How to train like a wheelchair racer

Lesson 2: The 10k pace ladder

Three-wheeled terrors, a thundering throng, the seated saviors of the marathon, Kurt Fearnley. Elite wheelchair racers have been called many things throughout history, and their mysterious lives have intrigued the masses.  They materialize en masse at major marathons, temporarily forcing the earth’s greatest cities to take a seat, before vanishing into the ether as quickly as they came. Many tales have been told of these citizens of circumvolution, but little is known about how you can become one.

In the premier edition of “How to Train Like a Wheelchair Racer” our humble narrator was bitter and bored after months of being forced to train indoors on the arm ergometer. With a sigh of relief strong enough to power your jacuzzi, it brings me great joy to announce the we’re back, baby! Not only am I back in the racing chair, training full-time and shedding the malaise of injury recovery, but I am back with a shiny new racing chair provided by the fine people of Nissin Wheelchairs in Japan.


After discussing with my coach, ad nauseam, how we were going to slowly reincorporate the racing chair into my training program, I decided to ditch all our plans after my second session in the chair. My first week back I did two chair sessions, decided everything felt great, and came back the following Monday having made up my mind that one week was the perfect amount of easing-in time and that I was ready for a full week of real workouts.

Don’t laugh yet. This was not actually the dumb part of my decision. The delinquency of my decision making process was made fully apparent not by the fact that I decided to jump in, full-throttle, on day three, but that I decided I was going to do my first real session back with a young racer named Daniel Romanchuk, who is the fastest up-and-coming wheelchair racer on the planet. And I legitimately thought this would work! Now you can laugh.

The session we were meant to be doing was one of my favorites, and theoretically, a good one to ease back into real training. We were meant to do a 10k pace ladder where we alternate between a 75% pace and an 85% pace. The ladder is as follows: 200m/75%, 200m/ 85%, 400m/75%, 400m/85%, 600m/75%, 600m/85%, 800m/75%, 800m/85%, 1000m/75%, 1000m/85%, and then back down the ladder in the same fashion, 800/800, 600/600, 400/400, 200/200. The purpose of this workout is to work just below and just above your anaerobic threshold, thus training your body to use fat as an energy source while working at a higher output level (Fat is a much more plentiful fuel source than carbohydrates, so athletes who have the ability to maintain a high output (faster speed) while continuing to burn fats instead of carbs will theoretically be better at distance races). The change of pace also acts in the same fashion as a fartlek would by taxing your neural pathways and challenging your body to efficiently utilize lactic acid while maintaining a relatively high level of work.

It is important to note here—before we dive into the five steps to completing a 10k pace ladder like an elite wheelchair racer—that in order to attain the prescribed benefits of this session one must have the discipline to limit your effort level and remain in the neighborhood of your anaerobic threshold (i.e. just under or just over). Should you, say, get a bit excited and, perhaps, maybe, work just a teensy bit too hard, hypothetically, of course, your body will shift into full anaerobic activity, you will start burning carbs, and you will not do much of anything to improve your ability to use fats as fuel. (You can figure out your anaerobic threshold in the first place by hooking your face up to an anabolic cart and working through a VO2 max test. The smart people running the test will then be able to determine the heart rate level that represents your shift from aerobic to anaerobic activity). This is just something to keep in mind. We are, of course, training like ELITE wheelchair racers and once you get to that level you always do your sessions exactly how they are supposed to be done.

Keeping this in mind, let’s jump right into the five steps of completing a 10k pace ladder like an elite wheelchair racer.

Warming up is a crucial first step to any effective workout, though warming up on the first day you are using brand new equipment is a far more exciting experience. Take a moment to admire your ride and maybe buff out a spot on the frame that doesn’t need buffing, just to look cool.

Brimming with joy that I was finally back in my racing chair doing a real session after two long months of forced leave, I could not stop beaming, or chattering during my first warmup back. The carbon fiber of my new chair glistened in the sun during its maiden voyage to the track, the cage of the frame hugging my body in all the right places.  For the first time in two years I felt absolutely no pain emanating from the ribs on my right side.
I was feeling good and everyone was going to hear about it. I hopped in Daniel’s draft when we got to the track, sticking right behind him as we went through our warmup routine and chatted his ear off the whole time. Note that when training with others it is important to make sure everyone feels involved and “part of the team” from the beginning to the end of the session.
 “Daniel, it’s so good to be back! This feels great! I’ve missed you! How’s life been? How do you feel today? How much more warmup do you want to do? You ready to train today buddy? Yeah? Let’s get going! You want to get going?”
Daniel, mind you, is more on the quiet, introverted side of the spectrum, and hadn’t had to deal with my blabbering for a long time. He began by smiling politely and trying to answer as nicely as possible and in as few words as possible before finally caving. After I began bugging him about whether he was ready to begin the session he calmly asked, “In your opinion, should everyone do the same workout, or are they individualized to a person’s needs?”
 I got the hint and shut up. Well played Daniel.
There is no point in training with others unless you are going to ruthlessly use them for your own benefit. Obviously then, Daniel’s role at this particular practice was to pull those currently slower than him, i.e. me, through the 10k workout. This being the goal of the session, again, obviously, it would follow that I would need to pester Daniel relentlessly about how he was feeling today and what speeds he thought he would hold during the 75% and 85% portions of the 10k. The speeds he thought he was going to hold being very important to me, as I may need to veto them if I deem them too fast or slow.
When following this logic, it also makes sense that you find yourself exasperated when Daniel responded, “Well, I don’t have a [bike computer] today so I’m going to go at 75% PER (“perceived exertion rate”) and at 85% PER.”
Thankfully, Amanda McGrory (she’s won a bunch of races and medals, look her up) pulled Daniel aside and gave him her bike computer. With that settled we got down to brass tacks and chose our high and low speed zones. Daniel was going to hold roughly 15mph for the 75% part of the effort and roughly 17mph for the 85% part of the effort.
Easy. No problem. I used to do that all the time.
As we have already discussed, this is a very important step in getting the full intended benefit of this session. This session is about pushing yourself, but only to a point. It is one of those workouts where you should always feel like you can go faster, and this is ok.

Though I haven’t done a VO2 test in far too long, I know that my anaerobic threshold should be somewhere in the low 170 bpm. Still delusional in my belief that I could hop right back into real training with fast athletes and be perfectly okay, I slid in behind Daniel, with Amanda tucked in behind me, to start the 10k. This pace used to be cake. Sure, maybe I’m a little out of shape after two months off, but it can’t be that bad. So went my thinking.

We began with 200m at 15mph, followed by a 200m at 17.5mph. My arms felt a little heavy, but I was holding speed. Nothing to worry about.

Then the 400s came and I found myself puffing. Already.

“So I’m a little out of shape,” I thought to myself. “No big deal.”

Then I glanced down at my heart rate. My bike computer may or may not have said that my heart rate was in the 180s. I don’t really know because at this point we were accelerating for our 600m at 85% and I was finding it difficult to focus on too many things at once. I probably misread it. There’s no way my heart rate was that high.

When we finished the 600s on our way up the ladder there was no longer a question that my heart was beating WAY faster than it should have been.

“Who keeps stealing my oxygen out of this damn air?!?” My brain shouted. Shut up brain.

A key skill to perfect in your mission to train like an elite wheelchair racer, is finding convenient excuses for your weak performances in training. No one makes it to the top without a strong ability to blame others for your shortcomings. This is one of the great lessons of our day.

My shortcoming on this particular day was definitely the fault of this runner who had the nerve to try and train on the track at the same time as us. If it wasn’t for her this session would have been much different. She was also probably stealing the oxygen out of my air, but I’ll pursue that later.

This is what happened:

I was gasping for breath and desperately trying to maintain my position behind Daniel as we reached the top of the ladder and began our 1000m at “85%”. The wind on the track had picked up and I had gone from passenger to driver of the struggle bus when we were finishing our first lap of the 1000. All of a sudden Daniel sits up straight, braking fast while shouting a “heads up!” in the direction of a woman who appeared to be running straight at us.

This may not entirely have been the runner’s fault, but I am going to point out that on this particular day, the homestretch of the track, where this athlete decided to train, only had lanes one and two open. The outer lanes were covered by stands for the previous night’s soccer game. I am also going to point out that we had gotten to the track first, and that the entire back stretch of the track was wide open, yet this athlete decided that she MUST train on the homestretch and completely ignored the fact that there was actually no room for her on that particular stretch.

After Daniel slowed down to avoid a collision and then accelerated to get back up to speed as we entered the turn, I struggled to match his maneuver. Two hundred meters later, when we hit the second turn, I was red-lining. I messed up the start of my turn and fell out of the draft again, this time going into a headwind. I churned my arms to catch up for about 100m, but was still about 10m off Daniel when Amanda accelerated past me. She may or may not have scowled at my blubbering, decelerating form as she went by.

I’m not going to say I could have stayed in the draft if not for the runner sharing the track with us, but I’m not going to not say it either.

After falling out of the draft into the headwind and having my pride forcibly ripped out as Amanda blew past me, my arms had reached their breaking point. With 400m left in the 1000 I need a breather.

While training to be an elite wheelchair racer you are bound to have sessions that will get the best of you. Sometimes you may even struggle to finish. In these moments it is important to remember that struggling to finish a session is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. It happens to the best of us. Quitting a session when you have more to give, however, is not fine (unless you are injured or at great risk of injuring yourself should you continue. Pushing stubbornly through injury will never do you any good).

I may have fallen off the pace and taken an easy lap around the track to regroup, but when Daniel and Amanda came back around to me I jumped in the draft line in time for my 800m at “85%” on our way back down the ladder. I was not feeling any stronger, and I had just barely caught my breath, but I managed to stay in the draft for the rest of the workout. I also managed to make it back to our training center before my arms fell off. For my first session back, this was a victory (I say now in hindsight. At the time, of course, I was a little disappointed in myself. Have you not been paying attention to my level of maturity to this point?).

While it my have been that rogue runner’s fault that you fell out of the draft during the session, it is still your coach’s fault for putting you in this position in the first place. That is why you must go and complain relentlessly. Complain about how he agreed that it was a fine idea to jump back into real sessions so soon. Complain about how hard that session was and how out of shape you are, and complain about the fact that your max heart rate for the session was 193 when your absolute max right now is somewhere around 196.

This may incite pushback, however and you need to be sure to ignore his judgmental stare as you bemoan the fact that your heart rate was within 90% of your max for nearly the entire 10k effort.  Do not pay any attention as he hints that you are an idiot for trying to stay with a guy who has been training his butt of in the racing chair prepping for the New York City Marathon and is absolutely in better shape than the you that has spent the past couple months lifting weights and spinning an arm ergometer. Your coach also doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he implies that you should have gone at a slower pace and actually done the session as it is meant to be done. He’s only the coach of some of the fastest racers on the planet. What does he know?

Exactly! Good job getting your point across. With a satisfied “harrumph” turn on your heel and flee his office before he can respond. You did it! You did a 10k pace ladder just like an elite wheelchair racer. Now go get some breakfast.

Chicago 2017 Preview

This preview was originally posted here:

Every October marathoners from across the globe are blown into the Windy City for the Chicago Marathon. As racers begin to trickle in throughout the week the cloud of nervous energy in the hotel lobby grows thicker. Athletes who haven’t raced each other in a marathon since April exchange greetings, enquire about families back home, and furtively prod for signs of how their competitors are performing. The telltale signs that we are on the brink of a big race are in the air. Kurt Fearnley’s hearty laugh echoes through the hallways, and Ernst Van Dyk can be found holding court every morning in the hotel lobby. The growing crowd of terrifyingly fast Japanese racers, and the propensity of orange and blue, as the team from University of Illinois, led by Adam Bleakney, doubles the field of wheelchair racers. And, if you are in the right place at the right time, a Marcel Hug sighting. Rarely seen in the lead up to the race, though his ghost is  ever present in any race strategy.

Unless you hail from Switzerland, this year’s Chicago Marathon, the third race in the World Marathon Majors Series XI, is of crucial importance. Manuela Schär has a commanding point lead in the series after dominant wins in London and Berlin, and her countryman Hug, last year’s Series X winner, secured his lead with an impressive victory in Berlin. Chicago is the world’s chance to respond and it is a race for the masses.

As the racers warmup on Columbus Dr. Sunday morning, the sun slowly crawling out of Lake Michigan to show the way, they will be preparing to navigate a serpentine city course tailor made for large packs and all the scary turns, tactical surges, and occasional mass confusion that they bring. Much like the London Marathon it starts fast. After a short climb over the Chicago River racers scream down Columbus Dr. into a hard right hand turn. Without fail, I spend the early part of every Chicago Marathon struggling to keep my breakfast down has I dodge potholes and hang on tight to avoid being spat out the back of a pack led by racers insistent on thinning the field in the first 10k. 

In the long straight sections through the middle of the race, you can typically find Tatyana McFadden, last seen with a huge smile and “happy to be here” attitude at the pre race dinner, has now been transformed into a three-wheeled beast with a distaste for pack finishes, hunting for any opportunity to surge and drop the field.

The men have a beast of a different sort on their hands. The long flat sections of the Chicago Marathon can lull a pack to sleep; the chaos of the start settles, and the stomach inverting intensity of the finish is still miles away. However, with the depth of the field increasingly annually, a pack of 15 plus racers will always be at risk of sneak attacks. While those mid-race surges are rarely likely to do more than shed a few racers off the back of the pack, if you are not careful you will find yourself working much too hard before the final 5k in a race that is ONLY about those last few precious kilometers.

Long, smooth, and straight, you turn onto Michigan Ave. with just under 5k left in the race. Here is where the real race begins. With four lanes to play with the pack begins to flatten out. The finish of the Chicago Marathon is one of the most intense in the world. After 3k of buildup on Michigan Ave. the course takes a hard right onto Roosevelt Rd. and the hardest climb of the day, up and over a bridge spanning a set of  railroad tracks, before plummeting to an off-camber left hand turn on Columbus Dr. for a furious 200m sprint to the finish. THIS is what decides the race, and even if your nickname is the Silver Bullet you damn well better have good position  coming into the bridge and be within spitting distance of first place when you make that left turn or you can kiss sweet victory goodbye. 

Chicago is for the masses. A racer with smarts and the guts to take a risk can upset the balance of power, and just possibly, put some Series XI pressure on our current leaders.


How to train like a wheelchair racer

Lesson 1: the stationary arm-crank


Three-wheeled terrors, a thundering throng, the seated saviors of the marathon, Kurt Fearnley. Elite wheelchair racers have been called many things throughout history, and their mysterious lives have intrigued the masses.  They materialize en masse at major marathons, temporarily forcing the earth’s greatest cities to take a seat, before vanishing into the ether as quickly as they came. Many tales have been told of these citizens of circumvolution, but little is known about how you can become one.

It is to this end that I begin a new series on, in which I, your humble narrator, delve into what truly makes a world-class wheelchair racer. In each addition to the series I will attempt to pinpoint one activity, training method, or skill that you need to accomplish this goal. I will then attempt to break down the steps that you will need to take in order to complete the task, or attain the skill. With any luck, if I do my job and you heed my words, we will all be able to become elite, world-class wheelchair racers.

I am going to begin at the bottom, with the lowest form of wheelchair racer training; how to train using an upper-body ergometer, otherwise known as a stationary arm crank. The stationary arm crank is an indoor piece of equipment that is basically a stationary bicycle rotated 90 degrees so you can use the pedals with your arms instead of legs. It is a sadistic piece of equipment designed by a person who gets excited reading legal briefs about traffic violations, 17th century English prose, and, probably, torturing kittens. Though not a traditionally common piece of equipment in most gyms, they are beginning to appear with alarming frequency. It is also a piece of equipment that I have spent almost every single workout on over the past six weeks.

The stationary arm crank is typically only used by individuals who are recovering from some manner of injury that prevents them from getting a cardio workout in any other way, like when you injure your leg and can't run, or bike, or row. Another example of when you would use the arm crank is when you are recovering from a minor operation to drain an abscess on your ribs that left a big gaping hole and prevents you from training in your racing chair while it heals. The typical wheelchair racer will hardly touch the thing, but I feel it is crucial that we accumulate a step by step understanding of how to successfully train using this most monotonous of devices.


Athletes must always be in tune with their bodies. It is important to maintain a healthy balance of physical strain and mental clarity in your training to maximize training effects and your overall joie de vivre.

For example, over the past two months I have asked myself this question every morning and have consistently gotten the same answer: 

"Hey josh, how's the body this morning?"  

"Man, I'm feeling fantastic! The sun is shining, I feel strong, and I'm excited to feel the wind blow the sweat from my brow. This is going to be great!"


Sometimes, however, you are forced to ignore your previously discussed wellbeing. Joy is but a fleeting memory on the arm crank and it is best to know this before you begin. For example:

"Do you still have a hole in your side?"

"Wellllllllllll, yeah."

"You know you are inside on the arm crank again, right? You know the sun doesn’t shine inside right? And the stationary hand crank is, you know, stationary? You realize each crank of the arms will be like nothing more than another paper cut that will, eventually, bleed you dry...right?"

“F*ck my life.”


Maybe you have a coach who has setup a program for you to follow, or maybe you have your own program you have devised out of the amazingness of your brain. In any case, after you have resigned to training on a hand crank, you then need to come to terms with the specifics of the workout.

A session on the hand crank, in principle, is no different from any other cardio session. Your workout will fall in one of three categories:

1. Short sprint intervals

2. Longer, pace-based intervals

3. Long steady spinning

Sprint intervals are short, sweet, little nuggets of pain. You are never working for a long period of time, but your rest is also short, and you are always working at 100% effort. One of my favorite nuggets of late have been five-minute blocks where you sprint for 15 seconds, then spin lightly for 15 seconds...repeatedly...for five minutes... then you rest for a few minutes and do it all over again.  You can mix it up, if you like, and go for 10 seconds on and 10 seconds off, or 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, though I would begin with more rest than work in the beginning, say 20 seconds on 40 seconds off, and work up to a 1:1 ratio. The point is to make you more explosive and drive your heart rate through the roof, improving your anaerobic threshold and forcing your body to learn to efficiently burn fuel and flush lactic acid. While you are doing this session you will definitely feel like the muscles in your arms are exploding. Despite only working at maximal effort for about 20 minutes, you will find yourself passed out on your couch with drool running down your chin a couple hours after you get home.

Longer, pace-based intervals are exactly what they sound like; long intervals based on a percentage of maximal effort. Longer intervals on an arm crank have the distinct advantage of leaving your arms aching while lasting long enough for you to begin questioning every choice you have ever made in your life that has led you to this point. An example of a longer interval workout is one in which you do 12 minutes at 80% of a max 12 minute pace (hard enough that talking is difficult, but not hard enough that you are forced to slowdown before the interval is over), followed by 2 minutes at 75%, followed by 10 minutes at 80% with 90 seconds at 75%, then 8 minutes at 80% with 1 minute at 75%, then 6 minutes at 85% with 30 seconds at 75%, and finally finishing with 4 minutes at 90% pace. The purpose of such a workout is to attack your anaerobic threshold from a different angle, train your body to more efficiently recover while still working at a reasonable level, and mentally prepare you to grind through slowly building lactic acid. Do the reasons why you are doing this session really matter, though? You're only on this arm crank because you are paying for the sins of a past life. No need to think too much about it.

A long steady spinning session, however, is when you have truly found the final circle of hell. Gone is the three-faced devil, gnawing on the most remarkable sinners of our days, and in their place is a solitary arm crank, your home for the next 90 years... I mean minutes... of your life. The premise is simple. Pick a watt output that you can hold for 90 minutes and start spinning, the goal being to increase overall work tolerance. Should you choose this form of torture be prepared to have your mind numbed while you work and your body numbed for whatever remains of your post-workout day.


This is VERY, VERY important. Your choice of auditory distraction can be the difference between catatonic boredom and  a merely blasé workout. I tend to couple my sprint intervals with either loud and fast music, or a sports podcast that allows my brain to tune in or out without missing a beat. For longer intervals I aim for a podcast with a bit more narrative, or an audiobook. However, when it comes to those 90 minute bore fests, I'm still working on the right solution. This week I think I'll try playing a podcast through my headphones, while blasting music through a speaker, and putting a football game on the TV. Maybe I'll invite in a circus troupe to perform as well. That just might carry me to the finish line with my sanity intact. 


Now that you are mentally prepped and have your workout mapped out, take a seat at the crank and get spinning. I suggest a 15 minute warmup that starts out pretty slow and gets moving a bit faster every five minutes. This is also a good time to train your arms to both push and pull to smoothly complete a revolution. This may seem like a simple concept, but wait until you are in your third set of sprint intervals and the arm crank begins to rock side to side as the uncoordinated noodles extending from your shoulders fail to remember what shape a circle is.

Step Six, the Bonus Step: COMPLAIN TO YOUR COACH

After your session is through, it is important to remember why we put ourselves through that nonsense in the first place. That’s right, it’s your coach’s fault. A session is never complete until you have released a fury of words upon your coach in which you begin by talking about how miserable that workout was before diving deep into your pit of self-loathing fury as you lambast your inability to rise above the challenge, chastise yourself for being a horrible athlete, and conclude by collapsing into the feelings of failure fetal position. You can choose to end your email with a more uplifting note that shows your coach you aren’t a complete head case. Maybe ask about how they feel your training should be adjusted in the weeks to come based on the outcomes of your latest sessions. That, however, is up to personal preference. 

Regardless of how you choose to sign off, word-vomiting on your coach is a must. It is truly the highlight of their day and you must not deprive them this simple joy. 

En Fin

With that, ladies and gentlemen, you are now one step closer to your goal of being a world class wheelchair racer. Bon voyage.