It’s boom time for running. According to Sport England, close to seven million of us Brits now put one foot in front of the other regularly each month. One big attraction of running is that it’s amazingly low-fi to get out and have a go. All you really need to start is a pair of shoes (and probably some clothes). However, once the running bug bites and you shoot higher than a weekly parkrun, other things come into play. To shave off the seconds, you start to look for better shoes, proper running gear that wasn’t dragged from the back of the wardrobe and, of course, gadgets and running tech.
How do I run further? Faster? Avoid getting injured? Enjoy my running more? These are four of the most common questions all runners ask and clever developers and entrepreneurs are busy developing technology to provide the answers. Whereas in the past we’ve turned to a friend who runs, a running club or a coach for advice, in the future things will look very different.
Technology has already invaded our runspace, GPS watches and heart rate monitors are now common training tools, but there’s more just around the next bend. Here are the innovations changing how we run.
In the near future everyone will have access to expert run coaching but it won’t come from a human. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa might be the most famous artificially intelligent assistants but we’re already seeing more and more AI innovators eyeing fitness as fertile ground. Virtual running coaches will offer everything from real-time tips to improve your form, to adaptive training plans based on your constantly evolving fitness levels.
One of the most advanced right now is LifeBEAM Vi, a real-time AI running coach who lives in a set of headphones and uses aerospace-grade biometric sensors to keep tabs on your running vitals such as heart rate and cadence.
Over time Vi learns how you run and adapts its tips and your training schedule accordingly, based on your personal goals. But what sets Vi apart is that it’s deliberately programmed to be more human, a bit like an early running version of that AI in the film Her.
At the same time, web-based companies including TrainAsOne are using Big Data techniques to create bespoke, adaptive, artificially intelligent training schedules. By processing data from thousands of runners, TrainAsOne is able to take what it knows about the training that’s worked best for someone who closely matches your own running profile and then apply it to you. The more runners, the smarter it gets and the better its training advice becomes. That’s the theory anyway.
VLM = Virtual London Marathon?
More than 253,000 people entered the ballot for the 2017 London Marathon but only 53,229 bagged a place. That’s a lot of disappointed runners. In the future, those who don’t get lucky will still be able to run the Mall – at least virtually. Virtual racing has already become a huge trend in cycling thanks to companies such as Zwift, whose platform lets riders hook up a power metre, plug into a virtual platform and ride real-time with people all over the world. A bit like a Second Life (remember that?) for running and cycling,
Zwift recently showed how the same experience can be recreated by runners, either using a simple shoe tracker or a specially customised treadmill where you control the speed and your avatar moves on screen in real-time, in keeping with your pace.
But it won’t just be about plodding on a treadmill with a screen pretending to run across Tower Bridge either. By pairing Zwift with a VR headset, cyclists can already immerse themselves in a hyper-realistic recreation of a stage of the Tour de France. Running is a little more tricky because you’re not in a fixed position like you are on a bike. But with ground-breaking VR treadmill tech like the Wizdish Rover Treadmill – that lets users roam virtual worlds in a safer way on foot – all the signs are there that virtual racing is coming.
It turns out the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ has some serious grounding in brain science. Whether you’re learning to play piano or want to run 26 miles in under four hours, repetition is the key to adopting new skills. Our innate ability to adapt to training and learn new skills – neuroplasticity – is what drives improvement. There’s just one problem: it can take thousands of repetitions, and a lot of time, to reach the performance level you want. Until now.
These space-age-looking Halo Sport headphones deploy complex science called neurostimulation, to fire up your motor cortex and increase the excitability of motor neurons. Wearing these for 20 minutes of neuropriming during your workout puts your brain into a state of heightened plasticity known as ‘hyper plasticity’ or ‘hyperlearning’, for up to 60 minutes. During this time the brain’s ability to adapt to training becomes more potent and that allows your brain to learn more quickly and achieve results faster.
Put more simply, popping on a pair of Halo Sport for your toughest, highest quality workouts has the potential to accelerate gains in strength, explosiveness, endurance, and muscle memory, short-cutting the time it takes to become a fitter, faster, more efficient runner.
All gain, no pain
Injuries are unfortunately as much a part of running as split shorts and 50-deep portaloo queues and while we’ll never be 100 per cent injury free, annoying strains, tears and niggles could be reduced with advances in sensor-laden smart clothing that spots injuries before they happen.
“Using electromyography we can already read the body’s electrical signals to tell if there’s a problem. For example, if your muscles are not relaxing anymore or you have clear compensation in your leg muscles, these are signs of an increased injury risk.” says Janne Pylväs, CEO of Myontec whose Mbody shorts are used by athletes to help highlight overtraining and injury risk. “We can even see if a cramp is coming before the runner is feeling it.”
Your feet and biomechanics are as unique to you as your fingerprints but shoes are made to fit the masses. Now imagine walking into a shop, having a 3D foot scan and a motion capture assessment to generate your individual run print, then having all that info built into your own bespoke running shoe that’s delivered in days. Those days are coming, not yet but soon. Adidas FutureCraft 4D shoes feature a midsole created using new manufacturing techniques that cut the production time, paving the way for a shoe that’s customised to work with your biomechanics.
Sensors in shoes aren’t new. Nike launched workout tracking footwear back in 2012 but smart shoes that offer real-time run coaching are. The Altra Torin IQ is the first shoe on sale with razor-thin, featherweight sensors and transmitters embedded in the midsole — providing runners with live, performance-improving data for each foot individually. Meanwhile Sensoria, who were first to put tracking in our socks are also working with barefoot, minimalist shoe specialists Vivobarefoot on a chip-loaded shoe that’s designed to offer real time form improvement feedback.
The sub-two-hour marathon remains the 26.2 holy grail and the race is on to create shoes to shave off the 178 seconds that’ll see this barrier fall. Leading the chase are Nike with the VaporFly Elite and Adidas with the Adizero sub-2. Both shoes feature lighter, more responsive midsole materials for improved energy return and time-saving from every step.
Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson gives us the inside track on three go-faster technologies racing our way in the next 20 years.
“We’ll be able to inject tiny machine-readable components into what we call the tattoo layer under the skin, next to the blood capillaries, so you can measure blood chemistry and get performance enhancing bio feedback such as blood glucose, oxygen, hydration and insulin levels.”
“Eventually we’ll have virtual-reality, high-definition contact lenses that can put running tips in front of people’s eyes, let you run with your heroes or even use VR to simulate your competitor’s race strategy if you’re an elite.”
“New electro-active polymers materials which are five to 10 times stronger than muscle, and contract when you pass a voltage over them, could be used to create performance-boosting clothing that mimics your muscle contractions, doubling your power and making you faster with every step.”
(This piece was first published in the Metro)