Biomechanics of Push-Rim Wheelchair Racing

As I prepared this piece I had the opportunity to talk with Adam Bleakney, head coach of the University of Illinois’ Wheelchair racing program. If you are unfamiliar with the world of push-rim wheelchair racing, the University of Illinois is the National Training Center and has helped produce results for athletes like Tatyana McFadden (multiple major marathon winner and Paralympic gold medalist) and Daniel Romanchuk (this year’s Boston Marathon winner; becoming the first American male to do so since 1993).  We talked about their approach to strength training, how to structure the entire training plan to reduce the risk of overuse injuries, and what makes their program so successful. Combining Bleakney’s wisdom with a review of the current literature, we’ll cover how to apply the science into training.   

There are many moving parts involved during the stroke of push-rim wheelchair racing. Due to the repetitive nature of the motion, the posture involved, and the frequency and volume in which these athletes train, strength training emphases should be placed on not only muscular endurance to maximize performance but also on strengthening and mobilizing the musculature that support the primary movers.


In the chair athletes are in hip flexion and lumbar and thoracic flexion (lower and mid-back rounded). To maximize the length of the stroke and the power that can be generated, athletes extend the shoulder with the elbows tracing back behind the ribcage, swing forward with some upward rotation of the scapulae, and then drive down and back through a forceful Tricep Extension to propel the chair forward. This motion is repeated hundreds of times over the course of a race.


While the elbow traces behind the body, the shoulder goes into anterior humeral glide and over time (without the proper care) the head of the Humerus can irritate the front of the shoulder joint. While this is inevitable from a technique standpoint, soft tissue work on the Pec major and strengthening of the rotator cuff can help combat some of the symptoms and long-term risks. While the biomechanics are straightforward in terms of what muscles are involved in the stroke, assembling a comprehensive training plan must take several factors into consideration.

Approaches to Strength Training

The demands of push-rim racing is interval in nature; hard efforts, whether it be accelerating to reach a certain speed or to ascend a steep climb are followed by periods of coasting. Therefore, maximal strength and power endurance become training qualities that are heavily desired. If you’re able to increase the size (hypertrophy) or force capabilities of a muscle, you will be able to hit higher speeds, handle climbs more easily, and be operating at a lower threshold of your muscular capacity when racing at a given pace (an overlooked key to muscular endurance). However, strength training focused on hypertrophy can negatively effect immediate race performance so it would have to be scheduled accordingly.

Bleakney typically stays away from this type of strength training and focuses on either High Velocity/Low Load or Low Velocity/High Load movements. Their facility uses the same technology we have at Unified, PUSH Bands, to measure velocity. The high velocity movements are performed around 1.0 m/s whereas the low velocity movements move at 0.2-0.3 m/s. These readings can be used to assess an athlete’s level of fatigue and adjust training loads and rep schemes accordingly. All in all, strength training shouldn’t just focus on size and power ouput of the primary movers but also on strength in the antagonist muscles to reduce the likelihood of injury.

Push-Rim wheelchair racing heavily taxes the Anterior Deltoids, Pecs, Triceps, Forearms, and Lats. Since logging a lot of miles in the chair is demanding on this musculature, from an injury prevention standpoint, strength training should target the muscles of the upper back, specific mobility, and adequate recovery. Since athletes typically have designated competition seasons, training needs to be periodized. This means that during certain phases of the year, a specific training quality should be addressed; and as competition season approaches, the emphasis on absolute strength and power may shift to endurance qualities. At this time, training hours should be dedicated mostly towards time in your chair and specific protocols to recover between workouts.

Approaches to Sport-Specific Training

Sport-specific training refers to time in the chair. Strength training can play a role in any sport but nothing trumps sport-specific skill. There is a significant skill component to endurance sports that often goes overlooked and adapting to the demands of wheelchair racing is most effectively accomplished by logging miles in the chair. Similar to how we program for runners, you have to understand the demands of the race you’re preparing for. Primary factors to consider would be distance, elevation changes, and temperature. If you want to perform your best at a given race, you better be exposing yourself to the demands that you’ll meet on the day of competition.

In addition to steady state work to build aerobic capacity, Bleakney stresses the importance of training for various paces and change in effort, “pushing yourself above your lactate threshold climbing a hill and then resting on the descent. Fartlek, or a workout of informal pace changes, best addresses this demand, as does structured interval training”. From other endurance sport research (on runners), a training split of 80% easy and 20% hard is recommended. This should align well with the aforementioned suggestions.


In summary, when training for push-rim wheelchair racing:

  • Strength training should be periodized so you can improve maximal strength and power in the primary movers (chest, shoulders, triceps) during a period of the season that won’t interfere with race performance

  • Training should equally emphasize strengthening the back/rotator cuff muscles to reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries

  • Stretching and soft tissue work to address mobility restrictions is also important in injury prevention

  • Longer, steady state rides can be used to build aerobic capacity, technical proficiency, and being comfortable in the chair for extended periods of time. However…

  • Interval workouts (hills, sprints, fartleks, etc) are incredibly important to prepare for the demands of racing