Long Read: The rebuilding of hurdling star Jyothi Yarraji

Athletics

Less than a year ago, the under-confident Vizag girl was worried about clearing one hurdle. After a long and slow rebuilding process, monitored by a team of experts, the 22-year-old improved the 100m hurdles national record thrice in less than a month. Now, those on her team say she has the potential to shave more seconds.

Shared News: May 29, 2022 8:47:17 am
About 10 months back, after returning to track post her injury-forced break, Jyothi found it hard to clear even one hurdle. (AFI media )

Not reacting to the starter’s gun fast enough, Jyothi Yarraji, 22, had a bad start to her race at the Cyprus International Meet earlier this month. Being slow off the blocks is the ultimate nightmare for a 100-metre hurdler. Jyothi of old wouldn’t have recovered from this early setback and would have missed out on a podium finish.

However, these days she doesn’t throw in the towel. Jyothi’s new-found mental toughness, improved speed, refined technique and increased flexibility of the hips helped her clock 13.23 seconds to bring down a 20-year-old national mark of 13.38 that was held by Anuradha Biswal.

It was a watershed moment in Jyothi’s career. At Cyprus a local athlete, with a huge fan following and a faster personal best time than Jyothi, was tipped to win the race. But that was not to be. By the end of the race the camera crews were following India’s newest track star . For coach James Hillier, the hard work to ‘rebuild’ Jyothi had paid off.

“When she broke the national record in Cyprus there was a local girl who had a faster PB, and she said things to Jyothi.

Jyothi had a bad start because the gun they use in Europe is different. She didn’t hear the gun but she kept her focus, powered through and beat the girl. To go and do that shows that she is confident and has belief. Confident athletes are dangerous but belief is the most powerful thing an athlete can have,” Hillier, the head coach of the Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Centre, said.

In days to come, Jyothi would prove that her record-breaking feat in Limassol, Cyprus, wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan performance. She would improve her timings at the Loughborough International Athletics Meet (13.11 seconds) and further shave the seconds at the Harry Schulting Games (13.04). In less than three weeks, Jyothi had erased the NR thrice.
The good news for Indian athletics doesn’t end there, as her coach Hillier says she can run faster. He spoke about the factors that were responsible for the turnaround.

Mind

About 10 months back, after returning to track post her injury-forced break, Jyothi found it hard to clear even one hurdle. The coach, physio and trainer started ‘rebuilding Jyothi’ from scratch at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar, in July.

“She had no confidence because she had injury problems, she wouldn’t mind me saying that she was scared of hurdling at that time. In our first session, the single hurdle was at the lowest setting. She didn’t even want to go over that. So we had to start with one hurdle, do some drills and then go to two hurdles, then three hurdles. It took time. Now she is very confident at the start line in any race. She may not always win and that is okay, but she believes she can win,” Hillier said.

Strength

The pandemic lockdown and injuries had disrupted Jyothi’s training. Sitting at home, she was no longer punishing her body. This reduced her confidence, fitness, speed and strength levels dipped to ‘zero’, Jyothi said. Stepping into the gym to start basic weight training was a herculean task. Pep talks were the need of the hour.

“She would come to the gym and she would say ‘I am so weak, I can’t lift this and they are lifting that’. She was comparing herself to others. But she needed to focus only on herself,” Hillier said. One line of advice which Jyothi got was this: ‘It does not matter if someone else is lifting more in the gym, that is what they are good at, you are good at other things’.
When she attempted an overhead squat with a weight-lifting bar of 20 kilograms she failed. “Now she is doing 55 kilograms and then she could not even do 20. Her strength improvement is incredible,” Hillier said.

Getting stronger was just one part of the remaking process.

Speed

Speed matters a lot in women’s 100 hurdles, a little more than in the men’s 110 metre hurdles.

“The women’s hurdles are lower than the men’s hurdles relative to hip height. That means speed is more of a factor in women’s hurdles than men’s hurdles. We have to train her at high intensity.”

Jyothi can win a medal even in the women’s 100 metres sprint at a national competition, Hillier predicted confidently. “We are not going to do that (run the 100m flat) but she is really fast now compared to before.”

Jyothi was put through gruelling flying sprint workouts but in a phased manner to avoid injury.

“We would do things like flying runs, flying 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 35s. So we basically build the intensity first and then we extrapolate the speed over a slightly longer distance. To develop speed, you have to develop maximum speed. Maximum speed is under seven seconds of running, if it is over seven seconds it is basically speed endurance.”

So a Flying 10 sprint workout would be 40 metres, where in the first 30 metres Jyothi built up speed and in the last 10 she would go all out. “We would time the last 10 only. The body must get used to something which is horrible. The body does not like high intensity, so we have to get the body used to it. Her speed improved hugely. Almost a 10 to 12 per cent improvement from October to March. Which is a huge number. If you get one percent improvement you are really happy.”

Body

Dr Nilesh Makwana, Hillier’s colleague and the lead sports physiotherapist at the Reliance-Odisha set-up says Jyothi was measured for every single parameter. Readings of ‘musculoskeletal screening, peak force of muscle, muscle strength, range of motion’ were plotted on graphs and updated constantly. Every fourth week of training would be a testing week.

“She did high-intensity training and would get tired, her muscles would be fatigued. The challenge was to ensure she refuelled well, ate well, slept well and recovered quickly for the next day. Injury prevention was key,” Makwana said.

The pandemic lockdown and injuries had disrupted Jyothi’s training. Sitting at home, she was no longer punishing her body. (Twitter/SAI Media)

Flexibility

Jyothi also carried inherent issues; not unique to her but commonly found in almost all hurdlers – vast difference in flexibility of the left and right hip and also of strength in the right leg and left leg.
Prolonged running without correction can lead to injuries.

“We had to make sure that the left and right hip had the same range of movement. Lot of hurdlers, because they have a lead leg and a trial leg, have a different range of movement because one leg is always doing something different from the other leg. We were trying to mitigate any potential injury which comes from imbalances. But there was a significant difference (in Jyothi’s case). Her right hip was tighter. The left hip had a bit more range. The left leg is her trail leg, so the trail leg had mobility in the left hip. We used tera bands and specific exercises. The physio would give me a report, put it on a graph and we would measure it. Then later when we did diagnostic testing we were happy,” Hillier said.

After her first tentative steps back on the track in July, Jyothi says it took two-to-three months to get healthy, regain confidence and train with intensity.

Getting her name in the record books means tears are a thing of the past now for the athlete from Visakhapatnam, who has booked a spot in the startling lineup for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year.

She was denied the title of the national-record holder twice earlier because of no fault of hers. Two years ago there were no dope tests at the All India Inter-University Athletics Championships in Moodbidri, Karnataka. Her timings of 13.03 seconds were not ratified. Last month at the Federation Cup, wind speed over legal limit, played spoilsport when she clocked 13.08. There’s a touching video from the Fed Cup in Calicut of Jyothi sobbing and Hillier consoling her.

“It is not that I am aiming for the national record. Rather, I want results for my hard work. If I can apply on track what I do in training then I am satisfied. If there is no process then nothing can happen. The Commonwealth Games will be my first big international competition. I know I can run faster because I trust the training methods,” Jyothi said.

At the heart of her training programme is Hillier. Like a horologist restoring a classical timepiece, no detail is too small for him.

“Being an athlete is a 24-hour thing. Even when Jyothi is going for a walk, she has to walk properly. If she walks with bad posture she will not run with good posture. All the little things add up.”