Why Handcycles Can Be A Sit Skier’s Best Offseason Friend
by Alex Abrams
Josh Sweeney has seen different parts of the country this summer while riding around on his handcycle.
The two-time Paralympian made his way over gravel roads in Utah and Idaho — with not much around him but blue skies. He also cruised to a third-place finish at the World Triathlon Para Cup Long Beach in California in mid-July.
Like other sit skiers, Sweeney gets on his handcycle as soon as he gets off snow and starts his offseason training. The former sled hockey star spent at least six hours a week handcycling last summer, often traveling along the roads around Boise, Idaho.
“Especially with as serious as my Nordic skiing training went last winter, it feels good to just be able to get out and do some new things, different things, and that way when I come back I can refocus,” Sweeney told USParaNordicSkiing.org last June.
Sit skiers have long used handcycling as a way to stay in shape in the offseason and enjoy a change of pace from their usual ski-focused workouts. They can get outside and go for a ride on their handcycle, covering miles of flat surfaces and hillier terrain.
In late May, Ty Wiberg, a promising Para Nordic skier, shared on Instagram a photo of himself handcycling on a paved bike path in Montana. He added the comment, “Summer training started right.”
“As cross-country skiers, we are pretty unique. We’re on snow such a small amount of the year,” said BethAnn Chamberlain, a development coach with U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing. “So we can do a lot of cross-training, and in that cross-training, our goal is to increase strength but also aerobic fitness. And we can do that in a lot of different ways.”
Oksana Masters, a 17-time Paralympic medalist and the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time, understands the benefits of handcycling. She’s a multi-sport star who transitions from Nordic skiing in the winter to competitive cycling in the summer.
Masters won a pair of gold medals in cycling at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, joining a select group of American athletes who have earned a gold medal at both the Winter and Summer Paralympics.
Chamberlain said handcycling is beneficial for sit skiers because it allows them to continue training in the offseason while avoiding injuries that can come from overusing their shoulders throughout the year.
“It’s a little change in motion, which is great. And in cycling, it adds some variety to some training,” Chamberlain said. “There’s a lot of training hours involved in cross-country skiing, and (cycling) helps build aerobic base. You’re still getting more fit, and that crosses over to the winter to when we’re on snow and racing. And so it’s a fun way to add in more training while also avoiding some overuse injuries.”
Chamberlain said Para Nordic skiers can benefit from taking handcycles out on both flat surfaces and hillier terrain. It just depends on what their goal is for that particular workout.
If athletes want to get in a basic workout to maintain their endurance, then Chamberlain said they can keep it easy and stay on flat surfaces.
However, if athletes are hoping to get in a certain amount of “climbing” during a workout to prepare for the hilly courses they’ll face during the Nordic skiing season, then Chamberlain recommended they handcycle on steeper paths.
“Sometimes it’s just, ‘I need to get out and I need to get a two-hour workout in, and this is a trail that’s close by,’” Chamberlain said. “So that checks the boxes. So we try to use it all but be strategic with when we’re doing it.”
In the same way that Para Nordic skiers get their sit skis customized to fit their bodies and abilities, they must find handcycles that work best for them. The better the fit, the better the ride.
For example, Sweeney helped fix up a handcycle for Jordan Valentine, an up-and-coming Para Nordic skier, to use for training.
“There’s a lot of different positions that you can ride in, and I think it does take a little bit of trial and error in different positions and different setups to figure out what’s the right one for you,” Chamberlain said. “And then ideally, people can get their own setup, so there they have it all the time.
“Like everything in the Para world, equipment is generic to start and you kind of have to try everything and then slowly customize.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordicSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.