Are ‘Smart’ Shoes the Future of Running?

Photo by Runsafer. Used with permission.

Will this be in your running shoes in the future? (Photo by Runsafer. Used with permission.)

Anyone who’s started a new running regimen has likely found themselves in a store trying on pair after pair of running shoes, searching for that just-right fit to maximize comfort and minimize your risk of injury.

But what if your shoe could do some of the work for you?

That’s the idea behind RUNSAFER, a system developed by researchers at the Biomechanics Institute of Valencia, Spain. The system combines a pair of shoes fitted with sensors, a heart-rate monitor, and a mobile phone app to track a runner’s progress and send an alert if they may be reaching fatigue.

“One objective of the project was to consider also the physiological data of the runner to better characterize the runner while running,” says Nicolás Palomares, a researcher on the project.

Because the shoe is still in the prototype stage of development, Palomares couldn’t reveal all of the specifics of its measuring system. But here’s the basics: Micro-electronics on the shoes sense the runner’s movements and characterize the runner’s technique.

Data from the sensors is transmitted wirelessly to an app on the runner’s phone, which also receives information from a wearable heart-rate monitor. (The monitor doesn’t come with the shoes, but the system is compatible with commercial heart monitors.)

All of this runner's information -- heart rate, pace, and micro-measurements of his energy usage -- are processed by the chip in his shoe and sent to an app on his phone. (Photos by RunSafer. Used with permission.)

All of this runner’s information — heart rate, pace, and micro-measurements of his energy usage — are processed by the chip in his shoe and sent to an app on his phone. (Photos by RunSafer. Used with permission.)

The app also tracks the basics that most fitness apps track, like calories burned, running speed, and distance traveled.

Using all this data, the system then designs customized training programs based on an individual runner’s parameters. It can also send alerts in real time recommending a runner slow down or stop altogether if fatigue is imminent.

“While running, both biomechanical and physiological parameters are modified, which means that the running technique is also affected,” says Palomares.

“When the RUNSAFER system detects that the user’s running pattern has been excessively modified, reaching a state of peripheral fatigue and leading to a possible injury risk, the user is notified via the cellular phone app.”

This could be a big help for runners, who frequently suffer overuse injuries, particularly below the knee.

While statistics are hard to come by, Gretchen Reynolds, an exercise columnist for The New York Times and author of the book The First 20 Minutes, estimates that between 30 and 90 percent of runners injure themselves in any given year.

And the ultimate cause of such overuse injuries - why some runners suffer them and others don’t - is still unclear.

“I think it could be useful,” Irene Davis, director of the Spaulding National Running Center and a professor of physical medicine at Harvard Medical School, says of RUNSAFER.

“I think most serious runners do run past their point of fatigue and that does put them at risk.”


Just how useful it is depends on the specific biomechanical markers the shoe is measuring, Davis says, and that information is not yet publicly available.

But the system has been tested with 120 recreational runners, and the Spanish sportswear manufacturer New Millennium Sports S.L. is interested in commercializing RUNSAFER, Palomares says, once it goes through further testing.

That means it may be a while before Spanish runners get their hands on these smart shoes, and even longer for athletes here in the United States.

But don’t run out to the shoe store for a new fitting just yet. A growing body of research is showing that the usual techniques used to fit shoes for reducing injury may in fact do nothing at all.

A 2008 review of published literature found that there was no evidence supporting the practice of fitting a shoe to an individual’s foot type in order to reduce injury.

And a 2009 study that examined the practice among Army recruits in basic training found that, “if the goal is injury prevention, this selection technique is not necessary.”

Instead, just find a comfortable pair of shoes, listen to your body, and go.

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