Paraplegics Can Cheat?!

How crazy is it that paraplegic athletes have found ways to hack biology to boost their performance?

The problem: They can’t sprint.

Why?

  • Their brains can’t tell their hearts what’s going on in the rest of the body, so the heart never gets told to pump faster. Their maximum heart rate is 130 bpm.   
  • Their brains can’t tell the leg muscles to fire, which – in able-bodies folks – helps get blood back to the heart quickly. 
  • Their brains can’t tell the smooth muscle around arteries to expand and contract, so blood pressure stays low and oxygen delivery suffers.

However…

While the brain can’t tell these systems what to do, the body can.  The same automatic stress response that causes your heart to race against your will when meeting your partner’s parents, getting up on stage to give a speech, asking for a raise, etc.  can still be triggered in paraplegics.

Little things, like needing to pee, trigger this response.  But so do big things.  Apparently some parapelegic athletes will do things like breaking their big toe right before a race!  Ahhh!!

No surprise that this is really dangerous, because long-term high blood pressure can supposedly trigger stroke and death.  Now officials are having to take starting block blood pressure.  If wheelchair athletes are too high, they can’t start the race.

You can discover the details and more about hurdles to athleticism for paraplegics in this awesome Outside podcast:

Start at 14:44 to learn about this part of paraplegic biology. Or just listen to the whole incredible thing!

Happy Discovering! ♣