A Beginner’s Guide to Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair racing is racing by use of a racing wheelchair, not to be confused with power wheelchair racing. Racing wheelchairs are not the same as traditional manual wheelchairs, which look more like a recumbent handcycle with two wheels in the back and one wheel in the front. The main difference between the recumbent handcycle and racing wheelchairs is that athletes propel the racing wheelchair by pushing the wheels on the sides of the bike, rather than by hand cranks by their chest.

Wheelchair racing is not a sport that can be picked up quickly. It requires a good amount of upper body strength to push the hand-driven wheels, as well as hours of practice to learn proper technique. All parts of the wheelchair 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, within the parameters of the rules.

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

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Wheelchair Racing Classifications

T51–T58 are the classifications for track and field athletes with spinal cord injuries or amputees that use a wheelchair. 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 with restricted upper-limb movement
T53 – Athletes with restricted movement in their abdominals
T54 – Athletes with complete movement from the waist up
T32–T34 – Athletes with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair
T35–T38 – Athletes with cerebral palsy who can stand

Wheelchair Racing Competitions

There are many types of wheelchair races. Races can be conducted on either tracks or road courses, both of which span various distances. There are short distance sprint races that span 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.

Races are conducted all over the world. Whether you are looking to participate in a local marathon or race, or something more international, such as the Paralympics, you will be able to find something. Wheelchair racing has been a Paralympic sport since the 1960 Paralympics in Rome, Italy. If you are interested in participating in the Paralympics, you will have to go through different qualifying events.

Start Your Journey to Wheelchair Racing

If you are interested in getting involved in wheelchair racing, consider investing in a custom-made racing chair that will meet your physical needs and allow you to feel comfortable as you race. You’ll also need a helmet to protect your head, gloves, and spare racing and training wheels. Both optimal seating position and technique are key to a successful wheelchair race. It is important that the chair is the right size. If the chair isn’t the right size, there will be movement in the bucket of the chair that isn’t contributing to the momentum of the chair, which affects your speed.