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The Priyadarshini Park and Sports complex at Napeansea Road, has a bit of history: This is where Mumbai’s first Olympic quality running track was laid in 1992. It’s also where actor Farhan Akhtar is working his way through a unique challenge—to get the look and feel of an Olympic sprinter for his portrayal of Milkha Singh in the forthcoming movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Singh is as close to a sprint legend as it gets in India. He missed out on a medal at the 1960 Olympic Games, finishing fourth by a microsecond. For Akhtar to capture the nuances of a world-class athlete is no small matter. An Olympic sprinter is the very definition of athletic prowess, a combination of incredible agility, impeccable technique, and staggering muscular power. It takes years of training to build both the body and the technique. Akhtar had less than a year to get to a convincing imitation of the real thing.

The quest started in a small school ground in Bandra, with his personal trainer and sports nutritionist Samir Jauri, 46, and sprint coach Melwyn Crasto, 40, who trained the 2010 Asian Games 3,000m steeplechase gold medallist and Olympian Sudha Singh.

“There was no short-cut method of getting him to look and perform like a professional athlete," says Jauri. “We just trained Farhan like one. For more than a year, Farhan lived like a top sprinter training for the Olympics."

Milkha Singh. Photo: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images
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Milkha Singh. Photo: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

The sprint training was divided into progressive phases. The fundamentals—building strength and agility in the hips and ankles, getting his knees to go high, making sure he landed on the ball of the foot and drove his heel back smoothly, getting his arms locked close to his sides—all the details that make a sprint biomechanically efficient, were drilled into him first.

“We worked on the gait and the exact stride length right till the end of the shooting," Crasto says, “An Olympic athlete must have perfect grace and rhythm, every stride length has to be the same once he’s hit cruise speed."

Back in the gym, Jauri kept Akhtar away from traditional gym-training methods, and focused on functional training. “We started by developing strength and endurance in every muscle," says Jauri, “and then progressed to building explosive power."

Weight training was centred around compound lifts like deadlifts, lunges and squats, which build overall strength and muscle mass. There were lots of plyometric sessions—for example, continually jumping on and off a box—to improve explosive strength. CrossFit and circuit training (where you do lots of different kinds of exercises one after the other without a break) was introduced. Boxing was thrown into the mix to improve footwork, arm speed, and endurance. The objective was always the same—to be able to squeeze out as much power from the muscles in as little time, and to be able to do that repeatedly.

“The training was divided into three 2-hour sessions a day," Jauri says, “and Farhan’s diet was monitored for portion size and nutritional quality every day. He ate six to seven meals spread through the day; only complex carbs, lots of animal protein and whey shakes, and heaps of fruits and green vegetables."

For Akhtar, the training was not just physical. It also gave him insights into the mind of the athlete.

“When you look at an athlete entering a stadium in any sport," the actor said over the phone, “they look like they own the place. This state of mind, this swagger, can only come from your self-belief as an athlete, and the self-belief comes from hard training. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as energetic and strong and optimistic as I felt during the making of this film."

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Farhan Akhtar

“Technical speed training was the final part of the programme," Crasto says. “It puts the most stress on the body, so we first built him up so he could withstand that."

Akhtar was taken through the nuances of the exact 400m sprint, broken down like this: From the starting block to the first corner is the acceleration phase, approximately 120m, when the focus is on generating power. Then the back straight, 110m of holding a steady speed while conserving energy, where the runner is fully upright. The next turn is another acceleration phase, for around 90m, aimed to slingshot you out of the corner and into the home straight, where you do a flat-out sprint in the last 80m. Every one of these phases is crucial—go upright too early in the first phase, and you’ve lost your starting power, spend too much energy in the cruise phase and there will be none left for the final flat-out.

“When you come into the final 100m or so," Akhtar says, “your brain begins to feel like it’s going to blow up. Every part of your mind and body is telling you to just stop, your legs have packed up. I have no idea how athletes speed through that final section."

Throughout the training process, Akhtar craved for a timed 100m sprint, just to see how fast he was, but Crasto did not oblige.

“I realized later that he was building the hunger in me," Akhtar says. “He wanted me to really want it, he wanted me to keep getting faster, so that finally when he did a time trial, I would be at my best."

“Farhan’s progress was amazing," says Crasto. “Just when we had started training, he could run the 400m in 55.9 seconds. Not bad for his age. At the end of the training, it had gone down to 55 seconds. Just incredible."

Coaches and athletes say Akhtar’s got the look right, though sports physiotherapist Heath Matthews, who has worked with India’s top Olympic athletes, says Akhtar’s physique looks less like the lean and lanky Singh in the 1960s, and more like a modern sprinter’s.“If Singh was running now, he would need more muscle bulk and strength," Matthews says.

Singh himself paid Akhtar a visit at the training ground, towards the end of the programme. “I was shocked to see how well he was running," Singh says. “He looked like me. His body was like an athlete’s, and he was sprinting like an athlete."

Singh’s own training back in the 1950s and 1960s was a world apart from Akhtar’s detailed, fastidiously monitored regime.

“In our time, there were no coaches, stadiums, money, or equipment," Singh says. “I was trained to be fit by the army coaches, but they had no idea about scientific sprint training."

In 1956, when Singh went for his first Olympics, he was dazzled by the talent on display. He had crashed out in the first qualifier, a good 2 seconds behind the average timing of 47 seconds. After the 400m finals, Singh went to speak to the winner, US athlete Charles Jenkins. Singh didn’t know a word of English then, so he took his roommate, triple jumper Mohinder Singh, as translator. Jenkins spent hours with Singh, writing down in great detail a daily programme of strength and conditioning and sprinting exercises, including Interval training charts, and compound lifts.

Once back in India, Singh, who still keeps those pages with care, put the programme into effect. When he ran into obstacles, like not having access to a gym, he improvised—squats and lunges with a friend on his back, or using the elevation of Raisina Hill in New Delhi for uphill sprinting. “Every month I did a time trial," Singh says, “every month my time was improving. In two years, I went from 49 seconds to 47 seconds."

It was still not enough for an Olympic medal, though Singh came heartbreakingly close in the 400m final at the 1960 Games. It was won by US sprinter Otis Davis, who broke the world record, setting the first sub-45 second timing ever for the event. Germany’s Carl Kaufmann, who finished second, was also credited with a 44.9 second finish by the hand-held timer, the same as Davis, though a tenth of a second separated them in the auto-timer. South African Malcolm Spence finished third with 45.5 seconds and Singh fourth with 45.6, his best-ever time.

Much has changed in Olympic sprinting since then.

“The biggest evolution has been in our understanding of general fitness," says Matthews. “Years of research has gone into which exercises work best and when to do them, how to incorporate nutrition, physio, medical intervention, the track on which you are running, shoes—the same way cars and computers have evolved since the 1960s." At the 2012 Olympics, the gold medal timing was 43.94 seconds.

“Farhan had access to this modern method," Matthews says. “He has the financial capacity to afford a specialized programme. Many of India’s top athletes don’t have these facilities—neither the financial resources or the expertise."

Crasto agrees that it’s a struggle to get national athletes under him the same kind of year-round expertise, training and nutritional facilities. India’s sprinting record at the international level is abysmal, and hardly any athletes qualify for Olympic sprint events. The last time an Indian man ran the 400m at the Olympics was in 2004, when K.M. Binu broke Singh’s 44-year-old national record with a timing of 45.48 seconds in the qualifiers, before crashing out in the semi-finals.

“Our training is haphazard," Binu says. “When we have camps before big events, foreign coaches come in, and there is some structure to the training. The rest of the time, we are just doing things on our own." Binu, who still competes, says the training is not individualized either, and technological aids are almost non-existent.

More than 50 years after Singh’s audacious run at Olympic glory, India is still looking for a sprinter who can work up some serious speed.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag releases in theatres on 12 July.

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