It’s afternoon and the players are famished. The buffet spread at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Nagpur is lavish—tropical salads, Punjabi, Chinese, Italian, and a live counter serving street food.

At the centre are around 10 extremely calorific desserts, chief among them the gulab jamun, a favourite in the kabaddi community. It’s widely regarded as a great food to refuel muscles after an intense practice session or game.

Polish physiotherapist Oliwia Witek was horrified. “It was like World War III. I changed everything," says Witek, explaining how she overhauled the diet and workout systems that kabaddi players usually adhere to, before and after a match.

Witek is the head physiotherapist for debutants Gujarat Fortune Giants in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) season that started 28 July. She also works with the Polish American-football team and assisted Poland, India and Iran during last year’s kabaddi World Cup.

She met Fazel Atrachali while assisting the Iranian team. The Iranian, currently one of the best kabaddi defenders in the world, was picked up by Gujarat at the player auctions for PKL’s season 5 and recommended her name to Gujarat.

It wasn’t easy to convince players to tweak their diets.

“The Indian players were tired all the time. They didn’t use any supplements in the off season. The fat they were eating was bad fat like milk. When I told them about avocado, they were like, what? Most of them understand now but I am not God, so I cannot change everything," says Witek.

Oliwia Witek, head physiotherapist for the Gujarat Fortune Giants. Photo: Courtesy Pro Kabaddi League.
Oliwia Witek, head physiotherapist for the Gujarat Fortune Giants. Photo: Courtesy Pro Kabaddi League.

The PKL is changing player attitudes to the sport and fitness. They now know more about recovery plans, injury prevention exercises, diets for a tournament, stability and mobility training.

Witek herself initially had numerous arguments with the coach, Manpreet Singh. Ahead of the training camp held at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Gujarat from 15 June-24 July, Witek had to deal with multiple injuries—some of the Indian players had been inactive ahead of the camp.

“If you want, you can be like Cristiano Ronaldo. I can change your body but I cannot easily change your mind. But if you’re Indian and I am a girl from Europe, it’s hard (only 20% of the players understand English). My sense of humour helps," she says.

Gujarat captain Sukesh Hegde, who played for Telugu Titans last season, weighed 87.7kg before the training camp. He’s now 83.2kg. More importantly, his fat percentage, which was on the higher side—17.5 %, now stands at an impressive 11%.

Hegde can now run quicker. He initially clocked 13 seconds for a 100m dash. He can now do it in 11.3s.

“None of my players has suffered a major injury so far. We had injury-prevention programme before the tournament. The result is that our players are in good condition, they are not afraid of anything," Witek says.

Sangram Manjrekar has been with Puneri Paltan as a fitness and conditioning expert for three seasons. He works for ProSport, a training facility founded by former Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan.

“We started our pre-season camp two months before competition (from 6 June at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune). I don’t think any other team started their camp so early. Our average team weight is 82kg, even though the limit is 85kg. We allow cheat days, especially after a crunch match," he says.

The nature of the sport requires players to operate at an optimum level in multiple areas—endurance, speed, power, flexibility and agility—which is why Manjrekar focuses on functional movements.

Strengthening the core is one of his major objectives and Puneri Paltan players swear by Tabata Training. One of the many variants of the high-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout, it was invented by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata.

The core transfers energy from the lower body to the upper body. Since kabaddi is an extremely physical sport, strengthening the core becomes crucial, especially when a raider clashes with a defender. Sudden changes in trajectory can be effectively executed only with a rock-solid core.

The players perform 10 exercises continuously, with minimum rest in between. Forty seconds of activity are followed by 20 seconds of rest before they move on to the next exercise. Three minutes to complete an entire circuit are followed by two minutes of rest.

Speed is an essential factor in kabaddi. On the mat, players are required to cover short distances within seconds.

“Players do 50m and 80m sprints. Since a raid only lasts for 30 seconds, we sometimes ask the players to do 30-second sprints. A raider burns more calories than a defender. It depends on their position, so it’s better to look at their daily load," explains Manjrekar.

As in any other sport, recovery plays a vital role. Season 5 of the PKL will continue till 28 October, so players need to take care of themselves. Ice baths, swimming and massages form part of the programme for this.

“Before Pro Kabaddi, players used massages only for recovery, that too only once in six months to a year. It was difficult to change their mindset during season 1. They felt it was okay to simply jog for 1-2 hours and do Surya Namaskars. Some of them have won Arjuna Awards so they felt no reason to change. This was their definition of fitness but now it has changed," says Manjrekar.

Puneri Paltan captain Deepak Niwas Hooda is one of the fittest players in the league. His fat percentage has come down from 22% before the pre-season camp, to 16%. According to the latest recordings, Hooda clocked 2.70 seconds for a 20m sprint, compared to 3.15 before the camp began.

“My fitness was always good. Most of the players eat from the hotel buffet but what’s important is what you eat from it.

“I try and avoid sweets, I eat fruits instead. We lose a lot of weight and energy while playing, so gulab jamun sometimes is okay. But I drink badam milk and a protein shake for recovery," says the 23-year-old.

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