How Paralympians Train: Interview with Sean Halsted

Chelsea LittleJuly 31, 2012
Sean Halsted trails Dan Cnossen in the 12 k sit ski at 2012 U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine.

With the 2012 Paralympics starting in London in roughly a month, adaptive athletes who compete in summer sports are putting the finishing touches on their trainings. And winter athletes, too, are hard at work, training just as intensely as their able-bodied counterparts, if a little bit differently.

This spring in Bend, Oregon, FasterSkier chatted with Sean Halsted, a veteran member of the U.S. national team who finished seventh, ninth, and tenth in the sit-ski races at the Vancouver Paralympics. A college rower at Washington State who went on to join the Air Force, Halsted fell from a helicopter in 1998 and was paralyzed from the waist down. He started skiing in 2001 and is now one of he team’s stalwarts.

It’s no secret that sit skiers need an efficient and powerful double pole to get around a race course – and then best move very, very fast (in 2011, FasterSkier posted a video of Halsted starting U.S. Nationals). But besides adapting technique to best accommodate the different angle with which they plant their poles, adaptive athletes are also challenged by coming up with a training plan that prepares them physiologically without wearing out a few key sets of muscles.

The following is an edited excerpt from a longer interview.

FasterSkier: Do you do the same kind of periodization that the able-bodied skiers do throughout the year?

Sean Halsted: Yes. And the interesting part is trying to mirror that on the adaptive side, with how much volume is good volume is good volume, how much strength is good strength. For example, we’re talking about doing a great workout, but then you need to do an alternate workout [in the afternoon] using the same muscles? You can’t go for a run. You can’t switch it up to do the lower body. It’s all upper body.

FS: What’s a typical workout for you guys in the spring here in Bend?

SH: Out here, we try to get on snow and maximize that snow time. There’s a lot of that technique that you have to get down, and a lot of us just don’t have it. It’s not so much – I’d like to say that standing on skis is a lot harder than a sit ski, but there’s things about that sit ski that are harder than standing. And I think part of what that comes down to is the frustration level, in that you see a hill, and my hill is nowhere near what a standup skier thinks of as a hill. Turns, a standup skier doesn’t even think of it as a turn, but I think of it as a challenge. So you have to be comfortable with how that ski works on a downhill, on an uphill, what does the pole plant mean, you have to have a much more efficient double pole than a standup skier could get by with.

FS: So you’re just trying to get as many hours on snow as you can?

SH: Pretty much. You’re trying to maximize that with your strength workouts and your endurance workouts. You’re trying to do it on snow, and then saying, okay, you just did a strength workout, do you have enough strength in your arms to do something in the gym?

FS: If you’re skiing a lot in the mornings, what do you do in the afternoons?

SH: It’s been nice because the Athletic Club of Bend has opened their doors for us, and they have also been very accommodating. You basically go in and they ask what you want, and they try to make it happen, which is really cool. We’ve been at places before where the place wants to be accommodating, but how? They don’t know what you need, so they just wait for you to ask, and you don’t know what they have to offer. Maybe it’s a hotel and they say they have a weight room, but their weights are ten pounds and the room is the size of a closet.

So having the gym in town, they have a big weight room, they have cardio stuff that we can use, they have a SkiErg. It just gives you so many opportunities. They have tennis courts, even. Not that we’d play tennis, but it’s a big flat surface that you can use, and that you can’t really replicate anywhere else. They have a pool, which is what I’ve found is one of the best cross-training things. I’ve really fallen in love with swimming.

FS: So is it just based on how you feel each afternoon, you have to figure out what your body is capable of doing?

SH: They give us a schedule, and then you do a little bit of, “what can I do?” Yesterday was an alternate workout, just an easy workout, something. So I went in and went swimming. And then I meandered and saw what was available, and did some stretching.

FS: It sounds like the coaches aren’t always telling you exactly what to do – like you have to make some of those decisions yourself.

SH: Since I started [with the national team] in 2006, we have gone through three different coaching staffs, so each time they have to be introduced to what adaptive sport is. You think you can just take a coach from anywhere, and it doesn’t always work that way. There’s a lot of figuring out that goes along with this and what is expected of you is very vague. As an athlete you get vague feedback, and you’ve got to be able to find a way to stay in a positive place, not just a positive attitude but positive towards success, towards exertion and all this, so that you are doing the right thing at the right time, and not overexerting yourself or underexerting yourself.

FS: Do you feel like doing it since 2006 is long enough that you can do that for yourself?

SH: It’s still a challenge. You find enough that you now know that you don’t know anything, whereas before you were just basically ignorant, but you didn’t know it. But I think I do have a pretty good handle on a lot of stuff and what needs to be done. Having said that, there have been people on the team who just have that brain for the physiology that just puts me to shame. So I don’t want to say that I have bested them by any stretch of the imagination.

FS: What was your athletic background before you picked up adaptive skiing?

SH: In high school, I joined the cross country team to get myself in shape for soccer, and that’s what I ended up focusing on, cross country and track. And in college, I was a lightweight rower. When I joined the Air Force I went into a career field where we had to be selected. So it’s interesting to go from the performances with cross country where it’s still exertion, but it’s for a finite amount of time, and rowing the same sort of thing, to the Air Force where you have to extend that exertion over a much longer period of time, so you cannot do a max effort, but there’s no water breaks…. it’s a different kind of exertion.

FS: Does that help you mentally in skiing?

SH: Yes. Oh yes. And I’ve seen that in some of the athletes that we’ve tried to recruit, where they’re like, “oh, I gave it my all,” and, no, not so much. But it’s not their fault. They grew up differently. Some of the kids who have grown up with a disability have never been challenged because they have never been given the opportunity to be challenged. They don’t have any equals.

So I do think I have a good concept for it, and obviously there are people who have a stronger sense of competition and always have to be first. There were a couple guys on the team who retired in the last two years who were like that, they had to be first for everything. I wasn’t like that. But I loved being with them, and I liked being on their coattails, and pushing them and having them push me.

FS: Can you use a rowing ergometer?

SH: We can, depending on our level of injury. Most of us can, but we’re doing arms-only. For me, it’s very frustrating as a rower. It’s one of the reasons that I’m not rowing. People keep asking me, well why didn’t you go into adaptive rowing? It’s because I know what I can do, and I can’t do that anymore. But it’s still an alternative workout, so you’re using other muscles.

You wish – people are on bikes, and you want to jump in with them, but you can’t. You want to go play basketball, and you can, but it’s totally different in the chair. One guy on the team wanted to play ultimate Frisbee, and it seemed awesome, but you can’t use a chair in the grass. We could play on the tennis courts, but the other thing we have to watch out for is that our everyday chairs are not designed for sport. So we can have some very big spills. We could be dumping ourselves out of our chairs, and the last thing you want to do is break your chair.

FS: Coming from being a lightweight rower, you must have had to bulk up a lot to do this, huh?

SH: Actually no. But I am allowed to eat, which is different! It’s kind of a similar body mass. The difference is that we did a lot more squats, and now it’s all upper body.

FS: Do you do weights?

SH: Yeah. We try to do as much as we can. And that depends on what equipment is available that allows you to do those things. Can your chair fit into that frame or rack or apparatus? And then for a lot of us, it has to do with the ability to transfer [in and out of the chair] or not. It limits some people – they might have an athletic mind, but because their body makes it so hard to get around, they can’t attain the level that they could be.

We try to work a lot on the lats and that pulling motion, without overdoing the muscle on one side. Dips are a good example. You can’t just go to a dip bar because a lot of us can’t stand, so how do you get up to a dip bar? And then you’re up there, but you’re maxing out, so finding those machines that allow you to do those things is important. It’s fun… you don’t want to be the guy who’s saying “I can’t do that.” You’ve got to have an open mind about how to do as close to an exercise as possible. That’s what having coaches helps you with – you can easily shut yourself down, or go on the wrong track because you’re sure that something is great for you, even when really it’s not. They can help with finding the things that will work, and then are you doing them correctly. So finding something that mimics a pull up, or working on curls to counteract all of those triceps and the pulling down and a way motions. Plus we try to focus on the core.

FS: Yes, I assume that would be really important.

SH: For some of us, it’s really easy to say, okay, well I don’t have any core so I can’t use it. And that’s true, but, you have something. What we need to do is to get your brain to stop thinking and just start reacting. So all these balance things, like the balance ball and stuff like that are actually pretty good because it makes you do stuff that you don’t think you can do. Or you’re firing a muscle that you don’t think will help, like one that’s way up high on your stomach, and it can be doing the job of the one down below that you don’t have.

FS: So you’re creating new ways to achieve the same thing.

SH: It’s amazing – that’s one of the things that blew my mind. You’re watching guys that have a higher level injury, so theyir function is a lot less, maybe where they’re neurologically functional is right below the chest line, so they have no abs whatsoever, but they’re on their ski doing stuff that you never thought you could do, and you have abs.

A really good exercise for us is kayaking, actually. It teaches you about the core, and you’re going, I have to stay up because I don’t want to get wet, so you’ll do whatever it takes to stay up. And then next thing you know you’re firing muscles that you didn’t know about.

FS: That’s a cool idea for motivation.

SH: You can throw a ball at somebody, and they’ll say, well, I’m just not going to catch it. It will bounce off the wall. But in a kayak, they can’t just say no.

FS: It seems like a lot of the training is very individual for each of you. Is that a challenge?

SH: It is. It’s a total challenge, because we want to go off what is tried and true, but what is tried and true works for the standup athletes. There’s all kinds of literature about it, and we don’t have that. We have to come up with something that mimics that without doing it wrong. There are so many things that we could do that wouldn’t be right because we would overwork something. And then as well you have to play around with the level of injury and what is possible for this person. So there’s a lot of the coach coming up with an idea of what needs to happen, that he knows from his experience and research, and then okay, how does that apply to Sean, how does that apply to Jeremy, how does that apply to Dan. There’s a lot of flexibility. Which opens the door for somebody to either be complacent, or go too hard. It’s a balancing act all around.

Chelsea Little

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