Avinash Sable was late to the running party: he started running cross-country only in 2015 and competing in the steeplechase much later. His running dreams came crashing down two years later: an injury and weight gain in 2017, a broken ankle in 2018 and, in April this year, covid-19. It speaks a lot about the 26-year-old’s mental strength then that despite these setbacks, he became India’s first male athlete since 1952 to qualify for the steeplechase at the Olympics. He had made the cut early, at the IAAF World Championships in Doha in October 2019.
When Sable walks out for the steeplechase heats on 30 July, he will be well aware that India’s only two Olympics medals in athletics were bagged at the 1900 Paris Olympics by Norman Pritchard. This lack of medals in over a century is motivation enough for Sable to make his mark on the track.
The steeplechase is an extremely technical and tactical 3km obstacle race that is run on a track with four hurdles and a water jump. Each runner has to clear 28 hurdles and seven water jumps during the course of the race.
In the extra year and a half that he got to prepare for the Olympics, Sable worked with his coach Amrish Kumar on a long-term training plan that focused on improving Sable’s endurance, strength and technique. “We had plenty of time on hand after the Olympics were pushed back by a year so we decided to focus on these three crucial aspects,” says Kumar. “We scheduled 12 sessions a week, out of which three were put aside for rest and recovery. Of the nine active training sessions, there were four sessions for endurance, three for strength and one each on speed and technique.”
Sable moved to Coonoor, in the Niligiri hills, for high altitude training to specifically work on strength and endurance. “Training in hill improves strength and endurance. When you run long distances in the hills it improves your endurance and when you run on the slopes, it works on your strength. During the strength sessions, we used to also include body weight exercises to work on the upper body and core,” says Kumar. Sable would start with high repetitions and as he came closer to the Olympics, the reps reduced. Typically, he would begin with push-ups (four sets of 25), 15 pull-ups and 25 sit-ups. Then he would perform lunges, going for distance and repetitions. “However, we don’t do squats because the form is compromised at high altitudes,” says Kumar.
As far as running goes, Sable’s four endurance sessions used to be completely different from each other. On Mondays Sable typically used to run about 15km at a pace of a kilometer in 3 minutes 45 seconds, followed by a 20km run on Wednesdays at a pace of 4-4 minutes 10 seconds. In the next endurance session, Sable would run 10-12km at a pace of a kilometer per 3:30 to 3:40 minutes. The final session used to be interval training including kilometre repeats. “He used to run 2km repeats four times at a faster pace with a short recovery break of 90 to 120 seconds,” says Kumar, adding that Sable used to train twice on Mondays and Tuesdays. Depending on his schedule and recovery, Sable would train twice on one more day with complete rest on Sundays. The morning session in the hills used to be from 6:30am to 9am and the late session was from 4:30pm to 6pm.
After improving his endurance during the 8-10 months of training in the Nilgiris, Sable moved to Bengaluru, where he worked on speed and hurdle and water jump techniques. In Bengaluru, Sable’s long runs got longer and in his preparation for a 3km race, he ran distances of up to 30km multiple times in training. “Running such long distances even for a 3km race is crucial. The long runs help build an athlete’s endurance base and improve VO2Max, the body’s capability of absorbing oxygen during exercise (the higher the VO2Max, the better one can perform). A strong endurance base and high VO2Max improves speed endurance, which in turn improves speed and that improves athletic performance,” says Kumar.
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At Doha, Sable had smashed the national steeplechase record thrice en route to his Tokyo 2020 qualification. After the outbreak of covid-19 and subsequent rescheduling of the Olympics, Sable wasn’t able to compete in any overseas events last year and even had to scupper the high altitude training camp in Uganda due to the deadly second wave of the pandemic.
However, he did get an opportunity to run against the best Indian and international athletes at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020 last November. He showed up at the start line determined to make every kilometre of this training count right from the start. He blazed through the 21km and smashed the national record for the half marathon by three minutes with a timing of 1:00:30. Running a competitive race is crucial in the run-up to any big event and this race helped Sable. Despite the challenges hurled by covid-19, this was the first marquee road race held in India in which only elite athletes competed.
“Distance running used to be at the bottom of the food chain in India. When Procam International started the races, its aim was to provide Indian athletes a chance to compete against the world-class athletes on their home turf so that our athletes would benefit from the experience,” says Vivek Singh, joint managing director of Procam International, the promoters of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. And the race promoters have indeed improved the profile of distance running in India and provided Indian runners a platform to train and qualify for the Olympics. All three of India’s male marathoners who ran at the Rio Olympics in 2016 had bagged their qualification while running the Mumbai Marathon, again a Procam-promoted event.
As for Sable, he is so focused on the Olympics that he hasn’t made much fuss about his records and has refused to talk to any mediapersons. So, through his coach he communicated that he was focused on giving nothing but his best at the Olympics. “I want to give my best performance at the Olympics. I am not putting myself under any pressure with aiming for any medals.”
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.