Background: Handrim wheelchair propulsion is a cyclic skill that needs to be learned during rehabilitation. It has been suggested that more variability in propulsion technique benefits the motor learning process of wheelchair propulsion. The purpose of this study was to determine the influence of variable practice on the motor learning outcomes of wheelchair propulsion in able-bodied participants. Variable practice was introduced in the form of wheelchair basketball practice and wheelchair-skill practice. Motor learning was operationalized as improvements in mechanical efficiency and propulsion technique.
Methods: Eleven Participants in the variable practice group and 12 participants in the control group performed an identical pre-test and a post-test. Pre- and post-test were performed in a wheelchair on a motor-driven treadmill (1.11 m/s) at a relative power output of 0.23 W/kg. Energy consumption and the propulsion technique variables with their respective coefficient of variation were calculated. Between the pre- and the post-test the variable practice group received 7 practice sessions. During the practice sessions participants performed one-hour of variable practice, consisting of five wheelchair-skill tasks and a 30 min wheelchair basketball game. The control group did not receive any practice between the pre-and the post-test.
Results: Comparison of the pre-and the post-test showed that the variable practice group significantly improved the mechanical efficiency (4.5 +/- 0.6%. 5.7 +/- 0.7%) in contrast to the control group (4.5 +/- 0.6%. 4.4 +/- 0.5%) (group x time interaction effect p <0.001). With regard to propulsion technique, both groups significantly reduced the push frequency and increased the contact angle of the hand with the handrim (within group, time effect). No significant group x time interaction effects were found for propulsion technique. With regard to propulsion variability, the variable practice group increased variability when compared to the control group (interaction effect p <0.001).
Conclusions: Compared to a control, variable practice, resulted in an increase in mechanical efficiency and increased variability. Interestingly, the large relative improvement in mechanical efficiency was concomitant with only moderate improvements in the propulsion technique, which were similar in the control group, suggesting that other factors besides propulsion technique contributed to the lower energy expenditure.