The Pandemic’s Secret Formula: Backyard Workouts and Lots of Sleep

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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 — which tied for the fourth-best throw of all time.

At remaining meets this summer, Crouser said he felt it would be possible to challenge the 30-year-old world record of 75-10 ¼, or 23.12 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 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.”

Claire Curzan, 16, an Olympic swimming hopeful from Raleigh, N.C., said it was “almost a relief” when the Tokyo Games were postponed. After posting a top-20 time in the world last year in the 100-meter butterfly and reaching the medal podium at the world junior championships, Curzan became caught in a swirling current of competition and comparison to other swimmers. She said she felt pressure to make the Olympic team “to make everyone proud.”

When her club pool shut down in March, though, Curzan was forced to rethink her approach. She improvised her workouts, wearing a wetsuit and swimming 30 to 45 minutes a day in an unheated backyard pool while tethered to a stretch cord. She ran to maintain her stamina. She began to focus on her own improvement instead of her international ranking.

And, perhaps most important, with no predawn practice sessions, she slept at least nine hours per night, instead of six or seven. After resuming her normal workouts, Curzan posted four personal-best times at an intrasquad meet.

“You just feel so much better,” she said about the extra sleep, “and you don’t get as sore.”

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 nearly 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, Tex. 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 antidoping 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.”

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?”

The Oakland A’s kept outfielder Stephen Piscotty, 29, off their 2019 playoff roster after he struggled to stay healthy. And with a strained oblique muscle that affected the twisting of his trunk as he swung a bat, he said he would not have been ready if the 2020 season had started in late March instead of in July. But the delay allowed him to heal.

Making do during the lockdown wasn’t easy. One of the A’s trainers who lived near Piscotty’s home in the Bay Area supervised his rehabilitation by visiting his house and instructing him via FaceTime. A golf net allowed him to hit baseballs off a tee without leaving home. At a local batting cage, he refined his swing, keeping his head from lurching forward.

The result? Piscotty has hit two grand slams in the ninth inning since baseball’s delayed season started, something only 13 other major league players had accomplished in a single season.

And while his health benefited from the pandemic, he said, “It did save me a little bit but, ultimately, I wish it didn’t happen.”

Karen Crouse contributed reporting.

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