Understanding Adaptive Sports, by Lauren Wentz

I first became interested in adapted sports when a friend of mine/former patient asked me to run the Boston marathon with him. He suffers from MS, and I became his guide for the race. He runs in the mobility impaired category and experiences symptoms such as visual impairment, impaired balance, overheating, and loss of sensation in his lower extremities. This experience changed my life. It led me to go back to school and receive my masters in adapted physical activity. I am now on a mission to help adapted sports grow in the Pittsburgh community.

Adaptive sports are competitive or recreational sports for people with disabilities.

They allow modifications necessary for people with disabilities to participate in and enjoy the competitive nature. Many sports use a classification system that puts athletes with physical challenges on an even playing field with each other. Adaptive or Paralympic sports run parallel to typical or Olympic sports. The classification system is different for each sport but allows for fair competition. The classification system continues to evolve and to increase competition.

There is more than just modifying the competition. Athletes compete to the best of their abilities by using adapted equipment and/or techniques. Most sports permit assisted devices, prosthetics, and modified sports equipment. For example, in the sport of triathlon a tether connects a visually impaired swimmer to a sighted guide. Or in swimming, a stick with a soft tip is used to tap the athlete’s head to let him or her know they are close to the wall.

Running may be done on foot with carbon fiber blades (individuals with a lower extremity amputation) or a push rim. The modifications and adaptations are evolving as technology evolves. This places the question as to when these modifications are going to be too advanced and outperform the human body.

Triathlon [i]

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) governs the paratriathlon and is a new sport to the 2016 Paralympics. The sport of paratriathlon has the typical three events: swimming, biking, and running. As stated before, a tether can connect a visually impaired swimmer to a sighted guide. Upon exiting the water, there is a pre-transition area that allows individuals with mobility impairments to use an assistive device to don their prosthetic and get to the transition area.

Biking takes place on either a typical road/tri bike, a tandem bike for the visually impaired, or a hand cycle. Along the bike course there are penalty boxes: if you break a rule, you have to stop at the next penalty box for the allotted time that is displayed for your penalty. For example, an athlete might incur a penalty of 1 minute for drafting or 2 minutes for taking their helmet off too early.

The run segment is completed either on foot, on foot with a prosthetic, or in a push rim. A tether connects a visually-impaired athlete to a sighted guide. There are also penalty boxes along the run course.

The eligible impairments for triathlon are; impaired muscle power, athetosis, impaired passive range of motion, hypertonia, limb deficiency, ataxia, and visual impairment.

PT1 (Wheelchair user Paratriathletes)

Paratriathletes in this class swim, cycle on a handbike, and compete in a racing wheelchair for the run section. This class includes athletes with, but not limited to, impairments of muscle power, range of movement, limb deficiency such as unilateral or double leg amputation, spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia or tetraplegia, etc.

PT2-4 (Ambulant Paratriathletes)

Paratriathletes in this sport class swim and cycle on a conventional bike with or without approved adaptations. The run is performed with or without the use of an approved prosthesis and/or supportive devices and can fall into 3 different sport classes. These sport classes include but are not limited to Paratriathletes with impairment of muscle power, range of movement, limb deficiency, hypertonia, ataxia, and athetosis.


This sport class includes athletes with a severe degree of activity limitation such as, but not limited to, unilateral above knee amputees, double below knee amputee, athletes with a significant combined upper and lower limb muscle power limitation or severe neurological impairment such as congenital hemiplegia, severe cerebral palsy, etc.


This sport class includes athletes with a moderate degree of activity limitation such as athletes with, but not limited to, a through the shoulder amputation, complete loss of range of motion in one arm, athletes with a moderate combined upper and lower limb loss of muscle power, or moderate neurological impairments such as ataxia or athetosis.


This sport class includes athletes with a mild degree of activity limitation such as athletes with, but not limited to, a below the elbow arm amputation, below the knee amputation, partial loss of arm muscle power, lower limb deficiency, or mild neurological impairments such as ataxia or athetosis.

PT5 Athletes with Visual Impairment

Paratriathletes in this sport class swim, ride a tandem cycle, and run with a sighted-guide. Athletes with a visual impairment all compete against each other.

Giving back


I will be returning to Boston this year with my friend to run as his guide. Additionally, I will be running 167 miles in 6 days for the MS Run the US. This event is an ultra relay to raise awareness for MS. All donations are welcome and truly appreciated. If interested, you can donate here: MS Run the US link.

Donations are a significant part of helping athletes compete in Adaptive Sports.

[i] https://www.triathlon.org/paratriathlon


Lauren is a physical therapist specializing in working with children and adults with disabilities in the Pittsburgh area. Her dream is to continue to grow the field of adapted sports and bring awareness and resources to individuals and their families.

A Virginia Tech graduate, Lauren holds her Crossfit Level 1 certification. She is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and practices in sports medicine and pediatrics.

Lauren is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches at Yoga on Main in Butler, PA.

All bloggers receive a small compensation for their contributions.*

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