Catching up to speed with Runner Brian Reynolds during Limb Loss Awareness Month

Kelly Johnson

Limb Loss Awareness month is recognized every April, celebrating those with limb loss and limb differences. While every athlete's journey to the finish line looks different, Para Athlete Runner Brian Reynolds hasn’t let any obstacles come in his way.

As the second place finisher in his Para Athlete Division of the 2022 Boston Marathon and a double below-the-knee amputee, Brian Reynolds uses Hydrow for his marathon cross-training and muscle-building needs. Before Hydrow, Brian trained on an indoor rower, but was looking for enhanced coaching that would allow him to improve his overall form and training methods.

Since February, Brian has worked with Hydrow Personal Coach David Joniak to modify his rowing technique in order to best optimize his form. Brian has seen significant improvements to his splits, having now rowed over 100,000 meters in just three months. 

After the Boston Marathon, we caught up with Brian to learn about how cross-training with Hydrow has impacted his running performance and what he hopes to achieve in the months to come.

Brian's Running Journey to the Boston Marathon

What has your journey as an athlete been so far, and how did it lead you to running?

My journey into athletics, specifically running, has been anything but normal. Growing up as a double amputee, running was the last sport I expected to pick up. At the age of four, I contracted meningococcemia, a rare form of meningitis. This illness led to the double amputation of both of my legs below the knee. 

While I was active as a child, running was never something I did outside of regular sports such as baseball and basketball. It was not until a few years after college that I discovered the world of endurance sports, specifically hiking, and now running. I started running in the summer of 2016 and it quickly became a sport I could not live without. 

Since then, I have set the world's best times for double amputees in distances ranging from the 5k through the marathon and in 2018 won the World Para Championship London Marathon. 

How did you discover your passion for running?

Discovering running was fairly accidental for me. Despite not being able to walk a mile, one of my bucket list items was to run a marathon. In high school and through college, I was a gym rat. I trained for powerlifting competitions (Benchpress, Deadlift, and Squat) and basically abhorred any sort of cardio. It was not until after graduating from college that I discovered hiking through a charity program called Team in Training. This foray into endurance sports gave me the push to cross a marathon off my bucket list. 

I ran my first marathon in 2014, having previously done almost no running. I got through it and thought that my running journey was over. It took me nearly two and half years to come back around to the idea of endurance running. A group of friends and I were messing around at the gym on a treadmill trying to see who could run the fastest mile. I managed to run a 4:48 mile on the treadmill, which was eye opening for me. From that point on it has been full steam ahead with running. While I still love weight training, all of my effort goes into furthering my running goals now. 

You recently just completed the Boston Marathon. What was that experience like and how did you train for it?

Growing up outside of Boston, I spent a lot of time spectating at the marathon. I have worked the water stops, been on the sidelines, and watched on the TV, what else could you possibly do on Patriots Day?!

I have dreamed of running the Boston Marathon for years now. Having been on the sidelines, I knew of the legendary crowds, and the tingle you get toeing the line of one of the most iconic races in the world. I can officially say BOSTON DID NOT DISAPPOINT! The startline through the finish line was absolutely electric! The roaring crowds kept me moving even when I was feeling my worst (and the noise was so loud it kept my ears ringing for hours!). Days later I am still riding the waves of how amazing it felt to run from Hopkinton to Boston.

Training for the race was not as ideal as I could have hoped. Coming off of a year of hip and quad injuries in 2021, my training cycle for the Boston Marathon was only about 8 weeks long, which is roughly half the time I usually have in a marathon training cycle. Luckily, I have an amazing coach, Jonathan Cane, who I have been working with for years, who helped me get to the start line healthy and fitter than I could have imagined on such a short timeline. On top of running I have always focused heavily on cross training. As an amputee I am not able to handle large volumes of running, as I am prone to overuse injuries. 

With this training cycle, we were able to start using Hydrow, which brought my training to new levels. 

What sets rowing apart from other cross-training methods?

To say rowing is a full body workout seems like an understatement. I have not had any other cardio/endurance-based workout where in 15-20 minutes I can manage to exhaust my entire body! From my upper shoulders and back down to the bottom of my legs, I feel like all parts are being worked when I row. Having been in the running world for years now, I believe that there is too much emphasis on only running. Running only works certain muscle groups and it can easily lead to overuse injuries, unlike rowing which is low impact.

I have always believed that one of the keys to running and staying healthy is to diversify training across several modalities. While I have rowed off and on over the years this is the first time I have dedicated a solid 4 days a week throughout my training cycle. Though it was only 8 weeks I had far greater strength throughout the entire marathon than I normally would have without rowing.

What is your proudest athletic achievement so far?

It may sound simple to say, but just the act of taking the first step with running. Running as an amputee is not an easy feat. Where most runners can put on a pair of shoes and walk out the front door, an amputee needs to be fit for a special running leg, more commonly known as a "blade". These are specialty fitness legs that are not covered by insurance and it can create a major barrier to amputees that would like to participate in sports of any level.

I suppose though, my proudest achievement would be competing in, winning, and setting the World Record at the 2018 World Para Championship London Marathon. I was able to compete as part of Team USA which is a dream I did not ever think it would be possible to fulfill. 

What do you hope to accomplish with Hydrow by your next marathon?

I am hoping that I can run a fall marathon this year, so training will begin in July. With a full training cycle coming up and the groundwork of fitness having been laid (and continuing to be worked on) I think that during my full training cycle I can hit 1 million meters on my Hydrow. 

I have primarily been focusing on hanging around the 20-22 s/m. This has allowed me to really focus on my form and make sure I am technically correct, while also building great muscle memory. As I get into the next training cycle I am hoping that training will include: 

1.) Much longer rows, up to 60 minutes at a time 

2.) A lot more work with higher s/m. I have always felt that my cardio is a limiting factor in my running speed. 

If I can use rowing as an additional source of high intensity cardio I think that I will see that work translate well in running. 

Do you have any upcoming goals?

My next race is going to be Grandma's Half Marathon in Duluth, it is in June so it will be more of a fitness test rather than any huge goal. For my fall marathon I hope to finally try to break the 3 hour barrier in the marathon. I have come close twice, I know I can do it!  My big goal but on a slightly longer timeline is to try for a speed ascent of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. While it is most commonly climbed over 6-8 days I am hoping to run from base to summit back to the base in less than 10 hours. I am planning that trip for early 2023. 

Then, if all goes according to plan, I will try to be the first double amputee to summit Everest in 2024.

What types of improvements have you noticed in your rowing technique since working with David?

Working with David (one of Hydrow’s Personal Coaches) has been absolutely amazing. As a double amputee, I was having a lot of trouble with proper form and technique. To say that I was horrible would be an understatement. I was not sure that any coach would actually be able to fix this, as working with a double amputee is not exactly common. However, one 30 minute session later and David had thoughtfully reconfigured my entire rower and fixed my form. Even after the meeting I was dubious that David's adjustments were going to work. However, by the end of the first week, I realized that everything David had done had worked far better than I could have possibly anticipated. Working at a lower s/m rate, I had lower splits, was actually using my leg muscles, and was just plain enjoying rowing far more!

I have continued to train keeping all of David's pointers and tips at the forefront of my mind each time I sit down to row. Now that I am comfortable with the basics I am excited to have another session with him and see what other magic he can work as I look to progress back into some of the faster cadence sessions!

Checking in with Hydrow Personal Coach David

As a former fitness specialist for the US Military, David Joniak is no stranger to the injuries and stress fractures that come along with running and rucking (jogging with weight rucksacks). After witnessing this, he researched low impact alternatives to running and found rowing. Not only was it cardiovascular, but it also strengthened over 86% of the body's major muscle groups. He then began introducing rowing training at the bases he worked at, and the number of injuries dropped significantly, especially with amputees. Rowing quickly became the favored form of cardio amongst many service members, and there's no wonder why. When comparing rowing vs. running, it becomes clear that it is a great cross training method for runners.

Now, as a Hydrow Personal Coach, we asked David to share how he has been able to help rowers, like Brian, make accommodations to their form for their physical needs:

“Rowers come in all shapes and sizes, with different limitations and abilities. As a Personal Coach and rowing athlete, it’s so important to remember that each person is different, and that not everyone can move their bodies in the same ways. 

One unique thing about rowing is that the stroke can just slightly be adjusted to accommodate each person’s physical needs, without hindering the benefits or enjoyment of the exercise. Having served in the US Military for 8 years, rowing was the best exercise I could introduce my amputee brothers in arms to, in order to keep them fit, without risking injury or soreness around their limbs.”

David’s Helpful Rowing Recommendations for Brian

“Working with Brian was wonderful. His energy was inspiring and he came with a list of great questions regarding how to make the best use of his Hydrow rowing machine, especially as an elite athlete. One of the first things we addressed was our positioning on the Hydrow. We needed to make a few common adjustments to put his body into a more powerful position at the beginning of the stroke (the Catch). This allowed Brian to generate more power each stroke. We then discussed the importance of taking powerful strokes at low stroke rates to improve his technical proficiency, stamina, and his overall enjoyment of the machine.”

Spot Brian making his way to the top of the Hydrow leaderboard by following him on the Hydrow app and on Instagram @brianreynoldsrunner.