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The long comeback of India's star runner Jinson Johnson

The middle distance runner speaks to Lounge about his struggles with injury, covid-19 and how he is training for the Asian Games

Jinson Johnson competing at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
Jinson Johnson competing at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. (Getty Images)

In September 2019, Jinson Johnson set his personal best timing of 3:35.24 during a 1500m run in Berlin. Yet, in less than a year, his career seemed to be on the brink of ending.

An Achilles tendon injury at the end of 2019 sent him into an extended rehabilitation. The covid-19 pandemic followed, during which Johnson was left without competitions or a training routine, like several other athletes. In April 2021, he got infected with the virus, a severe strain from which it took a long time for him to recover. The recovery period practically ended his season as he was not fit enough to participate or qualify for any of the major competitions.

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His slow return to competitive athletics started only from April 2022, when he finished third in the National Federation Cup in Thenhipalam, Kerala—his only competition of the year and his first in nearly three years. Johnson has since been on an upswing.

This year, he registered a timing of 3:40:99 in Orlando, USA, in June, earned a gold medal in the Federation Cup Senior Athletics Championships in Ranchi in May and a top finish in the Indian Grand Prix in Trivandrum in March. He also finished first in the 1500m at the 62nd National Inter-state Senior Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar in June with a timing of 3:42.77.

Johnson is firmly on the road to recovery and the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, starting on 23 September, would be his first big international test. As the defending champion—Johnson won the 1500m gold (timing of 3:44.72) in the Jakarta Games in 2018—the 32-year-old has a point to prove and a reputation to enhance. It’s also one of the reasons he returned to competitive athletics after the long break of 2020-21. “I want to end my career with a good result,” he says over a call. “That’s why I came back, to win an international medal. My main focus is the Asian Games only.”

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While Johnson is still some distance away from achieving his best timings, he is not perturbed, because he can see a consistent improvement. “I am not chasing a timing because the 1500m depends on race strategy. I could have answered this question (about timings) if I was a sprinter or a jumper. In the middle and long distance (runs), it depends on race strategy. The main thing is to win a medal.”

During his last international competition, the Asian Athletics Championships in Bangkok in July, Johnson finished 11th with 3:46.91 as Ajay Kumar won the gold medal with a timing of 3:41.51. To get some context on timings, Josh Kerr, who won the 1500m gold medal in the recently-concluded World Athletics Championships in Budapest, ran 3:29.38 in the final. “I am sure I can run under 3:40 but I am not sure if I can go under 3:35 at the moment because of fitness levels,” says Johnson. 

The beginning of Johnson’s travails in 2019 had resulted from an acute over-chronic inflammation on both his Achilles tendons (calf muscle tendons). This is a common injury among endurance athletes that is slow to respond to guided rehabilitation. He spent a month recuperating under the watch of Ronak Hosabettu, the lead sports physiotherapist in rehabilitation at the H N Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai.

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“From 2015 onwards (he came second that year in the 800m in the Asian Championships in Wuhan), I have continuously been doing well nationally and internationally,” says Johnson. “My fitness was good in 2020. Then the lockdown came and I couldn’t maintain that fitness. In 2021, I got Covid, which affected my career. The main route to success for athletes is hard work and consistency. The breaks I had in 2020, 2021 meant that I could not do well in 2022 either.”

Since tendons heal with optimal loading, finding the optimal load to which his tendons would respond was key to rehab. The exercises ranged from easy ones like isometrics to harder ones like plyometrics, depending on the stage of rehab, explains Hosabettu.

Since his return to competitions, Johnson has opted out of the 800m, in which he had won a silver medal in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games. “I am still doing rehab for the Achilles tendon injury. I can’t push for more speed. It’s easier to participate in one discipline (than two). I can’t run faster, so the 800m is not practical. To run in two events, you need (greater) fitness.”

In the World Championships, for example, athletes participating in the men’s 800m and 1500m had to run in the heats, semi-finals and final for both events, that’s six races over eight days. “Every stage is tough. If I ran 3:35, I would have to repeat that the next time, recover and run again. In track and field, the toughest are the middle and long distances, because the level of competition is high,” Johnson says. 

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“I love running,” he adds, after some thought on why he started to race again. “I like competing. I am passionate about this field. Athletics is tough, not just international but national level too. I can do my best timing before a competition, but I can’t tell you if I will win. For example, in the last Asian Games, I was leading (in the 800m), but ultimately Manjit (Singh) won the gold.”

He is not thinking about the next year’s Olympic Games in Paris, focussing solely on the Asian Games. The doubts he faced over his career have eased a bit, helped along over the last few years by marriage and the birth of his son Hardhik. They have all added up to give him perspective. “You have to accept every situation. Nothing is permanent, winning and losing are part of the game. Work hard with discipline. That’s what I have learnt.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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