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The Importance of Wheelchair Fit for the Adaptive Athlete

  • Category: Articles by Clinicians
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  • Written By: Lisa Hilborn MA, CAPE Director of Outdoor Adventures and Recreational Therapy Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare
The Importance of Wheelchair Fit for the Adaptive Athlete

If you use a wheelchair, you know how important it is that it’s configured for your ergonomics and lifestyle. Good fit is especially critical for newly injured individuals, since they may have limited opportunities for physical activity and may be reevaluating many aspects of their mobility.

Finding a well-fitting wheelchair may increase the likelihood for these individuals to nurture a lifelong love for healthy movement. This in turn may improve their chances to participate in adaptive sports and recreation, which are shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation for wheelchair users.

Configuring any wheelchair, but particularly a sports wheelchair, is more complex than simply measuring seat width. Important factors to consider include frame type, technological advancements in equipment and design, and the athlete’s particular sport and position. For example, the lightweight build and cambered—or slanted—wheels of a tennis wheelchair let the user perform fast, dynamic movements, while the heavier, sturdier configuration of a rugby chair allows for a low center of gravity designed to sustain contact.

Adding “bucket” is a great option for athletes who compete in high-contact sports and/or need to create a stabilizing effect. Bucket is created by drawing the knees toward the chest, raising the front of the seat sling, and then dropping the bottom of the seat sling. In general, a lower center of gravity and higher backrest improves the user’s overall stability for physical games like football and rugby.

Many seasoned athletes talk about being “one with the chair,” where the chair feels almost like an extension of the body itself. Once the chair is specific to one's ergonomics, the best way to achieve this is through a common technique called “strapping.” Strapping the core, legs, and feet directly to the wheelchair helps the user to counterbalance their weight as momentum drives it forward, thus freeing up their hands for sport rather than requiring them to maneuver the chair.

Wheelchair design continues to advance, and there are more ways than ever for athletes to up their game. Whether it’s stronger, lighter titanium frames and carbon fiber spokes to make your tennis chair faster, dual wheelie bars for basketball maneuverability, or ratchet straps to increase core stability, there is an ever-increasing list of technology and equipment that lets users customize to their unique needs. With a seemingly endless ability to refine your wheelchair configuration, the future of wheelchair sports is looking brighter than ever.

Interested in learning more about adaptive recreation and wheelchair sports at Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare? Visit or call 909/596-7733, ext. 4161 today.