Two Sciences Collide, and Find New Balance - NECN
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Two Sciences Collide, and Find New Balance



    I am running the 2011 Boston Marathon to raise money for the American Liver Foundation's Run for Research, and will post frequently about my training here, in these final weeks leading up to the race.

    Last Thursday morning, I was presented with a remarkable opportunity – a full analysis of my running form at the New Balance Sports Research Lab in Lawrence, MA. As a lifelong Merrimack Valley resident, you'd think I'd know all about the New Balance facility ten minutes from my home. I actually had been unaware of this facility in the Merrimack Valley, and that the company's world headquarters is in Boston, MA! This excited me, leaving me eager to work with their team, and in my morning visit I would uncover just how advanced sneaker technology is, and how much the science of weather and running have in common.

    Built in a renovated Lawrence mill building and next to a bridge currently closed for reconstruction, the brick facade of the New Balance building betrays the wealth of technology inside. Within those aging walls is a modern, sparkling facility, with a full retail store and several floors of offices and labs. My morning would be shared with Dr. Trampas TenBroek, who already had set up a series of cameras to monitor my scheduled run, prior to my 9:30 AM arrival. In the center of the room was the treadmill I'd be running on - a much fancier version of the treadmills we find at the local gym.
    Rather than a belt that spins continuously underfoot, this treadmill consisted of a series of aluminum slats, designed to more accurately mimic a hard running surface by offering less “give” than a typical treadmill. The cameras were oriented at specific angles, with seven in total, affording Dr. TenBroek the opportunity to view my stride from multiple angles.

    Previous studies in this lab have included celebrity athletes and professional team coaches (including for the Boston Celtics), so I may be the most nonathletic person to ever set foot in the New Balance Sports Research Lab. Though they could do little to make my body look like that of a chiseled athlete, New Balance was kind enough to outfit me with their running shorts, shirt, socks and of course, running sneakers – though today's analysis would determine the best sneaker for me to run in on April 18, and in my final training weeks leading up to the Boston Marathon. Determining the best sneaker requires first examining my stride, to understand how my body shifts its weight during my run.

    Dr. TenBroek started by zooming in on my feet while I ran, using rapid scanning cameras to gather thousands of frames per second. This gave him the opportunity to study exactly how my foot strikes the ground, the shift in weight that occurs as my foot extends and rolls, then pushes off for my next stride, providing a general assessment of how I run, and giving us a baseline to build from for further analysis. As it turns out, I'm a “heel-striker:” a runner who hits rather heavy on the heel first, then distributes his weight, like all runners, through “pronation.” To “pronate” is to shift weight to the inside of the foot, and occurs in the first weight shift, after striking the ground. A fraction of a second after that, the weight shifts to the outside of the foot as the body prepares to extend the foot and push forward to the next stride. Thankfully, Dr. TenBroek said neither the intensity of my heel-strike, nor the extent of pronation, was any cause for concern or substantially elevated potential for injury. That said, he did explain that the risk of injury would be less if I can move away from heel-striking, and referred me to New Balance's web partnership with Good Form Running, linked on their website or directly by clicking here.

    After video analysis, the next step was to use the same technology employed by video game creators to create a three-dimensional representation of my lower body during my run, from my thigh through my leg and my foot.

    A series of reflective markers (essentially, large pins with big, reflective heads) were applied to my thighs, knees, calves, shins, ankles, and several points on the front, back and sides of my feet. As I ran at 5, 6 and 6.5 miles per hours, the computer used for analysis took all seven two-dimensional images captured by the cameras around me, then superimposed the images to create the 3-D representation. This affords Dr. TenBroek the opportunity to overlay strides at all three speeds, to determine if my form, stride length and attendant stride speed change as I increase speed, and by how much those changes occur. In professional athletes, such an analysis can be effective in determining maximum efficiency for stride length and speed, to ensure the athlete maximizes their use of energy during the run.

    The final experiment of the day was use of the “force plate,” which is an electronic, precise scale used to measure the force exerted on a runner's body during the stride. Built into the floor of the room, I ran at normal pace from one side of the room to the other, ensuring at least one foot landed squarely on the force plate. Coordination and grace have never been my strong suit – this had the potential to get ugly! While the right foot was easy to land on the force plate, time and again, the left foot posed some embarrassing coordination issues, though Dr. TenBroek assured me I wasn't the first to struggle more with one foot than the other. The computer attached to the force plate draws a line graph consisting of three lines – vertical force, horizontal force, and side force. Perhaps the most astounding revelation from this exercise was the determination that each stride during a casual run is exerting about 460 pounds of force on my muscles and joints. In other words, though I weigh just over 200 pounds, each stride places 230% of my body weight on the muscles used in running. Understanding this clarifies the potential for injury when considering the numerous strides taken on each training run, and over a marathon course.

    Perhaps the most fascinating and unexpected discovery is the amazing similarity between the science of Meteorology and the science of Kinesiology ( “the science dealing with the interrelationship of the physiological processes and anatomy of the human body with respect to movement”).

    Both of these science college curricula require solid command of dynamics, involving advanced calculus and physics, and, in fact, Dr. TenBroek mentioned that his professors often made reference to similarities with Meteorology. Kinesiologists also make frequent use of computing technology to run guidance models of the future, just like we do in weather – in their case, the goal is to predict and simulate how the New Balance shoe will respond to various running styles and forms, in an effort to create a shoe that will be most effective for the widest variance of runners. Occasionally, these scientists also make use of supercomputers, just like we do in Meteorology, and run “Ensemble Forecasts.” In meteorology, an Ensemble Forecast is made by running the same computer model several times, but tweaking the initial condition – the “observed” data – just slightly. In the short term, variation in forecasts is small, but after a day or two of forecast period, larger differences emerge, and by 10 or 12 days out, vastly different forecasts are generated by just a small difference in initial condition. For kinesiologists, the process is almost identical, tweaking the initial condition of how the runner strikes the ground and/or transfers weight, then running the computer model through thousands of strides to determine potential wear patterns on the shoe. As you may imagine, this can be a competitive field of research among sneaker companies, and Dr. TenBroek propels his New Balance team forward through careful, intelligent analysis of complex data sets.

    Soon, you'll see a piece on NECN with the video my photojournalist, John Hammann, shot with me on this assignment. Tomorrow, in my blog post, I'll highlight what sneaker I'll be running in, and some of the other runner's apparel I knew nothing about before training, but now will be wearing on Marathon Monday.

    New Balance was very generous to open their doors to me for this analysis, and devote so much time. They believe in the mission I'm on to raise money for patients – and especially children – battling liver disease. Those patients and I need you on the mission, too, and you can join by clicking here to donate to the American Liver Foundation Run for Research.

    Previous Marathon Posts from Matt: