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.