An Introduction to Paralympic Guide Running

An Introduction to Paralympic Guide Running

Paralympic rules allow runners with a severe visual impairment to be helped by guides in their competition.

Track and field athletes who are paired up with guides are incredible athletes. They are partnered with sighted runners who match them step for step, calling out potential obstacles and keeping the athletes informed of how far they have left to go.

Guides and runners are connected at the wrist or fingers by a small piece of rope called a tether, which helps the runner stay aligned in his or her lane. The guide helps the runner avoid any obstacles in the way, yelling constant encouragement and updates of how far along they are on the track and when to really put the foot on the accelerator.

The athletes push themselves to the limits and the guides aid them along the way. Rules have been put in place to keep such aid in check to ensure equality. For example, a guide runner cannot cross the finishing line ahead of the runner.

It’s important to note that not all Paralympic runners are totally blind. Levels of visual impairment can vary, but for the runners who require them, guides are a crucial asset. And they don’t just step in on race day — runners and their guides share a tight bond. They train together as they prepare for competition, and if the athlete wins a medal, the guide wins one too.

It’s a total journey together, and if you haven’t seen or herd of guide running before – you should really check it out.

Most running guides share an Olympic dream and are part of the entire training regime. The intense schedules ensure that the two athletes are prepared and are in sync for race day.

An insight from the professional

Not many people in Australia know more about this type of training than AIS Senior Physiologist and Paralympian coach, Philo Saunders.

Philo has both trained and ran as a guide for Australian middle-distance rockstar, Jaryd Clifford.

Jaryd has already won bronze and silver at Tokyo this year, who now runs with best friend and long-time training partner, Tim Logan under the guidance of Philo.

Exercise Right had the chance to catch-up with Philo and delve deeper into the training and skill that goes into running with a guide.

What are some considerations both the athlete and coach should have before they start training?

There are 3 classes of visually impaired athletes:

1. T11

Are totally blind and run with a blindfold and always run with a guide.

2. T12

Have some vision but they are impaired enough to choose whether they run by themselves or run with a guide.

3. T13

Are impaired but cannot use a guide.

So relating to T12 athletes, the first question the athlete and coach should discuss is whether a guide is needed or whether they can run optimally without a guide. I coach 2 x T12 athletes and neither of them run with a guide in the 1500m event, mainly because it is very tactical and requires rapid response to moves and ability to change pace quickly.

However, one of these athletes also competes in the 5000m event and with his vision impairment, he finds it hard to concentrate for the increased duration of this event. In the 5000m event with Jaryd, we have had the conversation and trialed both guided and unguided races for this event and have decided to race the 5000m with guides.

Considerations when choosing a guide to run with are:

1. Being at a similar level of fitness is important

Ideally the guide can run with the visually impaired athlete and give them some feedback about what’s happening in a race, splits in training, etc.

2. Similar heights is probably desirable but not essential

More importantly is that stride length and stride frequency are similar as you need to be well synchronized when linked by a 30cm tether.

3. Both runners must be comfortable running while tethered

This is important as if not running freely, running efficiency is affected which will make it harder to maintain optimal pace in a race. A lot of practice is required to make this an automatic process and not constantly thinking about being linked by the tether. The best guided races I have done with Jaryd, you forget that you are holding the tether and just focused on running and your position in the race.

Multiple guide runners is preferable as two can be used in a 5000m and if a guide becomes injured, you have someone else who can step in straight away. Jaryd has two main guides and two back up guides who have all practiced with him in the lead up to the Tokyo Paralympics.

What do you think the hardest parts are when training with a guide? How do you overcome them?

As mentioned above, being in sync and feeling like both athletes are able to run normally is a critical factor. Getting used to running next to each other and keeping foot strikes in sync are important. Also it is important to know what to do if you become out of sync. The best ways to deal with these problems is to run guided regularly and ensure some of this guiding is at race pace (or faster) and under fatigue.

It can be difficult initially doing enough guiding during race pace sessions as it can make the sessions a bit harder (particularly for the guide who is running wider and trying to change their mechanics to fit in with the T12 runner). This can be overcome by choosing 1 or a few reps to do guided and other reps to do normally.

Race practice is also critical and doing some lower key races where you can focus on how it feels running guided and becoming comfortable running guided are important. In Jaryd’s case, he uses 2 guide runners with a change over half way in the 5000m race, so the practice of the changeover needs to be done as well as Jaryd getting used to the different guides running styles and feedback styles.

What are some examples of training exercises/drills with a guide?

Race pace efforts and racing are both important, but we found doing easy runs tethered the best way to feel comfortable running guided and makes faster running a bit easier as you are not thinking about the guide rope.

In preparation for the Dubai World Championships, Jaryd did most of his easy runs, warm-ups and warm-downs guided which made a huge difference.

The other form of training that really helped with the guiding was doing some running specific drills guided with the tether.

These include high knee walks, bum kicks, A skips, B skips, bounding and sprinting.

All this helps makes the process of being in sync and holding a tether more automatic.

What are your top 3 tips for an amateur or someone interested in running with a guide?

1. Think about whether there are aspects of your impairment that would make running with a guide improve your race performance.

2. Choose the right guide. Needs to be someone invested in your results and available to do lots of running with you (same training group ideally). They need to have the right stride for you to make running as normal as possible just with another set of eyes. You also may well need multiple guides.

3. Do races with and without a guide to see what works best for you once you have a guide(s) that you are comfortable running with.

Speak with a professional

Everyone has individual traits and abilities and if you’re new to exercise and sport it can be tough to know where to start safely.

Accredited exercise professionals are university-qualified who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to improve health, fitness, well-being, performance, and assist in the prevention of chronic conditions.

To find an accredited exercise professional near you, click here.

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Written by Exercise Right. We have partnered with Nike Australia Pty Ltd for this article series. The views expressed in this article, unless otherwise cited, are exclusively those of the author, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA). ESSA is a professional organisation committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners.

Nike had no role in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data or research or the writing of this article.

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