By Madeleine Neisler
Each year, millions of runners across the globe join in celebrating Global Running Day. This year, it takes place on June 7th. Participation is easy – just lace up those shoes and go for run. The idea is to spread the joy of running – in a marathon, around the block, or just in a game of tag.
So how are engineers helping all those participants get out there and run? Engineers play a vital role in the design mechanics behind running shoes. As an avid runner I can tell you firsthand, one size, or design, does not fit all. There are many factors that contribute to design, manufacturing, fit and overall performance.
As you probably already know, there are different types of runners too. Besides professional and recreational, runners can be put into various sub-categories within broader categories. Since I am a distance runner, I’ll focus on that. Unlike an elite distance runner (marathon times of about 2 hours 30 minutes) most people who run marathons are out there running for at least 4 hours or more. The right shoes play a big part in how well you will perform or if you’ll be able to finish. For example, you do not want a “running flat” if you know you will be pounding pavement, so to speak, for more than 4 hours. You simply will not be comfortable due to the lack of support, and it will not make you any faster.
I personally prefer a lightweight shoe that still has good support and is versatile. By versatile I mean if I want to add speed I can, and if I feel like running an easy pace I can. My current favorites are the New balance Women’s Zante V2 sneaker and the Nike Free RN Flyknit sneaker. What’s great about both of these shoes is that they break in very easily, are lightweight and comfortable, and I have run full marathons in both of these and my feet felt great the whole way. The New Balance is a little more stabilized and allows you to roll off the foot very smoothly. The Nike feels almost like a sock and the spring in the sole is incredible.
Now let’s get into the mechanics of running shoes. As mentioned, there are several things that are considered when designing a running shoe including: gait analysis, shoe testing, and shoe fabrication. In terms of gait analysis, biomechanists employ this technique in order to evaluate human kinetics quantitatively. They conduct these studies in a running lab by utilizing high-speed photography and a force-measuring platform. Shoe testing also involves the use of biomechanics, as in this table provided below by the University of Southern California.
As you can see, each feature provides a certain function. As of late, there has not been any recent activity regarding shoe testing at the university. But big shoe companies like Nike and New Balance continue to test, develop, and continuously improve their products. Testing can be done in the form of supplying a pair of shoes to runners and getting feedback, to actual lab tests and more.
Lastly, in terms of shoe fabrication, the first step involves the construction of the ‘last.’ The ‘last,’ is what gives the shoe its particular shape. The manufacturer begins the process by sending specifications to the model maker. The model maker then constructs a three-dimensional wooden model, known as the ‘last.’ The ‘last’ is designed by following six measurement guidelines. They are: ball girth, waist girth, instep girth, long heel girth, short heel girth, and stick length, which is overall heel-toe measurement.
A few universities and ALL the companies have active projects going on to continue engineering the best running shoe for each running style. For example, M.I.T. engineering students developed a running shoe lab test. This particular team of students used a 3-axis machine to test running shoes that better mimics natural running.
At Nike, engineers are using a new technology called Flyknit. I currently run in these shoes, and I LOVE them! As Nike states, they fit almost like a sock. Nike spent four years micro-engineering unchanging properties into pliable materials. They used teams of programmers, engineers, and designers to create the technology needed to create the knit upper part of the shoe. They then sorted out where the specific yarn and knit structures were needed. By applying 40 years of knowledge and experience working with runners, Nike cultivated the exact placement of support, flexibility, and breathability all in one seamless layer. The outcome is precision engineering at its finest.
Inspired to look for just the right running shoe? A great resource is Runners World. According to Runners World, there is a lot of time and science devoted to producing shoe guides. As mentioned above, finding the right shoe for you is key. This article is a great resource. If you go to Bryn Mawr Running Company, or a similar store in your local town, they specialize in all things running. They will ask you a series of detailed questions, show you some shoes and have you run on a treadmill to test your gate. That is exactly how I was able to find the right shoes for me.
In conclusion, the next time you go in search of a pair of running shoes, think of your fellow engineer.