Using specificity and resistance training to improve wheelchair athletes

A new study looks at the benefits of low-volume and strength training

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Traditionally, wheelchair athletes have placed a strong emphasis on habituating technique through high-volume training, the idea being that they could then compete in a range of events from 100m to the marathon. However, increased participation numbers and improved coaching mean that track events are becoming more competitive. For British athletes to remain successful in paralympic competition there may be a need for an increased emphasis on specificity. This case-study focuses on the benefits of event-specific resistance and sprint training for two pre-elite wheelchair athletes.

In the past, wheelchair athletes when sprint training have used the same programmes as able-bodied sprinters. These sessions involved high volume training with a large number of repetitions performed during a session with little recovery. More recent training programmes used by sprinters concentrate on low-volume training and long recoveries between repetitions with a major emphasis on quality work. This type of quality training was undertaken by the athletes involved in this training programme.

Originally thought to be detrimental, resistance and weight training has now been shown to improve functional ability and mobility for people with physical disabilities (Laskowski, 1994). However, wheelchair athletes in sprint and endurance events have placed little or no emphasis on resistance training as part of their programme. Reluctance has centred on the traditional myths surrounding weight training.

The athletes
The parents of a 17-year-old male and a 14-year-old female gave their written consent to participate in the study. The male subject was diagnosed with sacral agenesis, sometimes referred to as sacro-coccygeal agenesis or caudal regression syndrome. This is a congenital malformation syndrome of hypo- or aplasia of the caudal vertebra with developmental defects of the corresponding segment of the spinal cord. The male subject had malformed and atrophied legs, his knees were fused at the joint and he was paralysed from midway down the lower leg. The subject was able to perform limited hip flexion and very minor hip extension. His main means of ambulation were through the use of his wheelchair, although he frequented 'walked' using his arms.

The female subject was diagnosed with myelomeningocele spina bifida (lesion L3) which is characterised by the failure of the posterior aspect of the vertebrae column to form, resulting in the seepage of the meninges and spinal cord. The subject was paralysed from the knees downwards. She was capable of hip flexion and adduction, but was unable to perform hip extension or abduction. Her means of ambulation predominately involved the use of a wheelchair.

The tests
Resting measurements of height, weight and blood pressure were taken. Body composition was estimated by taking skinfold measurements from four sites (subscapular, suprailiac, biceps and triceps). Anaerobic fitness was assessed using an adapted 30 s armcrank Wingate test using a load of 0.04 kp/ kg (Foster, Hector & McDonald, 1995). Mean power output, peak power output and fatigue index were recorded. A pre- and post-100m time trial was conducted (accurate to 0.01 s). Muscular endurance was assessed using three exercises (bench press, pull downs behind the neck and dips/ press ups). For the bench press and pull downs a 6 RM was used as this has been recommended for children rather than using a 1 RM (Kraemer & Fleck 1993). The dips (for the male subject) and press ups (for the female subject) were performed to voluntary exhaustion. Three-quarter press ups were used for the female subject as she was unable to perform dips.

Training programme
The subjects then participated in a nine-week training programme before being retested. This consisted of sprinting and resistance work. Exercise selection was based on analysis of wheelchair sprinting biomechanical needs, energy source utilisation, development of muscle balance and an analysis of sites which were common or susceptible to injury.

Sprint training
The track sessions typically started with a long warm up (1200-2400m) and ended with a long cool down (800-1600m.). These were used to help develop an aerobic base and to habituate movement patterns. During the second phase (strength phase) these distances were reduced. Maintenance stretches were performed after the warm up period and developmental stretches after the cool down period. Maintenance stretches lasted 12-15 seconds, whereas developmental stretches lasted over 30 seconds. Emphasis was placed on stretching the muscles around the shoulder joint, triceps, wrist flexors and extensors, chest and upper back. 'Striders' were then conducted over 100m. These are sub-maximal efforts which progressively get faster during each repetition. During this period emphasis is placed on developing pushing technique.

Typically 6-9 repetitions were performed during track training. Distances ranged from 30m.-400m. Although both subjects were tested over 100m., they both competed at 100m. and 200m. and therefore the track training was tailored to meet these needs. Various track training techniques were used and are summarised here:

1) Interval training: Subjects performed repetitions over various distances with either active or passive rest between repetitions. During high-quality speed training long passive rests (5 minutes) were given to promote full recovery. During a lactate tolerance session work relief was given, normally over set distances.

High-quality session: 60, 80, 100, 120, 140, 160 m. (five minutes recovery between repetitions).

Lactate tolerance session: 150 (220 work recovery {wr}), 180 (190 wr), 210 (160 wr), 240 (130 wr), 270 (100 wr), 300.

2) Tempo training: Repetitions are arranged into sets with each set comprising various distances. The aim of this type of training is help avoid over-pacing during longer runs, mixing speed work with over-distance work. Long recoveries are given between sets to promote full recovery.

Set 1 - 130, 120, 40 slow wheel back recoveries
Set 2 - 80, 30, 60 slow wheel back recoveries
Set 3 - 30, 50, 110 slow wheel back recoveries

3) Tyre pulling: Tyre pulling was performed over 20, 30 and occasionally 40m to help develop strength and power for the initial parts of the race. These sessions were used along with tempo training and mixed repetition with and without the tyres in the same set.

Set 1 - 150, 90, 60
Set 2 - 30 (with tire T), 30, 40T
Set 3 - 40, 30T, 60

4) Overspeed training: This type of training allows the athlete to work at very high intensities at speeds slightly above maximum with less maximum power output (Eriksson & Steadward 1992). This was achieved by performing repetitions with the wind at the athletes' back and starting repetitions off a rolling start.

5) Handicap racing: Finally, towards the end of phase one and during phase two handicap racing was used to motivate the subjects to perform maximally. Here subjects race over similar distances with one athlete given a head start. Cones were used to mark the head start. When a subject 'won' a race, their cone was moved back one space.

Resistance training
It has been suggested by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Academy of Paediatrics that children can benefit from participating in a properly prescribed and supervised resistance training programme. The main benefits are increased muscular strength and endurance, prevention of injury and improved performance capacity in sport (Kraemer & Fleck, 1993).

Research into the effects of resistance training and athletic performance in wheelchair racing in children and young adults has been scarce. O'Connell, Barnhart and Parks (1992) reported that the distance pushed during a 12-minute test was significantly improved in six children with disabilities following an eight-week upper body circuit weight training programme. They also reported that after training there were significant correlation between eight upper body 6 RM scores and 50m sprint time and between seven upper body 6 RM scores and the distance pushed during the 12-minute test.

The training programme in the present case-study was devised into two distinct phases. The first six weeks consisted of a conditioning phase where typically 3 sets of 12 repetitions were performed. The final three weeks was a strength phase where typically 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions were performed. This seems quite a high number of repetitions for a strength phase; however, it was deemed appropriate for the subjects because of their age. Considering problems such as balance during some of the exercises, it seemed more appropriate in terms of safety and developing the subjects' confidence to use eight repetitions.

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