Dr Matt long and David Lowes spend time with Britain's greatest ever Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who provides an insight into the unique pressures of the Paralympic games.
In a glittering career that spanned 14 years between Seoul in 1988 and Athens in 2004, Tanni Grey-Thompson won a staggering total of 16 Paralympic medals, including 11 golds. She held over 30 world records and won the London Marathon six times between 1992 and 2002.
Tanni tells us that, "Training in a Paralympic year should not be materially different from training in a year where the Games do not take place. It is the same approach in terms of periodisation". She tells us that the main problem that athletes may face is "the added pressure that a Paralympic Games brings". This kind of pressure can lead to what Quinn (2011) refers to as 'overtraining syndrome'. To avoid this Team GB's Paralympic athletes may utilise a variety of tests of recovery. One such tool is the orthostatic heart rate test, developed by the Finnish Professor of Exercise Physiology Heikki Rusko. While researching Olympic level cross-country skiers, Rusko advised athletes to do the following:
According to Rusko, rested and recovered athletes will show a consistent heart rate between measurements. Still, the researchers found a marked increase (10 beats/minutes or more) in the 120 second-post-standing measurement of athletes who were deemed to be in danger of exhibiting overtraining syndrome.
Having graduated with a degree in Politics from that centre of sporting excellence, Loughborough University in 1991, Tanni tells us that, "A Paralympic village is a bit like being at University when you live in halls". She maintains that time management is paramount. "Our athletes will have lots of dead time that they perhaps do not when they are at home, so keeping your discipline is important". Sleep was pivotal for Tanni as she asserts, "As long as I am not cold I can sleep anywhere. I used to be able to take a pillow and blanket and even get some sleep at the track before the competition!" While not necessarily advocating this method for all Team GB Paralympians the point about sleep as an inherent mode of recovery is well made.
Research by Cheri Mah (2009) of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has demonstrated that getting more sleep leads to better performance for athletes across a range of sports. In monitoring the Stanford University women's tennis team for five weeks and varying their sleep patterns, it was found that those athletes who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than those who had less sleep. In particular, slow-wave sleep is crucial for Team GB athletes, because it facilitates the release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland, which is situated at the base of the brain. This, in turn, stimulates a range of physiological effects including muscle growth and repair, fat burning, and bone building.
In terms of managing performance anxiety, Tanni warns our Team GB Paralympians of the need to, "be careful who you share an apartment with. Getting the right roommate is important. I was not the most friendly of athletes at times, and I think people respected that. I was lucky to be able to say, "Right guys, can you leave me alone at the moment". This is where your team managers come into their own in deciding which athletes are compatible to room with each other". In addition to the above, Tanni tells us that planning when to eat before a performance will be crucial for our Paralympians. "I used to be sick a lot before I competed. I just could not stand food in my stomach. I used to live on Complan before races! Often, I would get up in the night to eat and then go back to sleep. Our Team GB athletes need to plan their eating arrangements meticulously".
According to British Athletics coach educator Brian MacKenzie (https://www.brianmac.co.uk/eatcom.htm), a pre-competition meal should be high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat, protein, and fibre. Bean (1993) notes that breakfast cereals, porridge, bread, rolls, rice cakes, boiled rice, potatoes, yams, boiled pasta, dried fruit, oatmeal a,nd wholemeal biscuits may be appropriate. This comes with the additional suggestion of eating a small amount of carbohydrate food (approx. 50gms) with a high glycaemic index just before the competition. According to Jenkins (1981), break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream.
The Paralympic stadium
Tanni warns our Team GB members that a key difference between Paralympic competition and other events is that, "Ordinarily you get the call up 20 minutes before the start of your event, but with a Paralympics, it may be more like a 45-minute call, so the timings are different. With added security measures which will be in place in London, our younger athletes, in particular, need to be aware that their whole day will be filled with one race". Grey-Thompson was an athlete who was stimulated by the uniqueness of a Paralympic arena.
In developing what has become known as Optimum Arousal Theory, Hanin (1997) argued that each athlete would achieve peak performance if their level of arousal or competitive anxiety falls within their optimum functioning zone. She reminisces, "It is not like competing in front of one man and his dog when you have got 70,000 pairs of eyes watching you. I loved the sheer thrill of it. I would not say I competed better, but I loved the aftermath of being in the stadium". When asked to assess who will be catching her eye in Stratford this summer she confesses, "I hate picking out individual athletes as they will all have enough pressure on them to perform in front of a home crowd. I will be looking out for Dave Weir and Mickey Bushell on the track plus Scott Moorhouse and a fellow Welsh athlete, Nathan Stephens in the field events".
In featuring the career of David Hemery in this magazine on 7th June, we argued that athletes could be both telic (goal-focused) and paratelic (process-focused). In alluding to the Reversal Theory of Apter and Smith (1975), internationally respected coach educator Peter Thompson (2006) made the point that while shifting between these two opposites, that athletes could have a preferred modus operandi. Coached by husband Dr Ian Thompson, It would appear that Tanni was a paratelic dominant athlete because "I just focussed on counting to 20 in my head and pushing. I could not go beyond 20 because by then, I was going dizzy! In the sprints, I always used to imagine competing by visualising a fence down the sides of my lanes. Rather than thinking about winning, I had to be process-focused because with wheelchair racing your cadence changes with each section of the race. It is dependent on both the head and tailwinds. The technique is vital for our wheelchair athletes. You cannot go short and jabby".
After her fourth Games in 2000, Tanni finished third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, behind five-time rowing gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave. In being unable to join Redgrave and runner-up Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis on stage due to unwittingly discriminatory platform design, Grey-Thompson presented a public challenge to us all to consider the potential of our exclusionary behaviour. At 42, as well as acting as patron of numerous charities, she is today a non-executive director for British Athletics (2007), sits on the board of the London Marathon (2007) and the Board of Transport for London (2008). She is Chair of the Women's Sports and Fitness Foundation Commission on the Future of Women's Sport. Her breath-taking work ethic is encapsulated in an inspirational autobiography, aptly entitled "Seize the Day". This motto is at the heart of her parting shot to Team GB's Paralympic hopefuls. "I do believe we will have a very strong team," she says with confidence. "I had the privilege of competing in the Commonwealth Games on home soil but to go to an Olympics in your home country will be unbelievable"+.
In a nutshell, I would say "Enjoy it because it will go in a flash". After you turn your television off as the Paralympic flame flickers out on Sunday 9th September, if you have spent the past 12 days watching athletes who happen to have a disability rather than disabled athletes, then Baroness Grey Thompson will have left a legacy far greater than the sum of 11 Paralympic gold medals and her being unable to join both Redgrave and Lewis on a BBC stage some 12 years ago will not have been in vain.
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long is a British Athletics Coach Education Tutor. David Lowes is a former international athlete, Level 4 British Athletics coach, and Coaching Editor of Athletics Weekly.