If I took a second off my marathon personal best every time someone asked me to recommend a pair of running shoes, by now I'd be smashing the two-hour marathon mark. With dozens of brands, thousands of styles and more baffling jargon than a Blockchain seminar, it's understandable that buying running shoes is hard. Weeding your way through all the promises to make you faster and prevent injury isn't helped by the fact that picking the right shoe has long been more of a subjective art than a science. But that might be about to change.
Until now, the weapon of choice for most specialist running shoe retailers trying to help us select our footwear has been the gait analysis. Your average gait test generally involves being popped onto a treadmill to run for a few minutes while a shop assistant either stands behind to assess your running form in real-time or uses some kind of video slo-mo tech to identify if you over or under pronate. The truth is, it's not particularly scientific and with today's increasingly advanced tracking tech capabilities, it was only a matter of time until someone came up with something better. That someone is a company called dorsaVi.
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This UK-based company specialises in wearable sensors, software and algorithms that objectively measure and analyse the way we move. Its clinical-grade systems are used by elite athletes, professional sports teams, physiotherapists, chiropractors and coaches for injury prevention, rehabilitation and performance enhancement across a wide range of sports, including running. And now it's tooling up running experts with its latest tracking system, ViMove2, to provide hard running dynamics data ‚Äď information about how you run ‚Äď that can help identify which running shoes we should really be wearing.
How the new running analysis works
The dorsaVi test is extremely simple. Two small sensors, each packing an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a magnetometer, are attached to my shins and I'm asked to do a short warm up on a treadmill, followed by runs of around two minutes in duration, both at the same speed and each wearing a different pair of shoes. How many two-minute runs you do will depend on how quickly the stats identify a good shoe for your running style.
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Each run produces a set of data that includes Absolute Symmetry Index (a measure for how balanced your body is), Ground Reaction Force (the force exerted back from the ground when your feet strike), Ground Contact Time (the amount of time your feet are on the ground during a cycle), Initial Peak Acceleration (the vertical acceleration and load through the legs when your foot first hits the ground), along with cadence and speed. In the hands of an expert, this information gives vital insights into how 'well' you're running in any given shoe and makes it easy to compare your performance in each shoe.
Crucially, this isn't about finding shoes to change your running style, quite the opposite. The aim is to use the data to identify the shoes that work best with your running style, to make you more efficient.
Whether you're running for fun or chasing a sub-two marathon, running is all about efficiency. The more efficient you are, the better you can run without wasting energy and effort and that means, in theory at least, that running should feel easier and be more fun.
Of course, efficiency isn't the only factor here. ViMove2 can also spot any imbalances that might be caused by an existing injury or suggest a future injury risk, and of course how your shoe selection might be affecting both of these.
Part of the decision-making process will always come back to personal preference and the subjective element of comfort remains critical. However, according to Ed Butler, clinical account director at dorsaVi, the tech has demonstrated a high correlation between the shoes the data says are most effective and those runners select themselves as the most comfortable. Which makes sense.
The data these little lozenges provide is not unlike some other running wearables such as Stryd or Lumo Run, but there's one major difference ‚Äď the technology here is lab-grade, so you get clinical levels of accuracy that many mainstream consumer wearables don't deliver, because it's simply too expensive.
What makes ViMove2 even more powerful is that it also opens up the opportunity to see how runner runs in different shoes, outdoors or on different terrain. This tech works outside of the shoe shop, off the treadmill, on the road, along the trails or wherever you want to run in the real world. And that's a game changer because most of us don't wear our $150+ running shoes on the treadmill.
The first running shoe brand to partner up with dorsaVi and bring this to shops across the UK is Mizuno. If you're cynical about the encroachment of tech into the runspace and just how much value it can add, what Mizuno found when it ran some demos at London Triathlon Show in February 2018 should give you some food for thought.
Seventy-one runners were put through the test and in each case a pair Mizuno shoes were recommended. Of the 71 runners who did the ViMove2 test, 61% saw an improved cadence, with an average increase of 5%. Just over half (58%) saw an improvement in their Absolute Symmetry Index ‚Äď that's basically how evenly you run and the more symmetrical you are between left and right side, the better. Those who performed better clocked a whopping 68% average improvement. The group also showed an average 5.5% reduction in Ground Reaction Force (think impact on the legs) and an average 10% reduction in Ground Contact Time, another key indicator of improved efficiency.
While these tests were done with Mizuno shoes, ViMove2 can be used to help runners find the right shoes across all brands. What these numbers point to is some strong evidence to suggest that using data can help us make more informed choices about what we lace up.
The surprising results
I wore three different pairs of shoes for my test. A pair of On Cloud X (Shoe A), a neutral shoe with a firmer sole that I've been using a lot in training for my 30th marathon; followed by the Mizuno Wave Rider (Shoe B) a training shoe with a decent amount of cushioning; and the Mizuno Horizon (Shoe C), a heavier stability shoe.
If you'd asked me before the test which style of shoes I think I run best in, I would definitely have said lightweight, minimal, neutral shoes with limited cushioning ‚Äď shoes where there's not much shoe. I rarely choose the heavier cushioned shoes. But what the test revealed was a revelation. It turns out that the shoes I thought were best for me were not, at least if you're focusing on which shoes make me the most efficient runner.
The proof is in the running
Compared to my current On Cloud X, in the Mizuno Wave Rider training shoe my ASI was marginally affected with a slight loss of symmetry to the left side but still well within an acceptable range. But what was really interesting was that my Ground Reaction Force, my Initial Peak Acceleration and my Ground Contact Time had all been reduced, equating to an improvement in efficiency. My cadence also improved.
When I moved to the stability shoe, my Ground Reaction Force was higher than the Mizuno training shoe but lower than then On Cloud X. As was my IPA and my Ground Contact Time.
What this all means in simple terms is that during that test I ran better in the two Mizuno shoes than I did in my current shoes, the On Cloud X. And that's a powerful insight.
But the proof is in the running.
I'm a big believer in using technology as a tool to improve performance, so when a wearable comes along that can turn things that were previously subjective into facts, I'm very interested. But the real test comes when you put the tech into practice. So I took the Mizuno Wave Rider shoes that my test recommended and ran the Brighton Marathon in them, having only previously worn them on the treadmill for the test and for a couple of hours walking the day before the race ‚Äď breaking the long-standing rule that you never wear new shoes for a marathon.
I wasn't in the kind of shape that would mean any new-found efficiencies might deliver a personal best, so we can't really judge on improved performance. But considering the switch up from my usual go-to style of shoe, and the fact these were brand new, I was extremely surprised at how comfortable and natural the shoes felt. As all good shoes should, they felt like they weren't there, something I'd usually be concerned about with more cushioned, heavier shoes.
If DorsaVi ViMove2 can choose a shoe that works well in those circumstances, I'd love to see what might happen given the chance to try out a broader range of footwear across a range of brands.
Who knows, we might finally have a technical solution to help us answer that question, "How do I know what running shoes to buy?"