Amanda McGrory was just five years old when she woke up one morning unable to walk. It took weeks of tests and visits to numerous hospitals before she was finally diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an inflammation in her spinal cord that led to the paralysis of her legs.
Struggling to accept what had happened to her, McGrory withdrew, even refusing to eat for a period. That's when her parents discovered the Variety Club of Philadelphia, a sleep-away camp for children with physical disabilities. Meeting other people who shared similar struggles was life-changing, and ultimately led to the discovery of wheelchair sports. She went on to receive an athletic scholarship from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, playing wheelchair basketball and racing in track and field.
Since then she has won seven medals over three Paralympic Games (Beijing, London and Rio), and won more than 25 marathons including New York City, London and Los Angeles. On Oct. 8, she took second place by a fraction of a second in a photo finish at the Chicago Marathon, and she'll head to New York next on Nov. 5.
McGrory shared one of her conditioning moves for building the upper body strength it takes to propel a racing chair across 26.2 miles in a little over an hour and a half:
The move: Technically it's an adapted stair climb, but some of my more dramatic teammates like to call it "The Stairway to Hell."
How to do it: I start suspended from the ceiling by my ankles on a cable that is attached to a track. Starting from the bottom of the stairs, I climb up and back down on my hands, usually as fast as possible, for a set amount of time. There are also a few variations of the exercise, including one where I stop and do a push-up on each step.
When I do it: During the marathon season, most of my training is done in my racing chair. I get a lot of mileage in doing very sport-specific sessions. I save the majority of my gym workouts for the off-season (from November-February). During that part of the cycle, I do a lot of strength and power workouts, and that's where the stair climbs fit in. Oftentimes, I do it as a part of a circuit workout where the climbs are timed. For example, I'll do 4 by 30 seconds with 1 to 2 minutes of recovery.
Why I do it: Getting into the gym is a great break from the stress that the racing chair puts on my body. It's also an opportunity to focus on core strength and specific lifting exercises that will translate well to racing chair performance -- and a chance to mix up my workouts and keep things interesting. It allows me to focus on the skills and strength-building that is difficult to accomplish in the racing chair, and to come out of off-season ready to perform on both the track and road.
Why it's so killer: Have you ever tried climbing stairs on your hands while suspended from the ceiling by your ankles? It might look easy, but I promise, it HURTS.