Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra put down the marker on Friday with a smooth throw to top qualifying for the men’s javelin throw final at the World Championships. 88.77 metres for a season-best ahead of the final on Sunday makes him a favourite.
Chopra said he hadn’t gone all out in qualifying but was focussed on getting his technique right. The fluid execution was in contrast to a tentative approach in Lausanne during the Diamond League in late June.
Following his winning return in Lausanne, after a month on the sidelines because of a muscle strain, Chopra had said he needed to improve fitness before the World Championships in Budapest.
#IND‘s🇮🇳 Neeraj Chopra qualifies for Paris Olympics 2024 and World Athletics Championship 2023 FINAL with a throw of 88.77m in his first attempt💪#WorldAthleticsChamps #Budapest2023 #Paris2024 pic.twitter.com/zayUncsRFG
— Doordarshan Sports (@ddsportschannel) August 25, 2023
Chopra then focussed again on rehab and strengthening the adductor muscle in the groin area. The adductor strain had occurred during a throwing session in May and it came as ‘a bit of a shock’, according to coach Dr Klaus Bartonietz.
Post Lausanne, Chopra’s physio Ishaan Marwaha, the man who helps him stay fit, and Bartonietz buckled down and readied him for the World Championships.
“In Lausanne, he was not that confident of overall fitness because of the adductor. He could not train at a hundred per cent. But after Lausanne, (after meeting doctors) we started with adductor strengthening, did light throwing sessions initially just to see how the adductor would react the next day, we did ice bath, contrast bath. In four weeks we did three-four good sessions, he is now confident with running speed, the crossovers and all when compared to Lausanne. If you are mentally confident of your fitness then everything works fine,” Marwaha told The Indian Express.
Team Neeraj had focussed on the adductor muscle from the start of the season because a minor flaw in Neeraj’s technique had made it vulnerable to possible injury.
“The adductor muscle (was an area of focus) because of the kind of technique Neeraj has. When he goes to the cross-step movements, his right ankle is a little outwards. What we are trying to correct with the coach is that in the crossstep, his ankle is slightly inward so it doesn’t strain the adductor too much. Because if it gets externally rotated, everything comes onto the groin. Trying (to ensure) that he does not drag that right foot through the runway, that is what we are trying to change, but it will take time,” Marwaha said.
This muscle group is just one of the working parts of a javelin thrower. The fine-tuning technique is a life-long process in an injury-ridden sport. Neeraj’s medal-winning spree is built on hours of training, and attention to detail be it what he eats, how long he sleeps, or his workout routine. Marwaha has been Neeraj’s physio since 2017, the two share a close bond.
No sugar, no aerated drinks
Self-control is one of Chopra’s strengths, Marwaha, a JSW physio, said.
“This season, I don’t think he has had any sugar. When he was in India maybe he had two gulab jamuns. He hasn’t had a cold drink (aerated) in a year. I keep teasing him saying have one sip but he said no. He is off sugar. Maybe after the season when he goes to India, he will have chai with cheeni (sugar). Me and the coach have sugar but he has control over his mind and does not have it. He said ‘just a few months more’,” Marwaha said.
The older Chopra gets and the longer he competes different joints need attention, some more than others depending on wear and tear. The shoulder is another very important region, and more so as a javelin thrower evolves.
“On the shoulder front, we are trying to get him more mobile. As you keep throwing over the years, your internal rotation gets compromised. So we are working to maintain that and it should not be reduced because it can cause injuries in the future,” Marwaha said.
The flexibility of shoulder, hip mobility and ankle strength are some of the key physical elements for a javelin thrower. In fact, at last year’s World Championships in Eugene, where he won silver, Chopra had an issue with his ankle.
“These three things (shoulder, hip, ankle) are always in our focus. This has to be maintained. Last to last year there was some issue with the blocking ankle. There was some tendonitis and he felt pain when he blocked it. Even when he went to the World Championships, there were some issues with the ankle. He could not block it properly. But this season we were able to work on it and he is completely fine,” Marwaha said.
Though the ankle was not a major injury, because it was his block leg (left), there was a ‘pinching pain’. The pressure exerted on the blocking leg is about 10 times the body weight, the Olympic champion had said recently quoting research done by his coach Bartonietz.
“He had to take off his leg as soon as he had blocked with it. But after the World Championships (2022), there was a phase where we were doing the groin rehab, then we went into the ankle also. When he went into the Zurich Diamond League final he was okay with the ankle,” Marwaha said.
Importance of gymnastics
The start of 2023 was easier than the previous year, disrupted because of endless post-Olympics celebrations and facilitations. “After the Olympics, he started after four months or so. He was 10 to 12 kilograms overweight. This season he rested for four to five weeks only. He had put on weight because when you are in India you are having Indian food. But it was fine.”
A stint at Loughborough University was an important pitstop in a season of the World Championships and Asian Games. The gymnasium at the university is where Chopra and Marwaha spend a lot of time.
“We wanted to do a lot of gymnastics initially. When we start our training, we do four to five weeks of gymnastics. It helps with the shoulder strength, hand grips, wrist strength, elbow strength, triceps. Most of it parallel bars and sometimes the rings. Also you use a lot of the core. It is not specific to javelin, but for overall fitness it is good. After four to five weeks of gymnastics, we start with the lifting part.”
The next stop over was Potchefstroom in South Africa and then Antalya in Turkey. Building strength was the focus in South Africa and in Turkey throwing sessions began in full swing.
Upping strength before Paris
An objective before the Olympic next year is to upping Chopra’s strength, Marwaha said.
“Building overall strength one level up. But you can’t push too much with strength. For example if he is doing a bench press of 90 kg, and in one season you try to bring it to 130, such a drastic change will affect flexibility. For example if he is doing 90, next season it should be 105 kg max. Neeraj is more of a flexible thrower than a power thrower. We don’t want flexibility to be affected. He wants to feel the flexibility in the shoulder. If he is flexible and can generate the power in the throw, then he definitely can throw farther.”
Marwaha said working with Chopra is a pleasure because of his maturity and body awareness. The elbow surgery in 2019, which could have ended his career has made him rethink his approach to training.
“It (Neeraj’s approach) changed when he had an elbow injury and went for surgery, because that time was tricky, because the injury may have also ended his career.”
Older now and after making a successful comeback, Chopra is clued in about training plans and exercises. Coach Bartonietz likes his attention to detail to that of a Formula One driver.
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Marwaha talked about the transformation pre and post elbow injury. “Initially, he would not rest. When I used to tell him we can rest for one session, he was not that okay with it. He was 20-21 full of energy and wanted to train everyday, but now he has matured. He has realised that recovery and rest is a very crucial part of his training. With time there has been a lot of maturity with him. He sometimes rests when he feels his body is not responding well.”
However, when at a competition the biggest plus point Marwaha said is Chopra’s self belief.
“The belief…whatever the situation, there is always a chance to come back. So many times me and the coach are watching and the first two three throws don’t go well, then we are under more pressure than him. He is relaxed inside, because he knows that he can pull off a big throw in the end also. During the last world championships, the first three throws didn’t go well, and I was under a lot of pressure sitting outside. But he came back strong. The belief is the difference between the other athletes and him.”