What Does Paralympic Strength Training Look Like?

Paralympians undergo rigorous training when preparing for the Paralympic Games. While the Paralympics only last about two weeks, getting ready takes place all year, as these athletes are among the most dedicated in the world. Here’s how people with disabilities prepare for their events.

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Jack Shaw

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How Paralympic Athletes Strength Train

Strength training is integral for success as a Paralympian. These athletes overcome obstacles and demonstrate grit and determination with their workouts. Here’s what some Paralympians endure when strength training.

Incorporating Targeted Exercises

Paralympic athletes prioritize workouts that target their niche. While they can benefit from whole-body exercises, these competitors often focus on specific parts.

For example, a wheelchair basketball player will focus most of their attention on upper-body exercises. These athletes could do Russian twists, seated rows, pullups, and other movements concentrating on their arms and core.

Another example would be a Paralympic athlete prepping for swimming competitions. The training depends on what type of competition they’ve entered — breaststroke, butterfly or freestyle. You can expect swimmers to focus on their flexibility and range of motion. These athletes may also do resistance workouts like tethered swimming.

Differentiating the Workouts

Consistency and repetition are crucial to improving a Paralympian’s performance. Practicing the same exercises aids their muscle memory and enhances their skills. However, these workouts can become stale, so occasionally switching up their routines is important to remain engaged and balance their muscles.

While switching up their routine is crucial, Paralympians should still focus on relevant workouts to boost their performance. They also might adjust the intensity of their regimen based on their training phase.

An older study from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined how 16 Paralympic swimmers trained for the world championships. The researchers found the swimmers increased their training in the late phase but reduced it substantially in the taper phase to avoid taxing their bodies too much.

Paralympians know this strategy as periodization. You adjust the training throughout the time leading up to your competition to prepare your mind and body. Periodization is critical for Paralympians to avoid injury by overtraining. A 2019 Frontiers in Physiology study says inadequate periodization can lead to chronic damage in muscle tissue.

Using Adaptive Equipment

Paralympians need special tools to assist their training, depending on their physical disabilities. Adaptive equipment helps these athletes get stronger and faster without risking injuries. You can see examples of adaptive equipment across the Paralympic Games.

For example, running blades help track and field athletes by making their strides more efficient. Manufacturers produce them with carbon fiber, making them resilient to hard use. The devices release energy while running, making it easier for Paralympians to navigate the tracks. Some athletes prefer curved blades to increase their range of motion and implement a more natural run during their performance.

Racing chairs are another example of adaptive equipment. Companies develop these seats to fit each Paralympian and their unique body shape. A few years ago, BMW designed a minimalist racing chair to enhance aerodynamics and stability for competitors.

Working With a Coach

The first step for Paralympians is to find the right coach. People with disabilities need unique coaching that is different from that of any other world-class athlete. Someone who understands them and their disability is crucial for proper training, safety and success in their sport.

The relationship between a coach and their Paralympic athletes is crucial. The coach is responsible for setting a strength training regimen and safely pushing athletes to their limits. They must also instill confidence in their athletes so they can perform at higher levels.

For example, volleyball coach Heidi Peters has been instrumental in Canada’s Paralympic team growth. While they narrowly missed a medal at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games, Peters’ athletes have lauded her coaching and motivational skills. Danielle Ellis, the team’s captain,
said Peters creates individual relationships and finds a way to motivate each player when training for the Paralympic games.

“She’s not stuck with ‘OK, we’re gonna run this because this is what other top teams do,’” Ellis tells the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “She says, ‘This is how our team moves. This is how we move. We’re going to do this instead because this is
going to make us better in the future.’”

Leveraging Technology to Improve Performance

Technology has become more integral to Paralympians with every Paralympic Games. Artificial intelligence (AI) advancements have made training easier by letting athletes visualize their venue during practice.

For example, cyclists employed augmented reality (AR) at the 2020 Paralympics to simulate their tracks while watching vital rates during training. The Paralympians also used wearable sensors to prevent heatstroke, considering the Tokyo Games were among the hottest on record.

More examples of improving performance come from using advanced technology to mitigate the risk of injury. A 2023 Journal of Sport Rehabilitation study examines what Paralympians and their trainers use to assess external training load and maintain high performance levels. Some examples include:

  • Internal radiofrequency-based tracking system for wheelchair rugby
  • GPS devices for wheelchair tennis
  • Heart rate monitors to monitor external load for paracycling and swimming
  • Miniaturized data loggers for wheelchair tennis, basketball and rugby

Other Ways Paralympians Train

Strength training is only one element of Paralympic preparation. Here are other critical pieces of the puzzle for Paralympians.

Preparing Psychologically

While physicality separates competitors, Paralympians must also psychologically prepare for the games. Training occupies a significant portion of your day, but the remaining days and hours leave athletes to wonder about their performance. Some may have anxiety or uneasy feelings heading into competition. These feelings emphasize the importance of coaches and their influence on athletes. A 2019 Cognition Brain Behavior study finds that Paralympians have psychological disadvantages in contrast to other athletes at the Olympic Games.

Combating these anxieties means visualizing their success, maintaining positive thoughts, and relying on support from their coaches and teammates. Some Paralympians find motivation by
reminding themselves of those looking up to them. Kadeena Cox, a cyclist representing Britain, uses her platform to inspire future athletes and wants them to outperform her.

“I totally expect there to be a young boy or girl seeing me and going on to be better than me, and that’s what I want to see,” Cox tells the British Paralympic Association.

Balancing Work, Life and Training

Paralympians focus much of their time on training for the Paralympic Games, but they have other duties to worry about in their daily lives. Most athletes have day jobs and families to support as they prepare. They’ll find time throughout the day to incorporate workouts — even if it means waking up earlier.

Finding Time for Rest

Training occupies many days and weeks for Paralympians, but they, like all athletes, must find time for rest. Most train at least five days a week, leaving just enough time for rest. During downtime, Paralympians use numerous tactics for recovery like massage therapy, which increases acute circulation.

Paralympic Preparation

Gearing up for athletic competitions heavily emphasizes strength training and muscle-building exercises. Paralympians use this same approach, but in a different way. Adaptive equipment, targeted workouts and advanced technologies have become excellent tools for Paralympic strength training in the 21st century.

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