Radford University faculty member helps find answers to Paralympic racers' nutritional needs ahead of Rio games

Health and Human Performance Associate Professor J.P. Barfield was part of a research team this spring that examined the nutritional needs of Paralympic athletes ahead of the summer games in Rio de Janeiro.

A year ago, a reporter asked Elizabeth Broad to explain the amount of energy wheelchair racers expend over the course of a marathon. The reporter was working on a story about Tatyana McFadden, a multiple medal winner in various Paralympic games.

It was a tough question, even for Broad, the senior sports dietician for the United States Paralympic teams. “I simply didn’t have an answer, except for a best guess,” she said.

No one else had an answer, either, because “there has not been much research on wheelchair athletes and their nutritional needs over a long period of time,” said J.P. Barfield, a Health and Human Performance (HHP) associate professor at Radford University.

Barfield has conducted countless hours of research on the physical performance of wheelchair athletes. Broad, who had become familiar with Barfield’s outreach work, asked him to help test a group of elite wheelchair track and field athletes in June at an Olympic training site at the University Illinois.

The timing of tests was crucial with the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games fast approaching in September. Broad wanted to test the athletes and examine the collected data in an effort to assess energy and nutrient expenditure of the racers. “The data will help her design meals for the athletes for before and after their races in Rio,” Barfield said. “She is looking at the percentage of carbohydrates, protein and fat they need.”

The tests were completed in one day with male and female athletes racing around a road course for 12-miles. Some had already secured a spot on the 2016 U.S. Paralympic team, while others were still competing for a position. The athletes wore masks, owned by Radford University’s Department of Health and Human Performance, which connected to a device on their backs that would collect the needed data. A sensor in the mouthpiece of the masks measured the amount of oxygen in the air.

“The masks helped us determine how hard the athletes were working and the nutrients their bodies were using,” Barfield explained. “Based on how much oxygen they breathed in and how much carbon dioxide they expelled, we could determine what kind nutrients they were using and how many calories they were expending.”

The researchers, which included faculty from the University of Illinois, examined the athletes in three-mile segments “so we could see, as the athletes continued to travel, how the nutrient needs changed, regardless of temperature,” Barfield said.

The research team is still crunching the numbers from the tests, and Broad, who works with athletes in 10 Paralympic sports, said the results will be “extremely useful” toward planning meals and snacks for the athletes.

“Knowing their energy expenditure during a marathon race helps me assess total daily energy needs as well as help them plan appropriately for the demands of the marathon itself,” she said.

Barfield plans to do more research with the wheelchair track and field athletes and take a group of HHP students along to Illinois. “We will be looking at what is typical energy expenditure and what that means for training,” he said. “I’m excited because there are not a lot of opportunities where you can take undergraduate students to an Olympic training site.”

Barfield, who also serves as international competition classifier for Paralympic sports, and his fellow HHP faculty members often involve students in their research. Earlier this year, he and Assistant Professor Laura Newsome took student researchers to Washington, D.C., to study the effectiveness of stretching techniques on the performance of players on a wheelchair rugby team.

They put the athletes through three different stretches over three weeks and examined their sprint times afterward. The tests were designed to determine if the stretching techniques impacted the athletes’ power and sprint performances and which, if any, provided the most benefit.

“If it does have an impact, the athletes would know which stretch would be ideal for preparing for performance-based activities like games and practices,” Newsome said.

Kelly Baker went along on one of the three trips to D.C., and said working with the athletes confirmed her desire to study occupational therapy at the graduate level. “The professors have so much knowledge and experience and they gave me an opportunity to learn and gain further understanding of my future,” she said.

Jun 28, 2016
Chad Osborne