Getting behind the wheel of a wheelchair race

Nov 29, 2015

Episode 60: Wheelchair racing: behind the wheel

Released: March 2015 (updated: January 2016)

In this unique episode we get behind the wheel of elite wheelchair athlete Richard Nicholson, who gives us a commentary and tactical analysis of the a 1500 metre qualifier for the World Championships. A must-see episode

Partners: Richard Nicholson

All our episodes at The Inclusion Club are unique. But this one is ‘really’ unique!

Have you ever been to watch a wheelchair racing event? If you haven’t, you should try to get along one day. If you have, you no doubt appreciate the athleticism and technique that wheelchair athletes have. Wheelchair track racing is exciting. It’s tactical. It’s incredibly athletic.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in a wheelchair track race?

In this episode we’ll give you a bird’s-eye view and commentary of a top class international standard wheelchair track race. You are going to see what it’s like to be behind the wheel of a 1500 mens wheelchair track race. The race was part of the Summer Down Under series of 2015 that took place at the Sydney Olympic Park Athletics warm-up track.

Richard Nicholson, an experienced international wheelchair track athlete for Australia, was in this race. He wore a ‘GoPro’ camera, recording the entire race from start to finish. This gave us some incredible footage of the action right in the mix with some of the worlds best wheelchair racers.

Then we sat down with Richard and he talked us through the race. We asked him what was happening? What tactics were used? First, let’s introduce Richard. You can listen to him in one of our earlier podcasts here. But a very nice way to introduce ‘Richo’ is to show you a video advertising the Summer Down Under series. It features Richo and and is a great short clip—a nice trailer for our main content!

Nice video don’t you think! Let’s set the scene for the race we are going to take a look at.

In the race you will see below the athletes competing are racing primarily for a qualifying time for the World Championships. So, while the athletes still want to win their primary goal is the qualifying time. So athletes do work together in order to get the qualifying time. You will see athletes taking turns to ‘pull’ other athletes in the draft of the lead athlete for periods of the race—similar to cycling.

The track you see here is called a ‘mondo’ track and is now quite old. Overtime the track becomes harder and this makes the track faster for wheelchair athletes. Although runners like a firm track to race on when they are training they prefer it to be a little softer to prevent stress fractures and shin splints. This track would be considered a ‘good track’ for wheelchair racing. Conditions for this race were also good. It wasn’t too hot and there was only a small breeze.

There are athletes from Australia, Japan, South Africa, US and Canada in the race. All top international athletes.

Now take a look at the footage below as Richo talks us through.

Now you have seen the race, there are a couple of interesting issues to note.

You would have seen that Richo’s speed and heart rate were monitored during the race. Although the speedo at times flashed 35 km per hour, the race probably averaged around 31-32 km ph. Athletes would of hit upwards of 34 – 35 km ph in the final sprint.

Richo’s heart rate peaked at 178 beats per minute. While this would not be considered high as an elite athlete it is pretty good given that he is 44.5 years old. He was clearly ‘putting in’!

This race would be considered quite quick in wheelchair racing. The ‘A’ Qualifier for the 2015 IPC World Championships is 3:04. In this race the winning time by the Japanese athlete Hokinoue was 3:02.46, another Japanese athlete, Watanabe, was second in 3:03.36, Australian Kurt Fearnley third in 3:03.53. Richo came 6th in a time of 3:04.12 out of 15 athletes.

Wheelchair racing technique

Given the quality of the footage it’s a good opportunity to look closer at wheelchair racing technique. After all, these guys are the worlds best so there’s a lot to learn!

Pushing a racing wheelchair is very different to pushing a regular day chair. In a regular day chair the user grabs the push-rim to propel the chair. In a racing wheelchair the athlete essentially ‘punches’ the push-rim. It is a dynamic strike. Stronger athletes may hit the push-rim at 2 o’clock—trying to stay on the rim as long as possible—to approximately 7 o’clock. While athletes who rely more on ‘arm speed’ to generate their speed will generally have a much shorter contact time with the push-rim.

Athletes use special leather gloves or custom built hard gloves from a mouldable plastic that they then cover with rubber. You can see an example of this in the first video. Because of this striking action, rain makes racing quite difficult as when the athletes ‘hits’ the rim they often don’t get good contact or slip completely. You essentially end up feeling like you are working twice as hard to go half the speed! Athletes will use ‘hand-ball glue’ or stick sandpaper on their gloves to get better contact on the push-rim in the rain.

Although all the athletes look quite similar in their race chairs, finding the ‘right’ position to sit in can take a very long time. This means getting the height of your knees correct. Typically those with low abdominal function or no function will sit with their knees much higher than those athletes with good core strength. How forward or back in the bucket (seat) you may sit in relation to the back axle is also important. These adjustments are ongoing and can be as little as adding a 3 mm (width) piece of foam under the knees or sitting half an inch more forward. This is all trial and error for the athlete until they can find the right position where they are maximising their function and their personal characteristics, for example, if they rely on strength or arm speed.

There are a lot of different styles of pushing, this will be determined by many factors including the function of the athlete (based on impairment type). For example, arm speed – some athletes have very quick arm speed, others may be stronger and rely on slower arm speed but are able to transfer more power to the push rim.

For another really good insight into wheelchair racing take a look at The Art of Wheelchair Racing – part of the Gillett World Sport series – with world class international athlete Ernst van Dyk from South Africa.

We hope this has given you a small insight into wheelchair racing from a unique perspective. A big thanks to Richard Nicholson for his cooperation and assistance in putting this episode together. Great stuff Richo!



About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.