Adaptive Time Handicap System

13 Aug

A number of rowing clubs with adaptive programmes have developed a system of individual athlete time-handicaps to provide more competitive, equitable and enjoyable racing. The system was pioneered by Marlow Rowing Club and Guildford Rowing Club, but an increasing number of clubs have adopted it (eg. City of Oxford, Maidenhead) for their adaptive competitions.


The time handicap system addresses the problem of the granularity of classification versus population of competitors. The more finely you define a classification, by definition, you get fewer competitors. In the emerging world of adaptive rowing where there a relatively small number of participants, defining competition categories in a very tight ways means that the person who fits into that category often has no one to race against. You can take pride in being the best Female Congenital Leg Impaired Rower Between 30-40, but you won’t find anyone to race against.

On the other hand, once you start to define the categories more broadly, then you get the opposite problem of wide disparity of ability. This problem is most acute in the broadest pararowing category of PR3 (which used to be “LTA” for “Leg Trunk Arms”). It includes everyone from someone with a fused ankle to spinal injury wheelchair users.

This issue exists in the non-adaptive rowing world as well as for other sports (eg. weight categories in combat sports). Age bands for juniors and vets are always a bone of contention. But the issue does seem to get amplified in the adaptive world. One not only has the conventional disparities of capability (eg. gender, age), but also dramatically differing impacts of impairments on an athlete’s capability. Conditions like spinal injuries and cerebral palsy can have dramatically differing degrees of physical impact.


One of objective of the time handicap system is to make for more competitive racing with closer finishes. Prior to the system, adaptive races had some of the largest margins of differential between competitors. These results were unsatisfying for both the winners and the losers. The losers felt bad losing by so much and during the race felt frustrated that it was hopeless to catch their opponent. Conversely, the winners felt bad winning by so much and often ended up coasting home which didn’t make for much of a race for them either. Since the introduction of the system, a large percentage of the adaptive races have finished within a boat length. These result not only make for more gratifying competition for the rowers, but also more exciting events for the spectators. A number of the adaptive rower have reported doing the best racing of their lives because they had the pressure of stiff competition and the loud cheering of the crowd right down to the finish line.

A key characteristic to the approach is the collaborative and consultative approach by the coaches in advance of a race. The system is not robotically mathematical. Instead, the data is there to inform the handicaps being applied, but the ultimate handicaps are approved personally by the coaches entering the athletes.


The system of individual time handicaps means that one’s competition “pole position” is entirely tailored to that individual. We maintain a master database (see snippet in graphic below) of all reported recorded times of adaptive athletes in the UK both training and competition. These times are used to determine the benchmarks against which time handicaps are calculated. If Athlete A rows 500m in 2:30 and Athlete B rows 500m in 2:40, then Athlete B is given a 10 second head start at the beginning of the race.

One advantage of this approach is that the rowing world is already accustomed to the use of time handicaps in Masters and Veteran competitions. As a result, the umpires and marshals have an established process in place for starting boats at different time intervals.

time handicap database


Having now trialled the system for 2 years in the Thames Valley area, we’ve picked up a number of lessons about refining the effectiveness of the system.

  • Pursuit Disadvantage – There is a natural disadvantage to being in pursuit. You can’t see your opposition and being “behind” has a psychological burden. As a result, we have found that we need to shave a maybe 5 seconds off the pursuers time lag (from the straight comparison of 500m times) to compensate for this effect.  This impact also appears to be amplified in adverse weather conditions.  By definition, athletes’ PB are typically set during very good rowing conditions.  When conditions are bad, that slows everyone up.  The slowing means that the opportunity for the faster boat to catch the time advantaged boat is reduced.  Finally, the pursuit disadvantage is aggravated by drift.  If the race is taking place on a river with some flow or a tail wind and it takes some time to set the boats up at the start line (which can often be the case with adaptive rowers who have constraints in manoeuvrability), then the start can drift as much as 50 yards from the measured start.  If the time differential has been set so the pursuer can catch the other athlete at the 500m mark, but the race has shrunk to 450 meters, then the pursuer will lose out on 50 critical meters needed at the end of the race to make up the difference.
  • Learning Curve – The whole system is predicated on the notion that someone’s performance is relatively stable.  For veteran rowers who have trained extensively, refined their technique and developed their fitness, this assumption is usually true.  Incremental gains tend to be modest and infrequent.  However, this situation is not the case for beginners.  Newcomers to the sport slide down the learning curve very rapidly.  Friday’s time could be considerably better than Wednesday’s just from the benefit of Wednesday’s training session.  As a result, newer rowers tend to have a big advantage in the time handicap system because their notes benchmark is moving in their favour relentlessly.  The race planners try to accommodate for this dynamic and take lots of input from the individual’s coach to try to determine a reasonably ambitious and equitable time marker for the upcoming event.  Also it is worth noting that the variability issue can work the other way.  Some conditions (notably MS) are degenerative which means that an individual’s performance is likely to degrade over time.  Similarly, we event planners take coach input in order to accommodate for that impact as well.
  • Heat Adjustments – Not ambient temperature but preliminary racing. Adaptive coaches are still debating and experimenting with how timings should be applied through the race Does the race (a) have a single benchmark for an athlete which stays with them for the entire day, or (b) have a benchmark time that changes based on performance in the preliminary races. The arguments for the former include not penalising someone who is having a great day, avoiding deliberate or inadvertent skewing of times in the heats, and simplifying the race logistics. The arguments for the latter include adapting for athletes whose performance varies day to day (eg. MS athletes) as well as compensating for lack sufficient data to determine a solid individual benchmark (eg. new athletes).

The time handicap system is under constant review and examination. If you have thoughts about how it could be enhanced, please leave them in the comment section.

14 Replies to “Adaptive Time Handicap System

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  6. As we were planning the Marlow Spring (Adaptive) Regatta, I chatted with Robert Hall, the Guildford RC adaptive coach, coordinator and general pioneer of adaptive rowing in the UK as he introduced me to so much when I first started. He was recounting how far the Time Handicap System had progressed from when he first conceived of it (as noted in the above post). He shared these reflections and a bit of its history…

    “The circumstances of tomorrows race reminded me of the first time I realised that this type of handicap system would work. This occurred at a Shrewsbury regatta a few years ago The regatta was cancelled after we had set of from Guildford. By the Sunday racing was possible but the event had been cancelled. The home club, Pengwern, arranged a substitute event for those of us still there consisting of a time trial followed by side by side racing based on positions in the time trial. I was in a double and we ended up racing a women’s novice 8. The result was very exciting , thanks to the odd crab in the 8 we ended up a canvas ahead over 600 metres. This was the light bulb moment when I realised that you could have exciting racing with apparently very differently matched boats. Based on this we had the experimental regatta at Heron Lake. Marlow and Maidenhead have since translated this into an event which can be held within a BR authorised regatta using Phyllis Court time trial results as a basis for handicaps. Interestingly I have recently seen that Lancaster regatta has also adapted a similar format again within BR rules of racing.”

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