visually impaired runner racing in a marathon with a guide
A runner and her guide

If you’re a runner, or would like to be, and you’re visually impaired, you’ll probably want to run with a guide. There are two common ways this is done, depending on your vision, the kind of area you’re running in, and what you’re comfortable with.

Guiding Technique

Verbal Direction

Some runners feel they have enough vision and are in a clear enough area to run with the guide on one side, simply giving verbal instructions. In this technique, talking is crucial. The guide might have time to say “Please move to the right, because there’s a stroller coming up” or may only be able to say “Move right!” The guide has to be prepared to throw conventions of polite conversation to the wind, and the runner has to be willing to obey immediately.

Running with a Tether

A short rope or piece of towel, about 30 inches long, works well for giving a great deal more information to the runner. With this technique, the guide runs slightly ahead of you and to one side and each partner holds one end of the tether. The guide still gives verbal directions, but you’ll be able to detect bends in the road and other slight changes in direction much more easily with the tether. If an emergency arises, the guide will give a short pull on the tether or a slight push to your arm, and you’ll know immediately which way to go.

Enough tension should be kept on the tether that you can feel movements without you or your guide needing to pull the slack out of the cord before you get the message. But too much pulling just wears out both people’s arms.

Use something for a tether that is easy on the hands and washable. Anything will work in a pinch, such as a plastic bag or a T-shirt, but ideal tethers should have enough substance to do the trick and no more. You don’t want to carry weight, just get information. Some people like a strip of a towel, others like boot strings. Some take old T-shirts and braid them into a useful length and diameter. Remember to throw your tether into the wash with your running clothes!

If both people have similar strides and heights, the tether can be fairly short. If your guide is much shorter than you are, or much taller, you’ll find yourself clinging to the fringe of a short tether. So, if you don’t know who you’ll be running with, use a longer tether and fold it over if necessary.

Choosing a Guide

What are the qualities of a good guide? First, your guide has to be safety-conscious. People who don’t mind running across the street and nearly being hit by cars themselves should not be invited to take you with them. They need to allow more time and space for two bodies, so be sure your guide has good enough judgment to get both of you around obstacles safely.

If you’re becoming serious about running, you’ll find that the pace of your runs is important to you. You’ll need a guide who is at least slightly stronger than you. Guides need to be able to talk and run at the same time, and they need to have enough energy while running to pay attention to what’s going on around them. If you’re running at your top speed and they’re hanging on for dear life, they won’t be able to tell you much about potholes and traffic.

If you’re running a lot, make sure you choose a guide who is a person you like. You’ll be spending a lot of time together. And, remember to be nice to your guides.

Setting the Pace

There is a common misconception among runners who aren’t visually impaired and haven’t run with a runner who is that it’s the guide who sets the pace. Often, guides believe it is part of their job to set the pace. If pace matters to you, then you should be the one setting it.

When a group runs together without a specific pace being determined in advance, it’s usually the group that sets the pace. An individual might consciously adjust the pace of the group by running a little faster or by falling a little back, but most of the time no one really can say how the pace is being set. If you don’t care about pace, you and your guide can work out the pace the same way.

Usually, though, the pace will probably be important to you, at least within a certain range. Be sure you are the one setting the pace. If you’re running a little slower than you’d like, just pick it up a bit. If your guide doesn’t match your pace and ends up a little behind you, just say “Can we pick it up a little?” If you’d like to run slower but find your guide is pulling, simply say “Do you mind if we slow it down a little?”

Watching the Time

Most visually impaired runners don’t have watches for running. So, if time is to be kept, the guide will need to do it. Be sure the two of you know which technique you’re using.

There are two ways a watch is used in training. In one, the runner wants to know the pace of the actual running. So, if the team stops for water, the runner stops his watch. The watch only tells the time you’re running, not including drinking water, tying shoes, etc. This is helpful if you’re trying to learn the feel of a particular pace.

In the second technique, the watch runs for the entire training run. Breaks are included in the time. This is the way time is kept in a race, and some runners prefer it because it more accurately reflects the time the workout took.

Both techniques are valid and widely used, so just be sure you know which technique your guide is using.

Guidance for Your Guides

New guides are often nervous about the job. They aren’t sure what to do, how hard to pull on the tether, how much to tell you, and so on. Here are some tips you can share with them that will make the job easier for them.

What to Say

  • Be explicit. “Be careful here” doesn’t convey any information. The runner is already being careful. “The ground is a little rough here” tells the runner what he or she needs to know.
  • Put action first, followed by background information. “We’re coming up on a crowd of people standing on the path, so…” doesn’t tell the runner what to do until it’s too late. Instead, say “Move right, we’re coming up on a crowd of people standing….”
  • Ask about decisions in advance. If there are two routes, mention it as soon as you know, so you won’t have to stop to discuss the options. If you would like to stop for water, say so before the water stop.
  • When obstacles such as bumps or ruts can’t be avoided, alert the runner to them verbally. Be sure to mention the direction. “Curb up” or “curb down” tells the runner whether to step high or expect a drop.
  • Give advance warning of turns. Be sure to mention the direction.
  • Especially in unfamiliar territory, tell your runner about the terrain. “We’re coming to a long, low hill up” or “We’ll be bearing to the right in a few steps” are good descriptions.
  • Tell your runner about things the two of you are passing that might be of interest. Are there drinking fountains? Baseball fields? Shady areas? Corn fields? Public restrooms?

Finding Other Runners

For runners or walkers who are blind or visually impaired, the best way to find other runners and guides is through the Achilles Track Club. Among their many resources is a list of local Achilles groups, where you can find runners near you.

Having Fun

Whichever guiding technique you use, and wherever you find guides, you’ll have a lot of fun. You might even find you’d like to run races. Maybe you’ll find yourself wearing smaller sizes!