This week I had the pleasure of visiting the Saucony headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts to meet with members of the Innovation Lab and the design team behind the shoes that so many love. Heading the Innovation Lab is Spencer White, a scientist who, rather than shying away from it, is excited to share his thoughts and findings. Over the course of our conversation, I was struck by the altruistic vein that runs through Spencer’s work. His goal, which he stated in a modest, almost offhand manner after a thorough explanation of the science that guides his research, is for runners to wear the shoes that give them the best possible experience. He made no mention of what brand that shoe should be, and, although he has good reason to experience a certain sense of pride when that shoe is one that he has helped design, he truly wants people to select the shoe that is best for them.
The lab where the Innovation team works is a large room that shares garage-style doors, generally left open, with the majority of Saucony’s central operations. There are no retinal scans and key codes, and the space has an open, communal feel. At the center of the lab sits a treadmill that is raised on a steel platform and surrounded by an assortment of lights, cameras, and sensors that track a runner’s mechanics and ground impact. As a special treat, I was offered the opportunity to have my form examined. Fortunately, my time at Running Warehouse has made me an amateur model of sorts, so I was ready for the spotlight. (In reality, I know how to run in a straight line, which meant that I was going to be fine as long as I didn’t run off the end.)
As I was rigged with a host of sensors and reflective bulbs, Spencer explained that while many new runners are instructed to select shoes based solely on pronation, his team believes that, to a certain extent, individuals can and will compensate for overpronation or supination with the muscles in their legs and never experience negative effects or injury. This is not to say that pronation and supination should be ignored, simply to argue that the choice of shoe should be based on a number of variables, which is where his analysis comes in.
By recording the forces exerted on and by the foot as well as the mechanics of a runner’s form, the Innovation team studies the runner as a whole system. Spencer went on to explain that research on running on different surfaces has shown that a person’s center of mass bounces approximately the same amount regardless of the surface that they are running on. This should be puzzling, as one would think that the center of mass would bounce to a greater degree on a springy surface, like that of a trail. I expressed such sentiments, and Spencer responded that this finding and additional analysis have shown that a person’s body compensates when running on a harder surface by using muscles in the legs to allow the body to bounce and thereby soften the impact. The opposite is true on a soft surface, where the muscles can remain more rigid without stressing the body. Thus, the bounce of the center of mass remains largely the same regardless of the running surface. What this means for footwear is that altering the cushioning provided by a shoe can effectively lower or raise the amount that an individual’s muscles need to work to limit impact related stress, and, as would follow, limiting that stress can help reduce injury and fatigue. This idea isn’t necessarily a major revelation, but the science going into examining the way in which the body compensates certainly is.
Through their research, Spencer and his team aim to identify and quantify the mixture of irregularities that make up an individual’s form in order to better recommend both the correct level of pronation control and cushioning that an individual needs in a shoe. Furthermore, their analysis extends beyond the world of shoes. They can also recommend strengthening and mobility exercises that will allow a runner to better achieve their personal running goals. (Keep an eye out for my results in a future post.) Better yet, you don’t have to use their treadmill to receive their recommendations. The team recently created and released the Saucony Stride Lab App, which allows a runner to conduct a personal stride analysis without a special treadmill and makes training recommendations based on that data. As this project develops, runners will be able to understand their own body to a much greater extent without incurring high costs for analysis, and this understanding can lead to great improvements in a runner’s experience. I’m excited to see how this project continues, and we’d like to thank Spencer and his team for working hard to improve running for everyone.
Will has been running competitively since high school and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.