The pandemic’s secret formula: Backyard workouts and lots of sleep
By Jeré Longman
Ryan Crouser, the 2016 Olympic shot-put champion, expected to defend his gold medal in Tokyo this summer. He did not expect to enter bass-fishing tournaments to stoke competitive fires doused by a coronavirus pandemic.
“Finished in the money three of the last four tournaments,” Crouser, 27, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark., said in a telephone interview. “Been on a bit of a hot streak. It’s helped me from going a little crazy.”
Track and field, like many other Olympic sports, lost its primary showcase with the postponement of this year’s Tokyo Games. But for many athletes, that wasn’t the worst of it. The annual international circuit for dozens of sports also were disrupted, with travel restricted and meets and competitions delayed or canceled. Some athletes, their motivation sagging, decided to throw in the towel and resume serious training again in the fall in preparation for the Games next summer, if they happen.
But not everyone.
On July 18, after driving 10 hours to compete in one of the rare track meets held this summer, Crouser unleashed the best throw of his life — 75 feet, 2 inches, or 22.91 meters — tied for the fourth-best throw of all time.
Newly confident, Crouser said he felt it was possible to challenge the 30-year-old world record of 75 feet, 10 1/4 inches, or 23.12 meters. His attempt to do so this weekend at a meet in Des Moines, Iowa came up short. His best throw at the Drake Blue Oval Showcase was 74 feet, 6 1/2 inches, or 22.72 meters, a stadium record (all six of his throws landed well beyond 22 meters). The record is an old and suspect one, set in 1990 by an American, Randy Barnes, who in 1998 was barred from the sport for life after a second doping infraction.
Crouser is one of many athletes across sports, from track and field to swimming to baseball, who have performed as well or better than ever despite the hardships imposed by the global pandemic. They say they have channeled the frustration of forced shutdowns into opportunity, and that they feel refreshed by increased rest, less exhaustive travel, enhanced focus on training, healed injuries, creative improvisation and a less stressful perspective about sport.
Some athletes and coaches said they had begun to reconsider their training habits, especially the value of sleep.
In a normal year, Crouser, who is 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 310 pounds, would have been on the road from January to September, traveling to compete nationally and internationally. With his ability to travel all but halted by the pandemic, gyms closed, track facilities off limits and rehab therapists unavailable, Crouser mostly remained at home, ad-libbing. He said he has not missed a day of scheduled training, expanding his foundational workouts to six months from the usual six to eight weeks.
He kept waking up at the same time, and continued to eat his four meals and snacks totaling about 5,000 calories every day, as usual. He built a throwing ring out of plywood. He lifted weights in his garage. He hurled a medicine ball against the cement base of a bridge. He even did his own physical therapy, using a tennis ball, a lacrosse ball and a foam roller.
“The quarantine has been such a mental battle to stay engaged,” Crouser said. “Training is the highlight of your day to break the monotony. That’s what’s keeping you sane.”
A Throw and a Sprint
On Aug. 1, Valarie Allman, 25, set the American women’s discus record with a throw of 230 feet, 2 inches, or 70.15 meters. Remarkably, it was a 10-foot improvement over her personal best.
When the Olympics were postponed and other meets were canceled, Allman said, she nearly gave up on the season. With no prize money available, she would have had to “puzzle piece” money from sponsors, training grants, her personal savings and help from her family to keep going.
“I felt lost,” she said.
But her coach, Zeb Sion, challenged Allman to reset her goals and to remain as strong and fit as possible at their training base in Austin, Texas. At the beginning of this month, Allman competed in a tiny meet in Rathdrum, Idaho. It was her first competition since last October, at the world track and field championships in Doha, Qatar. Allman had finished seventh there to conclude her first season on the professional circuit, feeling worn down from the travel and the pressure and logistics of competition.
The meet in Idaho was tiny, intimate, by comparison. Six or seven competitors, 20 or 30 spectators. No international flight required.
“I felt there were no distractions,” Allman said. “I could just focus on performance.”
After her record throw, which went viral in track and field circles for its strength, balletic grace and technique, Allman, a former dancer, faced another challenge. She needed to be tested for performance-enhancing drugs within 24 hours for her American record to be ratified — and to pre-empt suspicion at a time when anti-doping operations have been reduced during the pandemic.
Racing the clock, Allman and her coach found an accredited doping control officer to administer the test. They drove four hours to Hermiston, Ore., where Allman produced a urine sample in a gas station restroom.
“It felt kind of sketchy,” Allman said with a laugh, “but we wanted to prove that all of our hard work had been legitimate.”
Long Trip to Record Time
When the Olympics were postponed, Joshua Cheptegei, 23, of Uganda changed his goal from winning a gold medal to setting a world record in the 5,000-meter run. Locked down in his hometown, Kapchorwa, near the country’s border with Kenya, from March through May, Cheptegei said he reduced his training and got more sleep and relaxation.
In a normal year, it would usually take him 24 hours to travel from East Africa to Europe for five or six meets. This year, with the pandemic, he spent more time at home with his wife and two children, gardened at his grandparents’ home and painted the walls of a local elementary school.
“Just to keep the body awake,” he said on a Zoom call.
Once the lockdown ended, Cheptegei moved to a high-altitude training camp in Uganda. His Dutch coach, who usually traveled back and forth from the Netherlands, remained with him full time. Rested, Cheptegei was able to push himself hard in vigorous speed-training sessions.
Still, lingering international travel restrictions forced him to make an 80-hour journey to Monaco — including a flight chartered for him by Uganda’s president — for the Diamond League meet where he attempted his record-breaking run on Aug. 14.
Running metronomic laps before a small, socially distanced crowd, Cheptegei lowered the world record in the 5,000 to 12 minutes, 35.36 seconds, averaging a searing 4:03 per mile in the 3.1-mile race and erasing an obstinate mark that had stood for 16 years.
“I had a lot of rest because I couldn’t travel to competitions,” Cheptegei said. “I had the fitness to break the record, but the biggest obstacle was, how was I going to get to Monaco?”