Brandon Lyons working out at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Olympic and Paralympic athletes may have the same goals, but how they go about improving their strength and conditioning in order to reach them can be drastically different.
That’s where the staff at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee comes in, and the key to developing the best programs for Para athletes requires collaboration and adaptability, and the knowledge that no two athletes are identical, according to Strength & Conditioning Coach Sam Gardner.
“I think therein lies the art of what we get to do on a daily basis as strength and conditioning coaches,” Gardner said. “We’re only limited by our creativity. Many of our adaptations come from the athletes themselves. They’re the ones living with their own challenges, so I feel it’s smart to include them in the process and find out what the best practice is to overcome the roadblocks they deal with on a regular basis. Then once we figure out something works well, we have that in the toolbox to draw from with another athlete that might have a similar challenge in the future, but everyone is unique.”
Over the last decade there’s been such an increase in the level of competition in elite Para sports, both nationally and internationally, that strength and conditioning has become much more important than it used to be, Gardner said. Gone are the days when an athlete could rely on talent alone, show up and expect to do well.
“Athletes need to prepare year-round now,” he said.
Gardner was also sure to shout out coaches Katie McCloskey, Cecil Brown and Gustavo Osorio for their critical help in developing U.S. Para strength & conditioning.
Brandon Lyons became the first handcyclist invited to become a full-time resident at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2017. It was the first time, he said, that he learned how to train for his sport rather than training in the gym to be an overall athlete.
“One thing about Sam is he’s willing to think outside the box,” said Lyons, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “When you’re in a wheelchair not everything works as you think it might when you have this idea. It may be a great idea, but you have to figure out how you actually do it. We have open communication, so I’ll come to him and say, ‘This is what I think I need to work on,’ and he’ll translate that into what will work in the gym to help me perform on the bike. His flexibility and willingness to try to adapt has been really key for me.”
Evidence of that flexibility can be found in photographs online from a recent Men’s Health feature in which Lyons is shown performing dips while strapped in his wheelchair with a chain wrapped around his neck for even more weight.
“Sam has been open to trying different things,” said Lyons, who’s in the gym three days a week during the offseason and two days a week during the season working on strength training, speed and explosiveness training, and support and accessory work. “I found video of a guy doing this and was like, ‘Let’s see if we can do this.’ Dips came easy, so how do we add weight and do different things? That gave me a little more freedom, which is good. We do it with pull-ups as well, and are trying to take some stuff from gymnastics, too, so leveraging that into using the rings.”
Two-time Paralympic alpine skier Tyler Carter is a below-the-knee amputee, and although he says they never make unnecessary modifications to his workouts, sometimes an adjustment here or there is necessary.
“One of the biggest things for me is since I’m missing my leg below the knee when I’m doing deadlifts or squats the femur on my right side where I’m missing my leg is shorter, so my knees aren’t even,” he said. “It took some time to figure out the best way to combat that because, if I’m out of alignment, that’s not doing me any favors because that can lead to back issues. I did a lot of work with the staff here and we discovered if we put this relatively thin plate under my left leg it brings my knees up and evens them out.”
Another thing they noticed, he said, was when he was pressing in from the heels on his prosthetic side, he didn’t have the range of motion in his ankle, so the staff ordered a wedge that they now put under his heel.
“I’ve gone from having a relatively OK lift, nothing to brag about, to being able to move some weight because now my body’s in the right position to power through it,” he said. “It’s something I never would have discovered on my own but through teamwork with me, the staff here and the coaches on the ski team we were able to come across it, fix it, and it’s made a difference.”
Paralympic swimmer Sophia Herzog has been a resident in Colorado Springs for five and a half years and in working with Gardner and his staff the past year and a half, she said, they’ve worked on taking off some of the muscle mass she put on in years prior to make her leaner in the water. They’ve also been working on her coordination in the water.
“When I first started there wasn’t even a Para strength and conditioning coach,” said Herzog, who was born with a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia. “There was quite a bit of turnover for couple years then the big jump was making a full-time position for a head strength and conditioning coach. Having someone who knows how to work with Para athletes and be able to tailor specifically to our sports as well has made a difference.”
One thing a lot of people outside Para sports don’t understand, Herzog said, is that half the battle is finding the right workouts to not only improve strength and conditioning but also keep athletes’ bodies safe and healthy in light of the specific challenges they face compared to able-bodied athletes.
Gardner said the staff stresses understanding the injuries that are prevalent in each sport as well as the athlete’s injury history before delving into a workout plan. In general, he said, there are more similarities than differences between training able-bodied athletes and those with disabilities, but there are different considerations when it comes to injury-prevention health.
“Let’s take a seated athlete, for instance, who already is stressing and using their shoulder joints and may get 68,000 strokes going from session to session not including using those joints, ligaments and tendons in training,” he said. “Then you look at the chair, and the human shoulder is not originally intended for locomotion so there are stresses on joints that are somewhat different that you have to take into consideration.”
Making adaptations doesn't mean making the workouts easier, however. When it comes to how hard Para athletes train and what they’re able to do in the gym, Gardner said there are still misconceptions. Some people are still surprised to learn that Para athletes train just as much and just as hard as their able-bodied counterparts.
Just look at Carter’s Instagram, where he often posts photos of his workouts, including a circuit he and the trainers designed for cardio that resembles an obstacle course.
“I’ve definitely shocked some people with my training,” he said. “People are like, ‘What?’ But we train our butts off. Every athlete trains their butt off, but Para athletes not only have to train to compete at that elite level but are also dealing with different challenges or disabilities and have to train that as well to make sure to stay as strong as they can. I see so many different athletes in the gym doing so many incredible things and it’s always exciting to see if it’s something I can incorporate into what I’m doing.”