June 18, 2021

Felt weak, had breathing issues: Runner Jinson Johnson

Middle-distance star Jinson Johnson copped debilitating symptoms of Coronavirus before slow recovery.

Fully recovered from a career-threatening injury in late 2019, India’s finest middle-distance runner Jinson Johnson was in the best shape of his career these last few months until the coronavirus derailed all his plans. The 2018 Asian Games 1500m gold and 800m silver medallist tested positive for Covid-19, along with five other athletes, at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru on April 12.

Breathlessness, fever, splitting head and body ache added with extreme exhaustion brought the 30-year-old army man to his knees, dispelling the commonly held belief that the virus doesn’t weaken the physically fit. “Unlike a few other athletes who had tested positive in the camp, I had all the symptoms. I felt extremely weak and I had breathing issues. I don’t even remember the last time I had a fever but this virus kept me down for the next two weeks,” Jinson recalls.

Jinson, a national record holder in both the 800m and 1500m, follows a gruelling training regimen and adheres to a strict diet plan. But Jinson’s is a cautionary tale that the virus doesn’t differentiate between the fit and those who lead a sedentary lifestyle.

Jinson, who has resumed his training in the hills of Conoor in Tamil Nadu, says he is yet to fully recover from the onslaught of the virus. “When I hit the ground for the first time after my recovery, I felt a lot of weakness in my muscles. The breathing issue was still there. I still haven’t started full intensity training. I am covering a lot of distance but only walking and jogging. I also had to suffer post covid symptoms like headache but now I am better and have just resumed training,” explains Jinson.

He is being monitored closely by Dr Heath Matthews, Head (Sports Science and Medicine) and his team at the Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai.

Tapioca, fish curry

As soon as Jinson tested negative after his two-week isolation in his room, the Kerala athlete packed his bag and left to meet his family in Chakkittapara, Kozhikode. That’s where the real recovery took place, says Jinson.

“My mum prepared all my favourite dishes and took really good care of me. I had the best of Kerala food. I had a lot of kappa (tapioca), fish curry and a lot of dried fish. That one week at home was a much-needed break after two weeks of being locked up in a hostel room. The home trip rejuvenated my mind,” says Jinson.

Jinson, now back at his base in Conoor, is easing himself into the training phase. The junior commissioned officer knows qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics is a distant dream but he is not going to ponder over it.

“My preparations were going really good. I had fully recovered from the 2019 injury and was clocking really good times but unfortunately, this happened. I am a professional athlete and I see this as just another loss and I have to now focus on the next competition. This is a negative experience but I will come back stronger. There are a lot of big competitions in 2022 and I am pretty confident of doing well,” says Jinson.

Dr Matthews, the go-to physiotherapist for elite Indian athletes across all sports, says Jinson’s health and recovery are top-priority and he wouldn’t want to push the athlete into intense training and competition right now. “For us at the moment it is just about getting him to full fitness and doing it in a safe way. We are not going to take any risks or push his body in any way that might affect his heart or lungs. We are going about it in a very systematic manner,” explains Matthews, who oversaw Jinson’s rehab after the Achilles tendon injury in November 2019.

Career-threatening injury

Much before the pandemic, Jinson hit a major roadblock after injuring his Achilles heel tendon during a training stint at the Colorado Springs, USA in November 2019 that kept him out of action for a long time. There were several factors that contributed to the injury, including the bone-chilling weather of Colorado Springs where minus temperatures during the winters are a norm.

With local rehab efforts not bearing fruit, he decided to turn to the Sports Science & Medicine team at the Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital to help him get back on track.

“I had a little niggle in my tendons after a calf injury I got in Doha but that did not affect my running that much. But during my stint in the US, it got aggravated. I had difficulty in even walking or jogging, let alone running. I flew straight to Mumbai to get my rehab done,” says Jinson.

During his rehab, Dr Matthews’s team realised Jinson needed to work on adding more strength to his calf muscles to avoid injuries and decrease the ground contact time.

“You need strong calf muscles to generate a lot of force and accelerate forward. That means the amount of time your foot is in contact with the ground is less and the force you generate is higher. In Jinson’s case, because of weak calf muscles, the moment the foot hits the ground the muscle does not generate a quick force. It doesn’t have the strength, so it’s lagging and that increased ground contact time puts a lot of pressure on the tendons,” explains Dr Matthews.

The seasoned sports science specialist was quick to point out that when he said weak, he meant weaker compared to other elite athletes. “Jinson’s calf muscles were 10 times stronger than an average person.”

Jinson responded well to the rehab and in a few-months time felt better as ever.

With the body in perfect shape, Jinson was all set to go after the 1500m qualifying mark this summer, but the virus poured water over all his hard work.

“I see this as winning and losing. Right now I have lost but I will return victorious soon,” says Jinson.

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