Guide Running With Blind or Visually Impaired Runners

Becoming a guide runner for the visually impaired (VI) is one of the most challenging and gratifying things you can do as a runner. A guide runner is a volunteer who aids the visually impaired in running or jogging. If you believe that running should be shared with people who can’t do it on their own due to vision loss, pay it forward by becoming a guide.  It’s a running activity and experience that is worth signing up for.

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Before You Hit The Ground Running

If you’re running with a VI runner for the first time, it’s OK to feel nervous about the whole thing. That’s a good sign that you’re on your way to becoming a capable and reliable guide runner because you want to perform to the best of your abilities. To shake off the nerves, it’s always a good idea to talk to the runner you wish to guide prior to your first run.

Either have a sit down a day or two before running so you both get a feel for each other, or agree to meet on the course a little earlier. This will give you and your VI running partner time to discuss strategies on how to make the run go as smooth as possible. United in Stride suggest a few useful questions:

  • What are your expectations of me?
  • What pace and distances are we expected to run together?
  • Can you please describe your loss of vision and how it affects running?
  • Can you please describe what cues (verbal or otherwise) and assistance moves work best during a run?

By asking these type of questions beforehand, you can eliminate any awkwardness that may limit your performance as a guide runner. You’ll also have a clear idea of what will work work best for the type of visually impaired runner you’ll be guiding. Remember to respect personal boundaries, be a good listener and never assume anything.

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Guiding Advice From A Blind Runner

As the eyes of a visually impaired runner, guides are expected to keep VI runners safe and informed at all times. Guiding methods include verbal cues, elbow lead, waist to waist tether, rigid hand held tether, rope tether and front to back running. Guides should ask the VI runner which of these methods are most comfortable for them.

Michael Lloyd, 5 x NYC Marathon finisher, avid cyclist and founder of blindrunner.com, prefers the rope tether method and feels it’s one of the best techniques when running with a guide. This involves Michael running beside a guide runner while holding a piece of rope about a metre in length (400mm when tied), with loops at each end and a knot in the middle for extra grip.

The 400mm length is long enough for arm movement and short enough to be responsive for direction changes. Michael also suggests it’s better and safer to just loop your fingers through the loop instead of looping it all the way to your wrist, so just in case one of you slips and falls, the other can let go safely and avoid injury.

Tip: You can practice with other fellow guide runners by running blindfolded and allowing others to guide you. This will enable you to feel what it’s like running with little or no vision, and you can make the necessary adjustments when guiding a visually impaired runner.

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Verbal Cues and Commentary

Verbal cues are always going to be present no matter what type of guiding method is used. The 3-2-1 countdown is universally accepted as the best way to alert VI runners of upcoming obstacles, changes in footing and turns. For example, “Curb down in 3-2-1, down” or “Left turn in 3-2-1, turn”. When you need to run single file, call out “Narrow gap ahead. Get behind me in 3-2-1, now”.

When using the rope tether method, VI runner Michael Lloyd recommends that you push the runner’s arm or pull on the rope as well as speak the direction (L or R) when turning.

Guides should call out key points and areas of interest such as drinking fountains and restrooms and can describe beautiful scenery like flowers in bloom, majestic trees and other parts of the course that the VI runner may find interesting. However VI runners aren’t expecting you to give them colour commentary on everything you see, so avoid doing it unless it’s a breathtaking sight.

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Tips For An Aspiring Guide Runner

It takes a special kind of person to become a sighted guide for the visually impaired, because not only will you be thinking about your own run and well being, you’re also going to have to think and see for someone else. The following guiding tips are from blindrunner.com, the American Foundation for the Blind and United in Stride.

  • You don’t need to have PhD in guide running or be a 3 x marathon winner to become a guide runner, but you do need to love running and have experience in running events.
  • Don’t run too fast and keep a steady pace with the VI runner. Always let the VI runner set the pace. It’s not your job to set the pace unless the VI runner asks you to.
  • Be alert and communicate often. As a guide, you need to be aware of what is ahead of both you and the VI runner at all times. Be conscious of distances, ground width, elevation, obstacles and everything else you see with your peripheral vision.
  • Call out all potential hazards such as slippery sections, gaps, puddles, potholes, obstacles, dogs, kids, other runners and everything else that you might encounter.
  • Be patient when guiding a VI runner through a course, especially when you’re doing it for the first time. They may not hear you well due to the ambient noise of the outdoors, or they might get confused with directions.
  • At times, you have to be assertive, especially in risky and hazardous situations. It’s perfectly fine to stop and go around an obstacle, or to yank a VI runner out of the way if it’s too late and their safety is at risk.
  • It’s normal for a VI runner to inform the guide what he or she is doing wrong and will offer suggestions on how to improve it. Don’t take offense. You have to be open to suggestions and accept criticisms as ways to improve your guiding skills.
  • Keep in mind that you’re not a coach, so never order a VI runner around or shout. They’re blind, not deaf. Don’t be condescending and patronizing either.
  • Guide running is not for everyone. If you feel obligated in any way and deep down you don’t really want to be a guide, don’t do it. Half-hearted guide running can pose a risk for both you, the VI runner and other runners.

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Parting Thoughts

If you’ve done it all in the sport of running, trying your hand at becoming a guide runner is definitely a unique experience, with challenges that require a whole different approach. It’s a serious responsibility having the health, safety and well being of another person in your hands.

At the same time, guiding a visually impaired runner and being their eyes on a big event can give you a different kind of high, one that you’ll take with you long after you hang up your running shoes.

Resources for Guide Runners and Visually Impaired Runners

Australia
Achilles Running Club Sydney
Blind Sports Australia

New Zealand
Achilles International New Zealand

USA
United in Stride
American Foundation for the Blind
Achilles International USA
Running Blind
Trolley Run

Canada
Achilles Canada
British Columbia Blind Sports Association
Ontario Blind Sports Association
Alberta Sports and Recreation Association for the Blind

UK
England Athletics
British Blind Sport

Singapore
Sharing the Lion City

  • Thiago Pontes

    Hello everyone, my name is Thiago Pontes and I will Run the NY marathon in november. I would like to be a guide for a blind runner. Someone knows how I can find some blind runner? Regards