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.