The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Nicolás Palomarés, a researcher at the Biomechanics Institute of Valencia working on the European Commission-funded RUNSAFER project. This project aims to create a running shoe with embedded electronics providing real-time biomechanical feedback that reduces the risk of injury and helps runners manage their health and fitness.
This interview has been edited.
Paul MacDonnell: What can a smart running shoe tell us that other kinds of wearable technologies, such fitness trackers, cannot?
Nicolás Palomarés: Regular wearable technologies work as general fitness trackers and show things like running or walking speed, the distance you are travelling, your route, and your heart rate. However they do not show information about how your feet are standing up to the stress of running which is where a great deal of the injuries from running arise. RUNSAFER looks at the parameters of how the foot works during running. By monitoring the precise movement of the foot’s kinematics—that is how the various parts of the foot are moving together—and measuring the force with which the foot makes contact with the ground—the system is able to determine the biomechanical pattern of the individual runner. Many injuries arise from an inappropriate running style, and we have developed algorithms that can detect styles of running more likely to cause injury. This is based on the rates of injury that have been caused by a similar running style over a large group of people.
MacDonnell: The technologies at the heart of RUNSAFER are in the shoe itself, a mobile phone, and on the web. What are these technologies, and how do they work together?
Palomarés: The shoe’s sensors convert the movement of the foot into data and transmit this, via Bluetooth, to a smartphone. The smartphone app makes use of the algorithm to check whether the running style deviates from a safe style. RUNSAFER integrates a detailed algorithm to analyse the evolution of the biomechanical data over time and is able to detect the potential for injury in real time.When it detects a style of running that is likely to cause a problem RUNSAFER provides feedback to runners suggesting that they pause and alter their running style.
MacDonnell: Over one third of Europeans between 15 to 65 have taken up running and over one third of them have suffered a running injury. Do you have evidence that RUNSAFER will reduce the risk of running?
Palomarés: We rely on studies to help us determine acceptable limits of movement and impact and these have helped us develop a system that can intervene when it thinks that these boundaries have been crossed. Typically injuries arise from overuse of muscles or placing too much stress on one part of the foot. The system compares what the runner is doing from what we consider normal or safe. In that sense a large amount of information about the cause of running injuries is embedded into the algorithm. Our system has also been validated using a prototype tested on a running track. IBV has carried out a number of tests in real conditions with runners who have different profiles. The results of these tests have have been used to ensure that our algorithms can reliably detect a potential injury.
MacDonnell: Could RUNSAFER technology be applied to other sports?
Palomarés: That is some way into the future. It would be possible to transfer the technology to other sports like football (soccer) or tennis. But the main objective of RUNSAFER is to monitor the biomechanical parameters that define the runner’s pattern. Repurposing the technology for other purposes is not something we’re considering in the near term. We are also interested in adding other parameters that may have more direct bearing on other sports, such as perspiration and heart rate. Integrating different biometric data holds the possibility that we will make new discoveries that will contribute to the health of mature and professional sports.
MacDonnell: What do you see as the long-term public health benefits of this kind of technology, and do you have any idea how long it will take before it is in widespread use?
Palomarés: We don’t believe that there are any significant barriers to the widespread adoption of RUNSAFER. Wearables are becoming more widespread in sports generally and people are becoming more conscious that monitoring the impact of fitness and sports activities on their bodies is as important as these activities themselves.