strength. Not a shooter who relies on brute force, 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 competition, there will be an injury or microtear. Neeraj is not a power shooter. Neeraj relies more on flexibility. He wants his body to be relaxed when he goes for the pitch. Some pitchers are power pitchers, they don’t need that flexibility as they have power to push. But flexibility helps you avoid injuries,” says Marwaha.
To develop a strong block (with the lead leg just prior to release), ankle strength and hip mobility are vital. A flexible shoulder helps transfer force to the javelin. If shoulder movement is restricted, the elbow will advance and poor release will occur.
“Working on hip mobility is important because in the block they need hip mobility at the last moment. Correct hip rotation is very important and if it is not moved correctly, the groin is under too much stress and the foot will drag. Your foot should turn. If you compromise the mobility of your foot, then you’re stretching your hamstring or groin area.”
Chopra has taken a leaf out of world record holder Jan Zelezny’s book. “Jan was very quick with his right hip and that’s what we tried to achieve.”
As important as hip mobility is, so is ankle strength. “Ankle strength is also required for blocking. It is extreme, 200 percent of the body weight arrives at the moment of blocking in the left foot. In Neeraj’s case, it will be about 170 kilograms of force.”
On the track, the energy buildup comes from the ground through the legs. “In the javelin throw, 60 percent is in the legs, only 40 percent in the upper body. If your legs don’t move well, aren’t fast and don’t lock well, no matter how much upper body strength you have, it’s not going to help.”
What helps keep all joints strong and flexible is Neeraj’s attitude towards training. He is not lazy. “He is too enthusiastic in training. It’s not like I’m telling him he has to do 10 minutes and he’ll come down at 9 minutes and 50 seconds. He will always be 10 minutes or more than 10 minutes. That makes him different from other athletes, you need that level of dedication.”
Having to undergo 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 unable to regain full extension in his elbow, his career would have likely hit a snag. “In eight out of 10 elbow surgeries, you don’t get that full extension. Strength will come, but getting the range was the most important thing. Fortunately, with time and proper rehabilitation, the range came and the doctor was happy. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to pitch.”
smarter and wiser
After the surgery, Chopra stopped punishing her body if she felt tension or discomfort. He had been out of action for a year and couldn’t risk another injury.
“In the beginning, he was just pushing himself through the pain. He now he has matured. He knows it’s okay not to train when he hasn’t slept well. He knows that there is no point in doing a morning session without a full recovery. He will tell us if he feels tension around the shoulder or the hip. If the coach says you have to do a 90kg squat or a 90kg snatch and if he feels he can’t do it, he will give you his opinion. He knows how to prevent injuries.”
Chopra button ignition
Chopra is very confident on the catwalk once the competition begins. He has been throwing big throws early in competitions and others have been trying to catch up. Once inside the stadium, he enters the area, according to Marwaha. “It’s better when he’s under pressure. If he is not under pressure, he will not be able to perform in the stadium. In a competition we told him to relax because it was not an important competition. But in the first two or three rounds he couldn’t pitch well. He then he entered the area. He had to turn on the ‘Neeraj-Chopra-inside-the-stadium’ button. He’s a different guy when he walks into the stadium, he doesn’t even look at us.”
Will Chopra have a cheat day after the World Championship final? A rare day when you can put aside the salads and eat pizza. Chopra’s famous abstinence is gaining a reputation. “On his own he says ‘no, I don’t want to have it.’ Because he knows how he is going to feel the next day.”