Background: The presence of a disability such as visual impairment illustrates how intrinsic factors reflect the action-perception system’s particular adaptations. For blind athletes,
sports performance requires an accurate sense of orientation. Additionally, when blind elite athletes deplete energy due to the demands of a strenuous sport (running, for example), they must resolve
additional challenges to their navigational systems. The purpose of this study was to assess how physical exertion during navigation tasks affects spatial perception in blind athletes and athletes
without visual impairment.
Methods: Parameters of spatial perception tasks included navigation (angular error) and distance accuracy (produced and estimated distance). Two groups of athletes participated in the
study. Fifteen blind track-and-field (BLI) athletes (B1; B2; B3) and ten track-and-field athletes without visual impairment (VIS) volunteered for this study. A psychophysical task using a production
of distance method included four distances: 6, 14, 22, and 30 meters. Each distance was tested on a separate consecutive day. Participants initially walked a straight distance with a guide, then
immediately walked without the guide while attempting to reproduce the initial distance. They also verbally expressed the amount of walked distance. Two conditions included walking immediately after
performing an anaerobic test (physical exertion condition, PE), and walking in a rested state (RE). Participants in both groups were blindfolded. Angular error (AE) represented the magnitude of route
deviation, and relative error of distance produced (REPD) and relative error of estimated distance (REED) represented their accuracy on production and estimation of distances, respectively.
Results: An ANOVA three-way (2 groups x 2 conditions x 4 distances) using the AE variable showed that the PE condition affected navigation accuracy of both groups (p = .04). However
AE was greater in the VIS group for both conditions (PE and RS) when compared to the BLI group. These VIS athletes were also affected by the PE condition, significantly increasing the REPD (p ≤ .001).
They underestimated nearly half of all of the distances when compared to the BLI group in the PE condition, and nearly 1/3 of the distances in the RE condition. The BLI group was not significantly
affected by the PE and produced distances nearer to the actual testing values. In the PE condition, the VIS athletes overestimated the distances (p ≤ .001), increasing the REED values. This variable
did not change in the PE condition for the BLI group.
Conclusions: Athletic experience provides optimal navigation skills for blind athletes only for the linear organization of space (i.e., distance), but not for perception of route
(i.e., angular error). Such skills seemed to be resistant to physical exhaustion effects. Although the VIS group demonstrated changes in both components of spatial perception (spatial navigation and
distance perception accuracy), their adaptation to the vision restriction was short-termed, which could explain their poorer performance.