Among the many things that set Avinash Sable apart is the fact that he has been to the Olympics already and yet hasn’t made his Commonwealth Games debut.
In his debut Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Sable is set to compete in the 3,000m steeplechase as well as the 5,000m race. He came to the Commonwealth Games hot on the heels of competing in the finals of the 3,000m steeplechase at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in the United States of America. He was an automatic qualifier for the final by the virtue of finishing third in his heat and finished a respectable 11th though his timing was not something that would have made him happy as he clocked a time significantly slower than his personal best and also season’s best in the event, which stands at 8 minutes and 12.48 seconds.
Even in the 5,000m race, Sable has had a good run this year and posted his personal best timing of 13 minutes and 25.65 seconds. To top it all, Sable also holds the national record for the fastest half-marathon which he set at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020. He blazed through the course and smashed the national record for the half marathon by three minutes with a timing of 1:00:30, finishing first among the Indian elite and 10th overall.
The 27-year-old didn’t manage to progress past the qualifying heats and was absent from the finals, so the World Athletics Championship experience of running against the best in the world and ending up as the 11th fastest in the world in that race—no small achievement—should have done his confidence a world of good. And the hurt of not being on the podium is likely to spur him on in Birmingham on Saturday, August 6, when the men’s steeplechase finals are scheduled to take place.
On the national level, there is no better steeplechaser than Sable at the moment and it can be argued that he is the best in India. Sable was the first Indian since 1952 to qualify for the steeplechase event at the Olympics. Also, he not only holds the national record in the steeplechase, he has, in fact, bettered his own record almost every time he has gone out and raced.
Performing at this level with that kind of consistency takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, discipline and training. So focused is Sable on his training that he doesn’t even agree to talk to the media or give interviews and leaves that part to his coach, Amrish Kumar.
Sable, the son of a farmer from Beed in Maharashtra, has an Instagram account with more than 57,000 followers and despite his trailblazing achievements and rubbing shoulders with elite athletes, follows only 63 people and has 114 posts.
Kumar, the veteran coach who has trained Olympians including Nitendra Singh Rawat and Kheta Ram for the marathon, has worked closely with Sable on his long-term goals, and the two came up with a training plan accordingly. “We focused on improving Sable’s endurance, strength and technique. We scheduled 12 sessions a week, including three for rest and recovery. There were four sessions for endurance, three for strength-training and one session each to work on running speed and steeplechase technique,” Kumar says.
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.
Sable’s training included skill and speed work due to the highly technical nature of the steeplechase. Kumar worked with Sable to increase his speed and improve his hurdle and water jump techniques. The training plan included long runs of up to 30km for a 3 km race.
“Running long distances is crucial even for runners who specialise in the middle distance races. The long runs help build endurance base and improve the VO2 Max, which is the body’s capability of absorbing oxygen during exercise. The higher the VO2 Max, the better one can perform. A strong endurance base and high VO2 Max improve speed endurance, which in turn improves speed and that improves athletic performance,” observes Kumar.
Sable didn’t only train at the sea level but also did extensive altitude training—something that most world-class runners do to improve their stamina, speed and endurance. Sable has done a lot of his altitude training in the Niligiri Hills of Tamil Nadu in the picturesque tea estate town of Coonoor at a height of 1,850m. “Hill training has a great impact on an athlete’s strength and endurance. Running long distances in the hills improves endurance while running uphill is great for increasing strength. There were body weight exercises during the strength sessions to improve Sable’s upper body and core. At the beginning of training, we go for high repetitions and as the competition comes close, we start tapering, gradually reducing the repetitions. Typically, we would start with four sets of 25 push-ups, 15 pull-ups and 25 sit-ups. Sable also did a lot of lunges,” said Kumar. One exercise Sable didn’t do during altitude training was squats because the form is compromised at high altitudes, explains Kumar.
Though Sable’s main event involves running just 3km on a track, his weekly mileage over the four endurance sessions, even in the hills, used to be pretty high. Mondays and Tuesdays used to be particularly hard, with Sable training twice a day. There would be another day in the week when Sable had to train twice in a day and that depended on his rest and recovery schedule. According to Kumar, on Mondays Sable’s schedule had a 15km run at a pace of 3 minutes 45 seconds per km. This was followed by a 20km run on Wednesdays at a pace of 4-4 minutes 10 seconds per km. In the next endurance session, Sable would run 10-12km at a pace of 3:30 to 3:40 per km. The week was capped by interval training, including kilometre repeats. “He used to run 2km repeats four times at a faster pace with a recovery break of 90 to 120 seconds,” says Kumar.Only a handful of people of the 1.3 billion in India can set national records in more than one event and then go on to break one of them multiple times. Even fewer end up being the 11th best athlete in the world in any race. And that doesn’t come easy. It takes training and hard work. The skill, speed and strength are forged in those hard runs and sessions in the gym. No matter what happens at the Commonwealth Games, Sable has earned his records and the right to hold his head high for putting in the hard work.