Long-Distance Running

Harvard Researchers Have Created The First Step Toward An Athletic Super-Suit

With over 64 million Americans taking a run or jog in 2016, running is undoubtedly one of America's favorite ways to stay fit. Despite its popularity, affordability, and reported health benefits, running can also be tough on the body. As a result, scientists are always looking for methods to improve athletic performance while minimizing the potential for injury and long-term negative effects such as joint pain. Recently, researchers at the Wyss Institute and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University unveiled an innovation that addresses both of these issues—a tethered exosuit that can cut the metabolic cost of running on a treadmill by 5.4 percent.

A system of actuation wires attached to the back of the exosuit provides assistive force to the hip joint during running.

Even the Most Affordable Sports Come at a Cost

Even the most experienced and dedicated runners can't avoid some of the natural wear and tear that can come with the sport, not to mention the sheer exhaustion that can come from overtraining. This can impact performance levels or even turn some people off of running completely. Technologies such as Harvard's tethered exosuit aim to remedy some of these problems while potentially increasing performance. That's particularly useful for distance runners, since a lower "metabolic cost" can directly translate into more distance traveled.

Metabolic cost refers to the amount of energy consumed as the result of performing a movement or task. This is typically counted in calories. According to a study of 12 male and 12 female runners at Syracuse University, men burned an average of 124 calories running a mile on a treadmill, and women burned an average of 105. By decreasing the metabolic cost of running, runners would be able to run for a longer time with less stress on their bodies, allowing them to improve their performance at the same time.

A tethered soft exosuit reduces the metabolic cost of running by 5% in a Wyss study funded by the DARPA Warrior Web program.

How It Works

Developed by by Wyss Core Faculty member Conor Walsh, Ph.D., the exosuit in the study is textile-based, lightweight, and moves well with the body, making it optimal for assisted running. To test the exosuit, a team of scientists ran flexible wires from the thigh and waist belt to an external actuation unit. As their test subjects ran on a treadmill while wearing the suit, the external unit pulled on the wires. Two different types of pulling were tested—one based on human biology, applying force early in the movement to amplify the natural process, and on an exoskeleton-assisted simulation model studied at Stanford University that applied force slightly later in the stride. To find out both versions' effectiveness on reducing metabolic cost, the subjects' levels of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production were measured throughout the activity.

According to the team, the simulation model showed greater results than the biological model, reducing the metabolic cost by half. This means scientists still have a lot to explore when it comes to understanding how the human body works and how to best assist its function. Further testing for recreational use and injury prevention are in the works. Down the road, untethered exosuits could become the new norm in sportswear.

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Written by Jamie Ludwig June 29, 2017

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