TREADMILL TRAINING for Visually Impaired Runners



So my first piece of advice would be, “get outdoors and enjoy the fresh air…..you will definitely feel better than running indoors.”  That being said, the fact is that weather can interfere with outdoor running and make it very uncomfortable, if the runner does not have the proper apparel.  Also, it can be difficult for a visually impaired runner to be outdoors….for the VI runner who requires a guide to run outdoors, there can be conflicts with the guides schedule.  Guides cannot just drop what they are doing and support a VI runner’s guiding needs when the VI runner wants to run….this can be a barrier for outdoor running.  Finally, there are hazards out there for the VI runner.  Imagine going outside, closing your eyes and running.  Hazards become pretty apparent – curbs, street sighs, fire hydrants, dog leashes, benches, snow piles, etc.  Pretty much anything can be a hazard, and depending on how much sight the VI runner has the degree of hazard can vary.  Not to be left out are poor drivers.  I come close to being hit every time I run or bike outside.  Because I do not have peripheral vision, I don’t see cars that blow through Stop signs and do the famed “California Stop”.  I always scan to look for cars & most of the time I perceive them; however, there are times when God just takes care of it for me.  : )

What all this means, is that at times it makes more sense for a VI runner to turn to a treadmill to get a workout in.  When I first started using a treadmill, I hated it.  I thought it was just that I was indoors.  As I traveled and used different types of treadmills in different hotels, I realized that different treadmills and different environments were better than others.  In this blog, I’ll discuss 1) types of treadmills; and 2) treadmill environments that I have found work best for VI runners.

TYPES OF TREADMILLS

There are a myriad of treadmills on the market.  My firm belief is that any runner should get, in the very least, a middle of the road treadmill – price point is usually $800-$1200.  This guarantees that the motor, belt, parts and warranty is decent.  My advice here is, stay far away from that super cheap treadmill at Wal-Mart.  You will need to invest in this equipment….and if you make the correct investment, the equipment should last you for 5 years easy.  If you do the math, the purchase price becomes $13-$20/month.  The more you pay, the more bells and whistles you get – such as, built-in fans, built-in workout programs, color schemes, etc.  There are also some very important features that you want to ensure you get in your treadmill which are discussed below.

1.     Motor – The motor is the guts of any treadmill.  For runners and heavier athletes (170lbs+), my advice is to get a treadmill with a motor that has at least 3 horsepower (commonly seen in the specifications manuals as “3 CHP”).  The motor is what makes the belt move at a steady, continuous pace.  If you are a walker or of moderate weight (<170lbs), you could go as low as a 2.5 horsepower motor (“2.5 CHP”) and be comfortable that the motor strength is adequate for your purposes.

2.  Belt Width – I never really understood the importance of belt width until I stayed at some discount hotels with very cheap exercise equipment in their “fitness centers”.  I quickly learned what not to get as I tripped, fell and was thrown forcefully into a wall.  AT A MINIMUM, belt width MUST be 20”.  If you can find a treadmill with a belt wider than 20”, opt for the wider belt to the extent you can afford it.  As VI Runners, we tend to drift side-to-side on treadmills (I will talk more about that later); hence, the belt width is directly correlated to a VI Runner’s ability to effectively use a treadmill.


3.  Side Safety Bars/Side-Drift Protection – Almost all treadmills have some form of “drift protection” technology built into them.  Most of the time, this comes of the form of “grips” that run parallel to the belt at waist height.  Below is an example of a treadmill with what I consider Minimal Drift Protection, and the VI Runner should avoid such treadmills.  Shop for a treadmill with maximum Drift Protection in it’s Side Safety Bars.  Sometimes these bars extend to the base of the unit.  And sometimes the Side Safety Bars extend further back to ensure the runner will feel the Safety Bar if s/he is drifting side-to-side.


INADEQUATE Safety/Drift Protection - DO NOT USE
ADEQUATE Safety/Drift Protection


4.     Control Panel Ease – Control panels come in all different options.  The fact of the matter is that you will need to take time and learn how to use the treadmill controls in order to make the best use of the equipment.  If you can find a treadmill with large “acceleration” and “incline” controls, the treadmill is easier to use when running.  The treadmill should also have an easy “panic switch” which will immediately stop the belt from moving.  Most “panic switches” have a clip that the runner is supposed to clip to their clothing.  I have never used the clip, but wish I would have when I fell and was thrown off the treadmill at the hotel I described previously.  Below are some examples of complex and simple control panels.





TREADMILL ENVIRONMENTS FOR VI RUNNERS

For people with Visual Impairments, there are a variety of considerations that need to be taken into account.  You want to identify the VI Runners visual strengths and maximize those in creating a suitable environment for treadmill running.  I am going to use myself as an example, although this may not work well for you unless your vision issues are similar.

In setting up my treadmill, I needed to know my visual strengths and deficits in order to create a pleasant & safe training environment.  I have advanced Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).  I have 20/400 visual acuity, and a 10 degree field of vision.  That means I don’t see details of things that are far away and I have tunnel vision (I only see what is directly in front of me, and do not have peripheral vision).  Another symptom of RP is night blindness, which means my eyes have good sensitivity to high contrast details.  I can see shadows very well against well lit objects.  For instance, if I’m on a trail running toward the sun, I can see rocks very well because I see the shadows they cast.  If however, I’m on the trail and the sun is directly above me or at my back, I have great difficulty seeing rocks as I cannot see their shadows, and most dust covered rocks blend into the trail.  Knowing the above, I assess my strengths as the following:
  1. Eyesight – I have some eyesight to use when training on a treadmill
  2. Contrast – My eyes pick up contrast/shadows very well
  3. Tunnel Vision – I am able to focus well on objects that are directly in front of me
  4. Acuity – I can see things that are close to me

In knowing the above, I set up a treadmill training environment that enabled me to maximize my strengths.  At gyms, I realized that when treadmills were facing open space I had a lot of trouble controlling drift when I was running.  I would always hit the safety/drift bars.  However, when the treadmill was facing a mirror, I was able to use the vision I had to help control drift.  Hence, I planned to place a mirror in front of my home treadmill so I could use the vision I had to help me control drift.  I picked a place where I could face a wall and be within 24 inches of it.  I went to TJ Maxx and bought a mirror roughly the same width as my treadmill and hung it directly in front of the treadmill.  I wanted it to be “eye height” when I was standing on the treadmill so I would not have to bend my neck up or down to see the image.  The next thing I knew would help me was contrast.  How could I create a “high contrast environment” that would enable my eyes to sense differences in contrast?  My answer was to install a “shop light” directly above my treadmill.  Shoplights are extremely bright, and I knew it would cast shadows nicely if it was directly above me on the treadmill.  I also realized that if I moved out of where I was supposed to be on the treadmill, the way the shadows were cast would be changed, and my eyes would be able to perceive the change in contrast.  Finally, I wanted to ensure that the area behind me was not brightly lit, as that would negatively impact the “high contrast environment” I was trying to create on the treadmill.  Below is a picture of my treadmill set-up:

NOTE: Shop light above treadmill, mirror in front at eye level in a basement that can be darkened to  create contrast
I’ve also added some pictures of the differences in contrast/shadows when I am at the correct position on the forward part of the treadmill (picture 1), and when I move too far back on the treadmill - toward the rear of the belt (picture 2).
Picture 1:  Correct forward position under light.  NOTE: shadows on face, arms & chest


Picture 2:  Incorrect position too far to the rear.  NOTE:  lack of shadows on face and body.
 Notice the “high contrast environment” behind me on the treadmill.  The light illuminates my body against a dark background.  Also, the shoplight casts excellent shadows against the body and facial features which makes it easy to tell if I am in the correct place on the treadmill.

Next, I wanted to take advantage of my tunnel vision.  Because my field of vision is narrow, I realized that as long as I learned to always look forward, I would easily be able to tell if I was “drifting” on the treadmill from side-to-side.  I focused on looking at my shadows (me) in the mirror.  That meant, I would always be looking directly forward in the mirror.  With my tunnel vision, I set the treadmill at a distance from the wall where I could not see the frame of the mirror when I was directly in the middle of the treadmill.  I then knew that if I was seeing the frame when I was running I was drifting either left or right.  See pictures below noting “Left Drift” (picture 3) and “Right Drift” (picture 4).

Picture 3:  Left Drift
Picture 4:  Right Drift
       
CONCLUSION

It is very important for all people to get regular exercise for physical and mental benefits.  It is especially important for visually impaired people to get regular exercise, as we usually end of battling some tendencies of depressive states due to having a significant physical challenge.  I hope this blog has given some people some ideas about how to find solutions to be active using a treadmill as a tool to increase physical and mental health.

BTW – on my home set-up, I have never fallen off the treadmill and I regularly run at sub-6 minute pace without hitting the safety/drift bars.  I simply use shadows/contrast to tell where I am at on the treadmill.  I’m currently training for a marathon and trying to PR by at least 6 minutes; hence, timed speed workouts are critical.  My treadmill has been a savior when the weather has been uncooperative, or when daylight has yet to present itself.

I have been asked what I think the best treadmill trainer would be for me, and it is hands down the NordicTrack X11i Incline Trainer (check it out HERE).

You gotta dream…..right?

For more information on Treadmill Running for Visually Impaired runners, please visit Mike Lloyd's podcast by clicking HERE.  He's a "Kiwi" (New Zealander" & a wealth of knowledge.  Thanks for reaching out Mike & sharing your insights!

Also, I received the following comments from Simon Wheatcroft, UK Blind Ultra-runner extraordinaire - GREAT TIPS . . . Thanks Simon! "Simon Wheatcroft Nice piece, I use a treadmill too for bits of my training and my setup varies a little from yours. I have far less vision than yourself just above light perception.  I use a light to counter drift, as long as the light isn't moving I am not drifting. I am able to control drift well now and sometimes forego the light.  I also use bump ons on all the relevant controls, so I can feel a raised little bump and know what to press.  Big fan of Nordic Track too, as they have single touch speed and incline buttons on their treadmill line, so very easy to attach bump ons to specific speeds and inclines."

Disclaimer:  The inner-lawyer in me must tell you that I am only sharing my suggestions.  Be sure to take appropriate precautions for yourself if you are going to train on a treadmill.  The above blog shares only ideas, and I hope that they can somehow help you find new and different ways to make treadmill training more enjoyable and effective.  RUN FREE!!!!




Jason Romero is a highly sought after inspirational speaker and the 1st and only blind person to run across America.  Jason is a member of the US Paralympic Team, holds 11 world records in ultra-running, a former attorney and business executive, and a single father of 3 children.  More information can be found on Jason at www.relentlessromero.com

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