Wheelchair-racingThink marathons are just for super athletes who’ve spent their lives training? Think again. Take Amanda McGrory – America’s current top female wheelchair marathoner. She entered her first marathon on a bribe a year ago, and if you’re like her, entering a race could be your first step toward winning the ING New York City Wheelchair Marathon.

“Desire is the most important factor in the success of any athlete,” American jockey Bill Shoemaker once said. Do you have that desire to stretch your physical boundaries, to watch the road disappear beneath your wheels, to race beside others who are driven by the same desire that drives you, with a view of the finish line ahead?

Desire may be most important, but it isn’t the only factor that makes an athlete successful. Adam Bleakney knows – in the last five years, he was the champion in three marathons and the runner-up in two, with a personal best time of 1:30:53 (2005 Grandma’s Marathon, Minnesota).

Bleakney shared with us his expertise – not just from 11 years of marathon racing, but also from training and competing in the Paralympics and from his career as the head coach of the wheelchair track and road racing squad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When we asked him what newcomers should do to prepare for a wheelchair marathon, Bleakney suggested they focus first on stamina.

“This is achieved by long, steady-pace training sessions that primarily tax the aerobic energy system. These sessions will improve economy and stroke efficiency.”

His second suggestion for wheeling a marathon was to train for multiple pace and effort changes, with routines such as “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.”

Bleakney said that at this level, diet wouldn’t need to be modified beyond what is generally recommended, although athletes should keep in mind the importance of keeping their energy levels up.

What needs to be done as the marathon approaches?
“I like to have all controllable variables squared up the night before,” he said. “Examples are having a spare tire attached to the racer, making sure the water bottle is working correctly, or taping race numbers on.”

As for the morning of the race, Bleakney suggests giving yourself extra time.
“Say I get down to the hotel lobby and discover I’ve forgotten my gloves in the room – I want enough time to avoid stress or, worse, missing the race start. Breakfast should be whatever you can tolerate and definitely a food you’re used to eating, even if it isn’t condoned by a nutritionist.”

Bleakney has four key pieces of advice for during the marathon: “Carry a sports drink with you – PowerAde, Gatorade, etc., make sure your brakes work, glue your tires on, and use common sense.”

Physiologically, training for a marathon is similar to training for the Paralympics track and field, but that’s where the similarities end.
“There are different needs for the road than there are for the track, mostly within the skill side. So, for example, being able to burrow into a tight gliding position on descents is a needed skill for the road, but it’s of little need on the track,” explained Bleakney, who won silver in the 2004 Paralympics.

“On the track, reaction time and chair control are in far greater demand than on the road,” he said, adding that it should come as no surprise that sharpening for the track is also different than sharpening for the road.

Currently, he’s training for the 2008 Paralympics to be held in Beijing, China.
“My training regimen is built around a six-day a week cycle, and has been for the past 11 years. The weekly focus changes according to the time of year and the specific competition schedule,” he said.

Keep the training as simple and specific as possible to the event – that’s Bleakney’s main principle. Not only has this advice proven successful in his racing career, but he’s also seen its effectiveness for his students.

If you feel the desire to race, put Adam Bleakney’s advice to the test and recognize all that you’re truly able to achieve. Perhaps the crowd on the horizon is waiting for you, and the flag in the distance is the finish line.