cassie s. mitchell, ph.d.


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About Wheelchair Track



Wheelchair track (also referred to as wheelchair athletics or wheelchair racing) is analogous to the able-bodied equivalent of running. Thus, wheelchair racing events are often held in conjunction with standard “able-bodied” track meets and running road races. While not part of the wheelchair division of track, there are track events for other disability types, including blind athletes and amputees. 


Like all wheelchair sports, athletes are classified or categorized according to their disability such that athletes with similar function compete against one another.  There are two different classifications for quadripelgics, T51 and T52, with T51 having less function typically defined by the lack of triceps.  However, in the womens’ international races, the T51 and T52 classes are combined, while the mens’ equivalent divisions are not.  This combined womens T51-52 quadriplegic class is my racing category.  Paraplegics are classified into the T53 or T54 class with the major distinction between the two being the absence (T53) or presence (T54) of functioning abdominal muscles.  Cerebral palsey wheelchair track athletes have their own classification based largely on spasticity, T33-T35.


Wheelchair track is sanctioned internationally by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and nationally by USA Track & Field and USA Paralympic Track & Field.  Distances range from as short as 100m all the way up to a marathon (26.2 miles).  However, not every event is available to every classification.  For example, in the London 2012 Paralympics, the womens T51-52 combined class has only two events being offered: the 100m and the 200m.   However, at the IPC World Championships, that very same class has events offered for 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m.  When it comes to local or national road races, there are typically just two classes, “open” and “quad” for each sex.  Common distances include 10km, 15km, half-marathon, and marathon.


The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) sets the rules for wheelchair racing equipment. Wheelchair racing athletes use specialized custom wheelchairs.   The wheelchair racer is a low to the ground three-wheeled vehicle.  It is propelled using hand or “push” rings that are mounted on the two rear wheels.  Unlike paracycling, a wheelchair racer has no cranks or gears. Below I have outlined the key aspects of wheelchair racing equipment.


Wheelchair racers are form-fitting, much like a shoe is to a runner.  The exact seating position varies based on the preferences of the athlete and the restrictions of their disability.  However, wheelchair racers come in two main types:  kneelers (sometimes referred to as a “V” cage) and feet-down (sometimes referred to as an “I” cage).  The kneeler is the more common frame as it is more aerodynamic and favors a more powerful pushing position.  It is definitely the preferred racer for paraplegics, some higher functioning quadriplegics, or any athlete with excellent upper body strength.  However, for some athletes, a kneeler can make for more difficult transfers, difficult breathing while racing, and trigger spasticity (uncontrollable movements of muscle).  Thus, athletes with more severe paralysis, such as quadriplegics with lesser function, or athletes with severe spasticity, including athletes who are severely spastic from cerebral palsy, may prefer or even perform better in a feet-down racer.   Due to both my spasticity and my quadriplegia, I use a feet-down racer.


Wheelchair racers have two rear wheels that are typically 26 inch or 700c diameter.  The hand or push rings are mounted to the rear wheels.  The front wheel is typically 20” in diameter and is used to both stabilize and to steer the racer.  Wheels come in all types of materials.  However, most elite racers use carbon fiber quad-spoke (lightest weight wheel available) or disc rear wheels (most aerodynamic wheel available).


A wheelchair racer has two steering mechanisms, a pre-set automatic device called a “compensator” and standard manual steering.  The manual steering is used during road races.  However, a more automated device is needed to sprint around curves on the track.  Thus, the wheelchair racer has a device called a compensator to allow the racer to turn at a pre-set angle.  The compensator typically uses two set pins that allow the athlete to adjust the angle depending on the track’s geometry and his/her lane assignment.


Push rings
The hand or push rings come in many sizes.  The typical size range is 12-16 inches with most rings available in half-inch increments.  Hand ring size depends on the athlete’s arm length, seating position, and most importantly the type(s) of events.  Many wheelchair racing athletes own a couple of sizes of hand rings, which they use for different events.  For example, for shorter sprinting events on the track, a smaller hand ring may be preferred in order to increase top end speed.  However, for longer road races or climbing hills, a bigger hand ring may be preferred to increase leverage and power.


Wheelchair racer athletes wear special gloves to help grip the hand rings and prevent hand injury.  The gloves greatly assist in smooth pushing of the chair.  Gloves come in two main types: soft leather gloves, which look much like boxing gloves, and solid gloves, which are typically made of thermal plastic.  Both types of gloves utilize a rubber pushing surface that is attached to the glove where the hand rings contact it.  Leather gloves can be purchased commercially in standard or custom sizes.   They may be recommended for novice athletes or athletes that want a “softer” feel in their pushing contact as the glove collapses slightly around the hand ring.  Solid gloves are typically custom made to the athlete. Thermal plastic is heated and molded to the athletes desired hand pushing position.  Rubber is then attached to the part of the glove that contacts the ring.  Solid gloves may provide more efficient transfer of energy from the hand to the ring.  However, a perfect fit is required to prevent injury.  Like all athletic equipment, the choice of glove ultimately comes down to the athlete’s preference and the limitations of their disability.