A Beginner’s Guide to Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair racing, not to be confused with electric wheelchair racing or power wheelchair racing, is racing using a racing wheelchair controlled by your hands. Racing wheelchairs are not the same as traditional manual wheelchairs. They are designed with two wheels in the back and one wheel in the front to optimize speed. Due to the wheelchair’s design, this sport can also be confused with handcycling, as racing wheelchairs look much like recumbent handcycles, which also have two wheels in the back and one wheel in the front. However, instead of using hand cranks by their chest, racers propel the wheelchair by pushing the wheels on the sides of the bike.

Unlike other adaptive sports that can easily be learned by beginners, wheelchair racing requires a good amount of upper body strength to push the hand-driven wheels. The wheels must comply with the rules, and no mechanical gears or levers can be used to help. However, parts can be customized to accommodate the athlete’s impairment and build, if these parts conform to the rules.  Wheelchair racing also takes a decent amount of time to get the proper technique down.

Wheelchair racing is a more individualistic sport. You don’t have to be part of a team to participate and train. Any athletes who have a qualifying disability can partake in wheelchair racing, including amputees, athletes with spinal cord injuries or cerebral palsy, and even athletes with impaired vision, if they also have another disability. Much like other adaptive sports, athletes are classified based on the severity of their disability.

Classifications

T51–T58 is the classification for track and field athletes who are in a wheelchair due to spinal cord injury or an amputation, while athletes with cerebral palsy have classifications of T32-T38. Separate races are conducted for athletes in each class. The classification levels are as follows:

T51 and T52 – Athletes have restricted upper-limb movement

T53 – Athletes have restricted movement in their abdominals

T54 – Athletes have complete movement from the waist up

T32–T34 – Athletes with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair

T35–T38 – Athletes with cerebral palsy who can stand

Competitions

Races can be conducted on both tracks and road courses, which span various distances. There are short distance sprint races for 100m, 200m and 400m, middle distance races for 800m and 1500m, and long-distance races for 5K and 10K. Track and field wheelchair racing also includes the 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m relay races.

Whether you are looking to participate in a local marathon or race, or something more international, races and marathons are conducted all over. Wheelchair racing has been a Paralympic sport since the 1960 Paralympics in Rome, Italy. If you are interested in participating in the Paralympics for wheelchair racing, you must complete different qualifying events.

Getting Started

If you are looking to start your journey in wheelchair racing, a custom-made racing chair that will meet your physical needs and allow you to feel comfortable as you race, a helmet to protect your head, gloves, and spare racing and training wheels are just some of the things you may consider purchasing. It is important that the chair is the right size, so that there is no movement in the bucket of the chair that isn’t contributing to the momentum of the chair. Both optimal seating position and technique are key to a successful wheelchair race.

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