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New device for boosting running efficiency shows promising results

Device that boosts running efficiency by 8% or more could make running easier for seniors, those with health issues

older male runner

Researchers in Iran have developed a device that runners can wear to improve their running efficiency by transferring energy from one hip to the other mid-stride. The New York Times reported that a small preliminary study on the device was published in the October, 2018 issue of  IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, showing that 10 males who wore it while running on a treadmill for 10 minutes at an easy pace saw an eight per cent improvement in their running efficiency, i.e. they expended that much less energy while running. The study was picked up by the New York Times.

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Though research into similar devices to assist with walking has been going on for years, this may be the first time it’s been directed at running. The device was developed by Rezvan Nasir and two other researchers from the University of Tehran, who noticed something that exercise physiologists have long known: running is not particularly energy-efficient, since energy is lost with every footstrike as the leg bends to absorb impact, and continuous running eventually leads to fatigue.

Nasir and his colleagues invented a wearable, unpowered exoskeleton device to counteract this energy loss, created a prototype, and tested it on 10 male runners, after first testing it on a robot and trying it out themselves. The device uses springs to transfer energy between the hips, reducing metabolic rate in the process. The results were significant: subjects’ running effiency was increased by eight per cent.

The device consists of straps that fasten around the hips and thighs, with a metal loop at the back that acts as a spring. The researchers speculate that such a device (not commercially available) could be useful for those with health problems or anyone for whom running is uncomfortable. Because it is not easy to conceal (though not uncomfortable, researchers stress), it would be an unlikely choice for someone trying to gain an unfair advantage.

(Running efficency is not to be confused with running economy. Running efficiency is defined as the relationship between the energy produced and energy consumed during exercise, where as running economy has to do with the relationship between the amount of oxygen consumed and running speed.)