Unquestionably, wearable technology has come of age. In the last couple of years, the focus on basic data has been replaced by actionable insight for athletes of all levels. Advanced scientific metrics, some previously available only through controlled laboratory tests, have now made body-worn devices attractive, and almost essential, to the true elite.
We've covered how Olympic boxers and cyclists prepared for the ultimate test with bespoke wearable training aids, and how a revolutionary wristband is helping sports stars recover and peak at the right time. We've also chronicled how wearables can help young baseball pitchers avoid career-threatening injuries by managing their workloads more efficiently.
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But what of runners? Can rapidly-emerging wearable technologies assist in building the track and trail greats of the future? We spoke to a multi-Olympic champion hitting PBs at 31, and two start-ups who believe they're keeping today and tomorrow's runners on the right track.
"The body is an F1 car"
"I think wearable technology will create future generations of super athletes that will probably break most of the records held by athletes today," Alessandro Babini, CEO and co-founder of Humon, tells Wareable.
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The Humon Hex, which we covered in detail last January, is worn around the thigh and can measure oxygen saturation within the blood in real time. The goal is to ensure athletes are never consuming more oxygen than they're taking in. It can prevent (and measure) lactic acid build-up and helps endurance athletes avert unassailable brick walls. Basically with the clinically validated Hex, you won't empty out your gas tank before the chequered flag.
"Consider an athlete like you would a Formula One car," Babini says. "The best drivers are amazing, but the car is a huge part of the race and every single part of that car is optimised using different data points.
"I feel the same way about the body. In the past you improved because of better shoes and everything around the athlete, now we're finally focusing on the body, the thing that finally makes the athlete move."
Babini believes the muscle oxygen saturation metric will become the new "status quo". Until now, he says, it's been overlooked because of the difficulty of bringing a solution to market. The same applies to the lactic acid tolerance tests previously available through expensive lab tests.
"Now we're at a point where we have a device that's easier to use than a Fitbit giving you lab-based insights," he adds.
"It makes so much sense. You go to bed and you wake up and hurt. Your heart rate has come down, but you're sore. This is what you need to measure when you're training."
Tapping into the brain
While Humon is focusing on fine-tuning the body like a supercar, others are focusing on priming the mind. Halo Neuroscience's Sport headset targets the brain's motor cortex, which controls the movement of our muscles. It uses the concept of hyper-plasticity to place the mind in a heightened state of learning.
When electrical stimulation is sent to the motor cortex through the Sport headset, technique and skill can be acquired faster, performance can be maintained for longer, extra strength and power are acquired through helping the muscles learn.
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Essentially, it helps runners focus on their weaknesses and improve without having to overtrain. With Halo Sport, the company says, workouts gain more value and efficiency.
The ramifications can be huge. Younger runners targeting elite competition could avoid injury and burnout by training smarter, perceived flaws in technique could be ironed out sooner and runners can keep their best form for longer into a race.
"As an athlete, everyone understands basic ways they can improve," says Kane Russell, the head of partnerships at Halo. "Runners also understand cardiovascular improvement, they're really comfortable with psychological improvement; getting in the right mindset, meditating and visualizing.
"Neurological improvement is the fourth dimension and why it's so exciting for runners. We're talking about improving the way the brain communicates with your muscles.The neurological function of a runner, it's an invaluable part of how we learn how to run, but this is a way to address flaws in a meaningful way."
One Halo convert is Natasha Hastings, a twice-Olympic gold medallist in the 4 x 400m relay, who also has five World Championship golds in the same event. At 31 she ran a 200m personal best she attributes – at least in part – to the Halo Sport helping to improve her power output.
"For me, it's a lot about training smarter and not necessarily harder," she tells Wareable.
"I'm very in tune with listening to my body, not overtraining and getting the proper rest and recovery. [I was looking for] something that would make training more valuable, rather than doing more and more reps for the sake of it.
"You do wonder if I'd had access to this back in the day, how much of a difference would it have made. It reminded me of getting to college and having exposure to the athletic trainers and seeing how much of a difference that made."
For those elite-level running coaches, Halo Sport is already changing the game. It's allowing them to get athletes back into race shape quicker, following the offseason.
Halo's Kane Russell explains: "USA track and field coach Darryl Woodson told me, 'after running season is over, I gotta give them time off, then I get them back. It's frustrating that I have to start from the same foundation before we can start improving. It takes a ton of time to get someone back to where they were. If I can get to that point faster I can shorten my micro-cycles and macro-cycles can be more impactful.'"
Saving the youth from themselves (or the parents?)
While Beijing and Rio champ Natasha Hastings is extending her top-level career with a little help from neuropriming, she believes the new generation of wearables like Halo Sport can help younger runners reach their potential. Training smarter rather than harder, as she says, can help avoid things like burnout and injury.
Whether it's priming the brain for more focused, valuable workouts through a device like Halo Sport, or the way the Humon Hex or a device like Whoop can indicate recovery levels.
She says: "I think we are in a culture where everyone wants to work, work, work, [taking precedence over] the notion of rest and allowing the body to heal.
"I go to some youth athletics events and I'm sitting in the corner cringing at the parents shouting at their kids. There's only so much pushing you can do and that's where the burnout happens.
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"The understanding that it's possible to prime an athlete so that it's not necessary to do so many reps, if they're focused and present, can only help."
First generation products like Sport and Hex are already helping established athletes reach greater heights. Weaknesses are being addressed and powerful new metrics are leading to improvements for advocates. Halo says it's seeing 10% speed and power improvements across the board, when compared to placebo groups.
While the thigh-worn Hex might be the perfect place to start, the company believes this path eventually leads to data being harvested from every major muscle group through "small and cheap" sensors embedded within clothing.
"I believe in the future the hardware component will disappear and it'll simply be a part of compression clothing," Alessandro Babini assures us. "Down the line I think we'll be measuring every muscle… at least the ones that matter during training."