Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD): Paralympic Athlete with an Acquired Condition

Last weekend was a great weekend for one of our athletes, Paralympic cyclist Kara Vatthauer. At the USA Cycling National Championship in Augusta, Georgia (home of the Masters, of course), Kara earned a berth to the Paralympic cycling world championships with a victory in the Road Race and a second place in the Time Trial in the Visually Impaired category.


A helpful framework in coaching a Paralympic athlete with an acquired condition is the Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model, which is a widely successful template for youth development in many national federations. This developmental process is especially useful for an athlete like Kara who had to relearn basic movement skills when her visual impairment struck. Acquired conditions require a different approach than congenital ones, as those with congenital conditions have never known any different.

While its tempting to reduce cycling to an exercise in chasing wattage, the reality is that quality movement skills allow for the expression of underlying fitness. If the brain doesn’t have the sensory input that it craves, it inhibits movement to protect the body from injury. When we initally met Kara, her movement patters revealed subconscious guarding mechanisms creating excess tension in the head and neck, which affected the movement in the rest of her body. (see, Mission 2012: The Functional Movement Screen and the Paralympic Endurance Athlete).


The first stage of LTAD is the Active Start phase. In kids, this stage is all about learning basic movement skills, or the ABC’s of movment: agility, balance, and coordination. Since visual impairment was essentially a rebirth for Kara, it was important that we cultivate these fundamental movement skills not only for athletic performance but also to improve quality of life off the bike. We used the Functional Movement Screen corrective framework to develop these basic skills. 

FUNdamentals is the next stage of LTAD. This stage builds on the first stage but with the addition of more dynamic activities. Kara has always enjoyed swimming and running and we encouraged continued participation in these disciplines, in part to assuage the boredom of the bike trainer, but also to provide greater challenge for sensorimotor growth.

The Learn to Train stage is when we introduce formal training structure. Kara had been exposed to a dose of formal training through camps at the Olympic Training Centers but her routine at home was relatively unstructured. In the learning to train phase, the focus is less upon results and more upon acclimating to the structure of a formalized training plan. Additionally, unlike kids who enter the Learn to Train stage with no responsibility, Kara has both the responsibilities of parenthood and employment. A big part of Learning to Train for an adult is finding the right balance between training and other aspects of life.

In the Train to Train stage, the plan adopts more discrete goals. However, race results are still not a priority. In Train to Train, we strive for continual improvement in specific areas and are less concerned with putting all the elements together into a competitive setting. A big key for Kara was the mental challenge of doing relatively high volume on the bike trainer indoors. When you enter the Train to Train stage, it is apparent that training is not always fun (it should always be rewarding, but not necessarily fun).

The Train to Compete stage is very similar to the Train to Train stage, but we place a bit more emphasis on competitive results. Supplementary issues like nutrition, psychology, and race tactics become more important. To Kara’s credit, she has voluntarily kept a food journal for over a year. Whereas race tactics in the early stages focus entirely on the individual, at this stage we start caring more about relative placement to the competition, particularly in the Road Race where tactics are crucial.

The zenith of the LTAD progression is the Train to Win stage. What’s exciting about Kara’s success is that we haven’t reached this stage yet. Training to Win is akin to earning a black belt. Athletes in the Train to Win stage are near the peak of their genetic potential. Training to Win not only requires quality training, it also requires a robust support structure. As someone relatively unproven on the national stage, Kara has not yet benefited from all the funding streams potentially available to national team members.

The final stage after the culmination of a high performance athletic career is Active for Life. Athletes are encouraged to not only remain active themselves but also to stay involved through younger athletes and promoting a healthy lifestyle at all levels of sport. In reality, the basic theme of Active for Life runs continuously through the development process. Competitive success becomes a natural byproduct of honoring the progression. With her continued success, Kara has been an excellent role model for her young daughter Cheyenne, who has herself become an Ironkid triathlete.

One final note: Canadian Sport for Life proposes two extra stages for athletes with disabilities: Awareness and First Contact. Kara’s journey would be not possible without exposure to the Paralympic movement. Hopefully with the continued work of US Paralympics, the United States military, and other organizations, more Paralympic athletes will have these same opportunities to compete.  


Canadian Sport for Life for Athletes with Disabilities

US Paralympics: Cycling

Mission 2012: The Functional Movement Screen and the Paralympic Endurance Athlete


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