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Wireless ‘smart trainers’ give real-time advice

The RUNSAFER project is designing shoes to help runners prevent commonly sustained injuries such as pulled ligaments or torn muscles. © Fraunhofer IPMS
The RUNSAFER project is designing shoes to help runners prevent commonly sustained injuries such as pulled ligaments or torn muscles. © Fraunhofer IPMS

Bluetooth-connected smart trainers could advise runners in real time if they are at risk of injuring themselves, based on an analysis of their running pattern.

It’s one of a number of top-end trainers being developed by researchers to help runners avoid injury.

‘It doesn’t only measure how long or how fast you run, but also the biomechanical pattern of the runner in real time, how much pressure is on their feet,’ explained Jens Piesk, the chief executive of Nuromedia GmbH in Cologne, a partner in the two-year EU-funded RUNSAFER project.

The shoe uses a microelectronic measurement system embedded in the sole to collect biomechanical data and transmit it via Bluetooth to a smartphone application.

Then a free app will inform runners in real time about the performance achieved, and make suggestions such as changing their running pattern if they are at risk of injuring themselves.

Not on your heels

Normally people who jog tend to land on their heels and roll onto their toes as a protective measure, lessening the impact forces. This motion, however, is not always executed properly, leading to injuries.

Besides the acute injuries, such as ankle sprains and muscle strains, there are also the so-called ‘overuse injuries’, which see a gradual deterioration of joints in the lower leg.

It doesn’t only measure how long or how fast you run, but also the biomechanical pattern of the runner in real time.’

Jens Piesk, from the RUNSAFER project

Each year, up to 70 % of recreational and competitive distance runners sustain an overuse running injury, with more than 80 % of cases occurring at or below the knee.

Professional athletes generally strike the ground with the ball of the foot or between the forefoot and heel to ensure that the force comes through the middle of the foot, lessening the impact and potential for injury.

To help amateur runners do the same, the EU-funded HEELLESS project came up with a new design of trainer that encourages people to use the middle of their feet when they run, putting less strain on the knee and ankle.

It has replaced the padded heel with a shock plate, which reduces the impact forces when the foot hits the ground. The project ended in 2010 and researchers are now conducting further tests at Staffordshire University, UK, and looking for commercial partners.

‘The shoe was designed for any person who wants to run,’ said the project coordinator Adri Hartveld. ‘The footwear is also suitable for walking and other activities.’

Paving the road to recovery

Smart shoes could also make a big difference for athletes recovering from lower limb injuries or patients recuperating from diseases that affect movement such as stroke and diabetes.

Returning to a regular programme of sport and exercise is something that requires considerable care and caution, and devices that measure a patient’s energy expenditure and locomotion – known as gait parameters monitoring – offer help in the rehabilitation process, but only to those who can afford the substantial costs of this equipment.

Gait parameters monitoring devices can cost between EUR 15 000 and EUR 30 000. Researchers at the EU-funded Wi-Shoe project, which ends in 2015, have found a way to monitor gait for as little as a tenth of that.

The Wi-Shoe system, which is specialist technology aimed at professional runners, is completely wireless, integrating sensors in the sole of the shoe, sending data to the person’s smartphone for basic analysis. The overall retail price of the product, due to be completed by the end of 2015, has been estimated at EUR 3 000.

‘The Wi-Shoe is an affordable option for people to wear in any shoe they wish and simultaneously monitor their movements in a non-intrusive way. It enables the patient or athlete to be independent,’ said Dr Alessandro Giusti, a senior engineer at the Cyprus Research and Innovation Center, the research company which is coordinating the project.

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