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Racing SmartWheel

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News March 2014

All wheelchair athletes want to move faster, expend the least amount of energy and avoid pain and injury. A new type of wheel is helping them do exactly that.

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The Racing SmartWheel is a new device developed at the University of Pittsburgh that will be used with racing and athletic wheelchairs to detect forces and torques applied to the hand rim.

The information gained from the Racing SmartWheel can help athletes better their stroke mechanics to improve performance and prevent injury.

The Racing SmartWheel is an updated version of the SmartWheel, which is used to examine everyday manual wheelchair propulsion.

Rolling Data

The SmartWheel was developed by Rory Cooper, PhD, Kimberly Asato, Rick Robertson, PhD and J.F. Ster.


The original SmartWheel creates data that helps target the wheelchair users at risk for repetitive strain injuries.

The wheel determines which wheelchair users are at risk for repetitive strain injury by analyzing the number of meters traveled per second and number of strokes per unit time (cadence).

The wheels are used by rehabilitation professionals to evaluate and provide wheelchair propulsion training to clients in more than 350 clinics worldwide.

The SmartWheel’s hub is attached to the hand rim by three beams. The SmartWheel and the Racing SmartWheel have a similar structure, but the Racing SmartWheel is built from a 28-inch racing wheel that can detect and withstand the large forces racing athletes apply to the hand rim.

Both wheels have sensors on the beams that measure the forces exerted on the hand rim and sensors that measure the angle of the wheel. Both wheels wirelessly send the data to a computer that converts these files to Microsoft Excel, creating a report useful to both athletes and coaches.

Eliminating Waste

Wheelchair racing propulsion involves highly specialized technique that can take years for an athlete to develop.

Because racers must have precise contact with the hand rim at high speeds, it’s easy for stroke timing and coordination errors to occur. For example, the total force a racer produces is the sum of many smaller component forces. These component forces can be both productive (accelerating the wheel forward) or wasteful (braking or slowing the wheel).

The Racing SmartWheel measures these forces directly and lets the athlete know where energy is being wasted during contact with the hand rim.

The use of repetitive wasteful forces can limit speed and performance and may contribute to the development of upper limb injuries such as rotator cuff strain.

Those type of injuries can be reduced by optimizing the balance of forces applied to the hand rim. This is done by keeping the pressure through the muscles and joints of the upper limb and the number of times the arm propels the wheelchair forward to a minimum.

Racers can optimize their strokes by learning to cut out wasteful forces.  Decreasing wasteful forces can be accomplished by maximizing the power it takes to rotate the wheel (torque), which should be a large proportion of the total force.

Additionally, if athletes become more productive on the hand rim they may be able to use fewer strokes to achieve and maintain a desired speed. The Racing SmartWheel can also be used in the same way to help racers measure the influence of different glove styles or sitting postures.

Ultimately, the information gathered from a Racing SmartWheel will help racers and their coaches devise training strategies to optimize the racing stroke, while tracking the user’s progress over time.

Future Testing

The Racing SmartWheel will be used in a study partnered by the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois.

Researchers will use data from the wheel to determine if specific racing gloves and body positions lead to optimal force application and improved performance.

Wheelchair racers will be asked to propel their racing wheelchairs fitted with the Racing SmartWheel. Researchers will record force, torque and velocity from the wheel.

Then, participants will be introduced to a new body position or style of racing gloves. Racers will be re-tested with the Racing SmartWheel to determine if body position or gloves improve stroke mechanics.

Wheelchair racing is an inherently repetitive action where fractions of a second influence the outcomes of a race; therefore, subtle stroke improvements can have a huge impact on success.

This study will provide new insights on glove technology and racing body position.

Improvement Tool

The Racing SmartWheel will come with an easy-to-understand user’s guide designed for people without training in rehabilitation technology, as well as an assessment protocol to streamline the process of testing and tracking progress.

The Racing SmartWheel will help wheelchair racers and their coaches track improvement. With future research, the wheel has the potential to become an effective and widely used tool.

For more information, visit herl.pitt.edu.

 

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