School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


two researchers watching a wheelchair athlete on a treadmill

Disability sport

Our research explores the physiological and technical aspects of disability sport to ensure optimal performance is achieved at designated points throughout the training cycle.

It takes an applied sports science approach in consultation with many of our leading athletes and coaches at a Paralympic level, with the aim of disseminating knowledge to sports performers and practitioners at all levels.

Recent projects:

Ergonomics of wheelchair/handbike configuration for optimum sports performance

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Dr Barry Mason, Dr Tom Paulson

PhD student: Ben Stone

Project Description

Manual wheelchair propulsion and handbike locomotion are affected by the physical characteristics of the user, the wheelchair/bike and the interaction between the two. With regards to the user, different propelling strategies and techniques are adopted to suit the requirements of the task. Many of these factors can be affected by the configuration of the wheelchair. With regards to the user, different pushing strategies and techniques are adopted to suit the requirements of the task. Many of these factors can be affected by the configuration of the wheelchair/ bike. This research programme is designed to firstly help further understand the possible underlying mechanisms of the low efficiencies in manual wheelchair propulsion and secondly to determine the effects of different wheelchair/bike configurations on performance.

Collaborators: Professor Lucas van der Woude (Center for Human Movement Sciences, University Medical Center Groningen)

Sponsor: EIS/ EPSRC

Thermoregulatory response of wheelchair athletes

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Prof George Havenith, Dr Tom Paulson and Dr Christof Leicht

PhD student: Katy Griggs

Project Description

Athletes with a spinal cord injury have an impaired thermoregulation, which can have a detrimental effect on performance. Although the extent of this thermoregulatory impairment is not fully understood. Any cooling strategies that can reduce/ delay the increase in body and/or skin temperature during exercise, particularly in the heat, may enhance sporting performance. Effective cooling strategies will be paramount at the next Paralympics in Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. This research programme aims to further understand the thermoregulatory responses of athletes with a spinal cord injury and investigate appropriate cooling methods.

Collaborators: Dr Mike Price (Coventry University)

Sponsor: PHF


Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Katy Griggs, Michael Hutchinson, Dr Keith Tolfrey

PhD student: Ben Stephenson

Project Description

Paratriathlon is due to make its Paralympic debut in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games competing over the sprint distance of 750 m swim, 20 km cycle and 5 km run. Although the disciplines are the same for the Olympic athlete (but distances different), the training principles aren’t directly transferrable. The short history of the sport means that effective training principles for the paratriathlete are still being developed, and there’s very little applicable published data in the area.

Sponsor: British Triathlon Federation

Project PRISM - Para-athlete Retirement: Insights, Support, Management

Loughborough University collaborators: Dr Andrea Bundon, Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Prof Brett Smith

Project Description

Athletes retire from sport for a number of reasons. Some leave sport having achieved their goals and ready to pursue new opportunities. Others have ‘unplanned’ retirements due to injury or deselection from the team. Whatever the reason, the Performance Lifestyle Practitioners at the English Institute of Sport endeavour to support athletes in their transition ‘out of sport.’ To date there has been very limited research into the retirement experiences specific to para-athletes (including changes in impairment classification, elimination of events/sports from Paralympic programme, acquiring a secondary impairment, etc.). Additionally there exists no research exploring how para-athletes fare when pursuing post-sport employment (important considering that 46 percent of disabled people in the UK of working age are unemployed or under employed). This research programme is designed to firstly investigate the conditions under which para-athletes leave sport (survey methods) and secondly to explore in depth their experiences of leaving sport and transition to other careers (qualitative interviews).

Collaborators: English Institute for Sport (Performance Lifestyle team)

Sponsor: PHC/EIS

Application of Ratings of Perceived Exertion to regulate exercise intensity during upper body exercise

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Dr Tom Paulson

Project Description

Exercise programs are traditionally implemented by prescribing an intensity to the participant. This is usually based on objective measures such as power output, speed, or heart rate corresponding to a certain percentage of the participant’s maximal capacity. An alternative method by which to prescribe exercise intensity is using subjective measures of perceived exertion (how hard a participants finds the exercise). This allows the participants to self-regulate their work rate, whilst maintaining a set level of perceived exertion. Applied to a training programme this approach has the potential benefit in that it gives the ownership of the work rate to the participant, potentially increasing the adherence to the training program. This project aims to investigate the efficacy of using subjective measures of perceived exertion to regulate exercise intensity of upper body exercise and whether they are a viable alternative to objective measures.

PhD student: Michael Hutchinson

Collaborators: Prof Roger Eston (School of Health Sciences, University of South Australia)

Sponsor: PHF

Understanding Learning and Development in Disability Sport

Loughborough University collaborators: Dr Christopher Cushion, Professor Brett Smith

Project Description

Coaches play a crucial role in developing and shaping the sporting experience for disabled athletes, yet we know very little about coaches who work in disability sport. This is despite a significant body of literature that has contributed to a social understanding of the coaching process, and an emerging research agenda that explores disability coaching. Together, coach learning and coach education in disability sport remain critically underexplored; this creates a significant yet hollow discursive space through which to explore disability coaching as a social practice and to develop a critical understanding in order to progress the field. This research aims to develop a sophisticated, sociological understanding of coach learning in the field of disability sport, specifically in relation to autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

PhD student: Robert Townsend

Sponsor: The National Autistic Society

The Perceived Impact and Expereinces of Fitness Instructors with a Disability in the Gym Environment

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Brett Smith, Dr Anthony Papathomas

Project Description

People with disabilites are the most inactive population society, yet it is this population which would benefit most from living an active lifestyle. For individuals with disabilities, being physically active helps improve function, avoids sedentary-related health problems and enhances psychsocial well-being. The gym is arguably an ideal space for these individuals to exercise as it is a social space, there are trained professionals to assist and specialised equipment in a controlled environment. This space, however is also seen as intimidating and unsuitable due to a variety of structural and relational barriers e.g. inaccessible equipment, instructors lacking knowledge of disability, individuals with disabilities feeling 'othered' in the gym. This research aims to investigate firstly the lived experiences of individuals with a disability in the gym, secondly the motivations and experiences of individuals with disabilities training to be qualified instructors and thirdly what impact these fitness instructors have on the gym environment.

PhD student: Emma Richardson

Collaborators: Aspire

Nutritional Supplement Use by Athletes with a Disability: A Focus on Caffeine

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Dr Claudio Perret, Dr Tom Paulson

Project Description

It is widely accepted that nutrition can influence exercise and that it should be integrated into an athlete’s programme to fully capitalise on their athletic potential. Likewise, some nutritional supplements (NS) such as carbohydrate-containing foods/drinks, creatine, caffeine and bicarbonate may have the ability to improve sporting performance. With the increased popularity of disability sport in recent years there is a need to understand what and why athletes with a physical impairment use NS. Despite their use of NS there is limited evidence regarding their effectiveness in this population. For this reason, this PhD explores the use of NS (what, when, how and why), and consequently focuses on the effectiveness of caffeine, a common NS.

PhD student: Terri Paulson

Sponsor: PHF

Shoulder health of wheelchair athletes

Loughborough University collaborators: Prof Vicky Tolfrey, Dr Tom Paulson, Dr Barry Mason, Dr Jan van der Scheer

Project Description

We do not understand enough about how the interaction between different wheelchair configurations and the user effects forces acting on shoulder girdle structures. This is problematic as associated shoulder pain and inefficient propulsion is common and disabling for wheelchair users, who usually rely heavily on upper limb function for activities of daily living and recreation. Wheelchair users may spend years refining wheelchair configuration for optimal performance in a sports chair, however, much less time is afforded to the configuration of the more frequently used everyday wheelchair. There has been a recent acceleration in high quality shoulder movement research, driven by improved tools and analysis methods for tracking movement – previously difficult as the shoulder is highly mobile in all three planes. We have assembled an inter-disciplinary team of experts, with complimentary expertise and technology that will enable us to accurately measure the forces and movements at the shoulder. Our novel proposal is to combine two approaches to accurately measure shoulder joint kinematics (movements) and kinetics (forces) during manual propulsion of everyday wheelchairs. This work will help establish a feasible and reliable method that can be employed to better understand how wheelchair configurations can be manipulated to prevent shoulder girdle pain and pathology.

Collaborators: Dr Dylan Morrisey (Queen Mary University of London)

Sponsor: Grant submitted to PMG