Keep on running

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Runners are always looking for ways to run faster and more efficiently with less injuries. Sound too good to be true?
I read a fantastic book recently called “Born to Run’. Published in 2009 and written by Christopher McDougall.

It’s a true tale of how and why the author travels to the Copper Canyons in Mexico to run a 50 mile ultra marathon with the elusive Indian tribe, the Tarahumara, allegedly the fastest in the world. It’s definitely not a running guide and in many ways it romanticises the sport of running, particularly ultra running (for a second I even contemplated becoming an ultra runner — it was just for a second).

But you certainly don’t have to be a runner to enjoy this book because, although the story that weaves its way through culminates with the race in Mexico, there are a number of diversions along the way. We take a trip to the Bushmen in the Kalahari, meet some phenomenal runners, get insights from sports scientists, have some lessons in geography and discover why running shoes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

The book essentially champions barefoot running and it’s pretty damning of the modern day running shoe. There is one section early in the book where a team of Tarahumara Indians are doing the famous Leadville 100-mile ultra marathon in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

There are some intriguing arguments in the book that despite all the new technology in running shoes, the common injuries haven’t decreased

It’s 1994 and they’ve been sponsored by Rockport and are meant to be running in its recently launched thick soled, trail-running shoe. But by the first aid station, they’re all kicking off these $100 shoes and instead are grabbing for their huaraches, home-made rubber sandals. They then go on to win the race.

There are some intriguing arguments in the book in that despite all the new technology and features in running trainers — Flywire technology, AirBag cushioning, biomechanically efficient, flex grooves, heel counter, to name but a few — all the common injuries that plague runners haven’t decreased.


Dr Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, is quoted as saying, “Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had a much lower incidence of knee injuries.”

One of the more amusing characters you meet in the book is ‘Barefoot Ted’, who ran that last race in the Copper Canyons just in his tootsies. A brave man but his reasoning is that we were born to run barefoot and our feet our engineered to do it.

He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci who considered the foot, with its fantastic weight-suspension system comprising one quarter of all the bones in the human body, a ‘masterpiece of engineering and work of art’.

The barefoot running craze is now massive. I’m sure we’ve all come across a pair of Vibram FiveFingers — essentially rubber gloves for your feet.

But, not to miss out, Nike and the like, have jumped on the bandwagon and launched their own minimal, or in Nike’s case ‘Free’, running shoes. I’ve been drawn into this craze too and opted for a pair of Newton minimalist running shoes after thinking that my old trainers looked more like a pair of platforms than trainers with all the cushioning in the heels.

But as our feet are all different and the way we run differs too, what we really need are customised running shoes. Sound too good to be true? Well, you should know by now that anything is possible with the technology that’s currently in vogue — 3D printing.

New Balance recently announced the use of a proprietary process to produce spike plates customised to the individual needs and desires of elite track runners.

Using selective laser sintering (SLS), it can print semi-rigid parts like spike plates unique to each runner. New Balance is also currently working on softer SLS printed components that mimic the cushioning properties of foam midsoles. This means it could soon bring customisation to more athletes.

Last year a Royal College of Art graduate printed an entire sprint shoe on a 3D printer as part of his final year project called ‘Designed to Win’. Following 3D scans of a runner’s foot, Luc Fusaro designed the shoe digitally according to the athlete’s physical abilities and then printed it on an SLS machine out of nylon polyamide powder.

Too stiff to run a marathon in but for sprinting, Fusaro says it can improve performance by as much as 3.5% or about 0.35 seconds.

Fusaro is currently working on tweaking his design to make it more flexible before we catch any sight of a fully functional shoe, but he’s hopeful he’ll be able to debut it in 2016.

Interestingly, he was inspired by a research project into the development of high performance sports footwear led by Dr Neil Hopkinson from Loughborough University’s Sports Technology and Additive Manufacturing Research Group.

The research team quantified the effects of the sports shoe on the foot’s movement, then used a high speed sintering process, which was actually invented at the university, to tune the stiffness of the soles of a pair of running spikes, to match the needs of each athlete.

With the project named ‘Personalised sports footwear: From elite to high street’, the long-term goal is to bring these customised sports shoes to everyone.
Interestingly, one of the partners in this research project was New Balance. So, putting two and two together…

Anyway, it’s debatable whether we were born to run or whether bespoke shoes will actually get more people taking up the sport. Either way I’ll leave you with a great running related quote I came across recently from a man who probably never ran a day in his life, Albert Einstein: “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

Bespoke running shoes gather pace through advances in 3D printing

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