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A Glimpse Into the Future of Running Technology

Leading biomechanics expert Dr. Benno Nigg discusses the role for robots, the potential for smart socks and when technology is being taken too far.


In the world of biomechanics, Dr. Benno Nigg needs no introduction. Originally from Switzerland, he completed his PhD at the renowned ETH Zurich in 1975 before becoming Director of the same university’s Biomechanics Laboratory. In 1981, he accepted an invitation to found the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary in Canada, which has been the home for his award-winning research ever since. 



In his almost 50 years of focusing on human locomotion, mobility and longevity, Benno has been on the front line of rapid developments in the field which, like his enthusiasm for the topic, shows no sign of slowing down. 


Among his specialist subjects is running shoes, which is one of many reasons we’re proud to call Benno a friend of On. It’s also why we were very excited to sit down with him to talk technology on one of his visits to Zurich. 


We sat in as On Co-Founder Olivier Bernhard and Human Movement Specialist Dina Tageldin asked Benno about thoughts on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of new technology and potential future developments for runners. 


Breaking Barriers or Breaking the Rules?  


The inescapable topic in the world of performance running and racing right now is the point at which the advantage provided by running shoe technology becomes unfair. Recently, this led to a revision of the rules governing competition shoes for elite athletes. According to Benno, the focus should stay on function. 


“Previously there was only  rule that you cannot have an unfair advantage – by putting a spring in the shoe, for example.” Benno explained.


“I think we also needed the rules relating to the height and structure of the material in the heel. Because it was getting to the point where things could get crazy – we’re starting to see heel technology that is like a spring. There should be a functional reason for the technology that is there and we’re starting to see shoes where there is no functional reason for some of that technology."


This is where we start to see risks to runners. 


Whatever your take on the technology, there’s no doubt that it has helped humans push boundaries previously thought unreachable, from Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile to a sub 2:00 marathon (albeit in simulated conditions). 


Asked what the next major barrier to break will be, Benno believes it’s time we stopped looking at “man’s” great athletic achievements and focus on what women are truly capable of.


“All the records talked about are for males – what about females? The longer the race, the closer the gap is in performance (between male and female athletes). I think it is in women’s sport where we will see the next major barriers broken.”



Artificial Intelligence and Smart Socks


Talking of progress, the discussion turned to the next big developments in running shoe production. 


“Just imagine if we could use a sock with sensors that could examine pressure points and then 3D print the shoe. 3D printing is an important one, but we still don’t know what the best input is.” Benno said. 


“We have the artificial intelligence to have all inputs going into the system for different groups of information about the function of the runner, but we don’t yet know which inputs we should be using. If we can determine the functional groups relevant for each of us, we could then build shoes according to that personal input, but we’re not there yet.”


In the short term, however, Benno predicts that larger-scale production of more comfortable shoes, rather than personalized shoes, will be the way forwards. While On shoes, for example, are currently made to a large extent by hand, Benno sees that the increased involvement of robots in the product process could be “massive.”


The aforementioned socks with sensors also present potential applications that Benno and his team are excited about. 


“We did a lot of work to quantify muscle activity and it led us to a completely different method to quantify muscle activity compared with the one that is commonly used. You would usually use two sensors and measure the difference. But if you have, for instance, sweat interfering with the sensors, you have a problem. 


We are looking at a method where we don’t measure the potential difference between two points, we measure the current output. It could work using a discrete sensor in a sock – similar to a hologram on bank note.


“It would measure muscle activity and provide for instance updates to the runner via headphones or similar. If there’s too much activity it would alert you that the muscles is reaching overload so you can slow down and reduce the risk of injury.


“If you are running a marathon and you want to stay close to the anaerobic threshold but not over it, otherwise you’ll fade by kilometer 37 (mile 23). The measurement of the muscle activity could be used to get a notification if you are running too hard, above the anaerobic threshold. This information is much more useful than just heart rate and step count. And it would all come from a sock.”



Finding Comfort


If a sock that can help prevent the pain of muscle overload is the product most likely to see, the research topic he is most interested in pursuing further is comfort. 


According to Benno, the importance of comfort cannot be overstated: "Comfort means it’s easier to start running, it’s easier to do more training and better performance.


Making the most comfortable shoe – if there were no limits on time or resources, that’s the research project I’d do. To develop a shoe that is measurably more comfortable.  


“The challenge is how to measure the comfort level. You know immediately when a shoe is uncomfortable but it’s difficult to measure comfort levels. It’s a big basic question that we’re looking at.” 


Running shoe technology today is almost unrecognizable compared with when Benno began his career, but he still sees potential for further improvements in comfort. When asked whether innovation in running shoes will reach its limit any time soon, the answer is an unequivocal “no”.


For running technology, it seems, there is no finish line. 

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