Getting Started In Wheelchair Racing: Tips From A World-Class Pro

Bert Burns started LASCI as a motivational speaking program for newly-injured patients with spinal cord injury.

Bert Burns

To wrap up the Get Out, Enjoy Life 2013 event, we wanted to share a perspective on adaptive sports from someone who has built their career and lifestyle around them.  UroMed’s founder, Bert Burns, began his racing career in 1985, travelling the world as a competitive wheelchair racer until 2004.

Highlights from Bert’s racing career include being a member of three different Paralympic teams, earning a Paralympic Gold Medal, and winning three World championships as well as four Pan-American Games.  At the peak of his sports career, Bert’s racing results graced the pages of SPORTS ‘N SPOKES magazine for 18 consecutive issues.

Bert has personally completed 87 marathons as a wheelchair race, beginning with his first race – the Detroit Free-Press Marthon –  in 1985 and completing his last one in Athens, Greece in 2004.   And he’s not just a competitor, Bert also has a college degree in Therapeutic Recreation.

Below, Bert shares his thoughts on competing in marathons as a wheelchair racer, giving helpful advice for both seasoned competitors and beginners.

Q: What can you do to get started in wheelchair racing?

A: I always suggest buy a used racing chair as your first chair if you can because they’re expensive. You could buy a brand new chair and then decide you don’t like the sport, so it’s best to be sure first. A new racing chair costs upwards of $3000, but you can pick up a used one for about $800.  If you like the sport, you can invest in a new chair fitted exactly for you.

Q: What advice would you give beginners who are training for their first marathon?

A: Start by doing 5ks, 10ks and half- marathons first, and be sure to work out 4-5 days a week. You’ll want  to alternate your workouts. For example, one day you may focus on hill training, and another might include intervals.  Another day, you may want to focus on long distance.  It takes work and perserverance before your first race, you can’t just start with a marathon.

Bert believes that the impossible is truly possible if you maintain a positive attitude and never give up!

Bert believes in pursuing what you can do, rather than what you can’t do. His pursuits have earned him gold medals around the world!

Q: How can I find accessible races in my hometown?

A: Many local 10Ks already have a wheelchair division, but if they don’t, talk to the race director. They’ll accommodate you.  As a wheelchair racer, have them start you 2-3 minutes ahead of everyone else so by the time people start catching you, they’re spread out to give them and you plenty of space so no one gets tangled up in your chair.

Q:  How can I find other wheelchair racers as training partners or workout buddies?

A: Contact your local rehab hospital and ask to speak to someone in the recreation therapy department. Those staff members should be able to refer you to some other wheelchair racers in the area.  Know too, that even if you train on your own, you can refer to any of the books that train distance runners. You’re just rolling instead of running, but the endurance training principles are the same.

Q: What are some safety factors to keep in mind?

A: Always wear a helmet when training and racing. It actually keeps you a little cooler. Carry water on your chair in either a camelback or another system to get water.  Once you have racing gloves on, it’s hard to hold a water bottle so a camelback works best while you’re racing.

If you do overheat — get some cool, wet rags on top of you as quickly as possible and seek medical attention.

International competitor Tammi Thompson will tell you that wheelchair racing isn’t just for the guys! Women compete on the international stage too.

Q: What should new racers expect in terms of aches and pains?

A: Your shoulders and wrists may ache from the way that you push.  However, racing never bothered my shoulders like wheelchair rugby did. Racing is a smooth, fluid motion so it’s a sport that’s really low-injury as long as you stay hydrated, wear a helmet and stay in your chair.

Q: Any words of wisdom for the day of your first race?

A: Be out there early. Do a small race for your first one to get comfortable and familiar with racing.  Make sure there’s a box for wheelchair racing when you sign up on the registration form. If not, make sure to clearly state your use of a wheelchair clear on the entry form and contact the race director so they know you’ll be racing in a chair. Don’t assume that someone will read the form.

Get warmed up well, and be aware of foot runners. Especially when you’re coming down a hill, foot runners can turn right in front of you not knowing that you’re coming. You are responsible for steering clear – like the rules of skiing.  You’ll need to dodge people, so be ready for it.

Make sure your equipment is ready to go. Put on a set of new tires if you have a lot of miles on your current ones, and make sure the tires are properly inflated. Don’t race on an old tire, that’s just asking for disaster.

Q: What are your favorite marathons for wheelchair racers?

A: There are so many great marathons these days for wheelchair racers, but my personal favorites include:

  • Chicago – the course is flat and the roads are good, the marathon is well-run
  • Myrtle Beach – the course is flat and fast, not a big crowd – great for beginners
  • LA Marathon – this course is very hilly and very hard so be ready for it. On this course, I had to traverse one hill, and I went up another one backwards. Adjust your race approach to this course depending on your injury level.
  • My two favorite international marathons are Sempac in Switzerland and Oita in Japan.

Finding your next race
Most marathons take place in spring or fall when it’s a little cooler out. For a list of upcoming wheelchair race events, please visit the SPORTS ‘N SPOKES calendar.


About UroMed Catheters
Headquartered in Suwanee, GA [a suburb of Atlanta], UroMed is one of the nation’s leading providers of single-use catheters, urological and disposable medical supplies, including intermittent catheters, closed system catheters, condom catheters, pediatric catheters and continence care products. UroMed is nationally accredited for Medicare reimbursement and most state Medicaid plans, and partners with private health insurance providers and health plans to provide patients with single-use catheters, catheter kits and incontinence products. UroMed also has seven staffed regional offices located in Boston, MA; Columbia, SC; Jacksonville, FL; Dallas, TX; Carlsbad, CA; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; and Baton Rouge, LA; enabling next-day delivery after a customer’s initial medical supply order. For more information, please visit or call 1-800-841-1233.

One Response to Getting Started In Wheelchair Racing: Tips From A World-Class Pro

  1. Sheila Fitzgerald says:

    As a single BK amputee with two crushed & rebuilt legs, the athlete in me desires a physical release. I’d like to try wheelchair racing. Where does one find a used racing chair?

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