High-tech tools help runners get running again - even after injuries

Adapted from technology designed to add weight to astronauts in space, the AlterG does the opposite on Earth, using air pressure to take some of the load off. (AlterG)

I fell in love with running in the late 1990s, when I discovered the simplicity of lacing up my sneakers and heading out the door. As the miles ticked by, joy turned to passion. By the time I ran my first marathon in 2002 at age 26, I was addicted. Running had become a way of life.

It didn't last long. My third and last marathon was in 2003. Then came a stress fracture in my shin, followed by an excruciating three-year bout with plantar fasciitis that ended in surgery. Since then, I've tried several times to run casually, but those attempts have always ended in injury. And although I've managed to continue swimming, cycling and other forms of cross training, I've never entirely given up hope that one day I might run again.

That hope surged recently when I learned about a suite of new high-tech tools designed (or at least marketed) to aid athletes with training, injury prevention and damage control. With such products as 3-D gait analyses and anti-gravity treadmills, the list is increasing and also increasingly available not just to elite athletes but also to the masses - for a fee. Could technology get me running again without pain?

It's a tricky question, experts say.

Overall, the literature is sparse. And while some evidence suggests that new-generation devices can help sometimes, studies are often small, flawed or published by companies with a stake in the game. A fixation on data also can detract from a more fluid sense of how hard you're working and how your body feels, and paying attention to how your body feels still matters for improving performance and avoiding injury, adds Stephanie Brooks, an athletic trainer at the University of Oregon.

"You can get so caught up in shifting your focus to something external instead of what you're feeling internally," she says. "You can end up thinking too much."

Duly warned, I decided to try some of the newest tools. My personal goal was to compete in a few triathlons this summer without getting injured. Long term, I wanted to help other active people decide whether it's worth the time and money to try out the kinds of sci-fi tools that elite athletes often get for free and then rave about on Twitter.

My first stop was the Northwest Health Sciences University's H.C. Sweere Center for Clinical Biomechanics and Applied Ergonomics in Bloomington, Minn., one of the few facilities in my area that offers 3-D gait analysis to the general public. After pulling on a pair of spandex shorts, I stood still for 20 minutes while getting 13 sensors attached to my feet, legs and hips. Surrounded by 14 video cameras recording simultaneously, I settled into a comfortable 9:15-minute-per-mile pace on a treadmill that was built into the floor and equipped with a force plate to measure impact with the ground.

A week later, clinical coordinator Greg DeNunzio talked me through a series of charts, graphs and videos, including one that showed how my skeleton moves when I run. I learned that the left side of my hip rotates more than twice as far as my right side does, a significant imbalance that is too subtle to be seen simply by watching me run. It also turns out that my knees absorb more forces than they put back out, suggesting inefficiencies and the potential for injury. DeNunzio sent me home with exercises tailored to the quirks of my biomechanics and with some encouraging words: "I don't see any reason why you can't run again."

I was certainly wowed by the visuals. But can a 3-D workup, which costs $295 at the Sweere Center, really help with performance or recovery? It's hard to know. Much research on the technology has focused on guiding treatment for children with cerebral palsy. As for its use in sports, researchers are still working on building databases that will enable athletes to understand what is unique - and potentially risky - about the way they move.

Whether people can or should change their running form is up for debate, says Dirk de Heer, a researcher at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Some recent studies suggest that biomechanical peculiarities don't actually cause running injuries most of the time, he says. And plenty of elite athletes excel despite strange-looking form. Even when athletes work on fixing the way they run to address imbalances, changes are hard to maintain.

DeNunzio, an engineer-turned-chiropractor and CrossFit coach, thinks 3-D analysis can help guide diagnosis and treatment. Too often, he says, people get treated for pain in one part of the body without getting to its root cause somewhere else. "In the eyes of a person taking care of people, I want all the data I can get," he says. "It allows me to sort out what the true problem is."

My next stop was the Mayo Sports Clinic in downtown Minneapolis, where I squeezed into a pair of wet-suit-like shorts attached to a bib, as if I were about to strap myself into a kayak for a cold-water plunge. Instead, physical therapist Allison Mumbleau zipped me into an anti-gravity treadmill called the AlterG.

Adapted from technology that was designed by NASA to add weight to astronauts in space, the AlterG does the opposite on Earth, using air pressure to take some of the load off. Athletes with the Nike Oregon Project, an elite training program for distance runners, have been using it for a few years, and at 70 percent of my body weight, I felt like running out to Oregon to join them. Light as a feather and free of pain, I was flying like the wind.

There were a few minor discomforts: I needed to hold my elbows high to avoid hitting the sides of the machine, and I got a slight wedgie from the lift. But the AlterG, which often costs about $25 for a 30-minute session (compared with $35,000 or more for the entire machine), replicated the sensation of running in a way that elliptical and other cross-training machines just don't. It was a joyful feeling, as if I were a little kid running on the moon.

That feeling may be one of the best features of the AlterG, de Heer says, offering a valuable mental boost to injured runners. "I've had people jump on there and say, 'Wow, this is what running used to feel like,' " he says. "Psychologically, that's valuable. Runners don't like to do anything else but run."

I wondered whether it might be harder to run at full weight after getting used to the AlterG. But some research suggests that training with less gravity translates into better running at full weight. In one study of 11 amateur male runners, researchers reported last year that improvements on a two-mile time trial were the same whether the men trained on a regular treadmill or at 90 percent of their body weight on an AlterG. The gravity-defying runners may have had a slight advantage: Unlike the group that trained at full weight, they didn't have to delay any workouts because of sore muscles.

Some of de Heer's studies confirm that the machine helps people move faster with less impact. That can be helpful, both physically and mentally, he says, for all sorts of conditions, including multiple sclerosis, obesity, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries. And anecdotal case studies are enticing. Professional runner Dathan Ritzenhein, among others, credits the AlterG with helping him recover from injuries, set personal bests and compete at a high level.

Still lacking, though, are large, randomized trials that look at a more diverse set of runners, injuries and training protocols.

"The science is pretty thin," de Heer says. "I do think it's been building, and I do think there are some things we know now that we didn't know a couple of years ago."

While at the Mayo Sports Clinic, I also tried a vibration platform, which made me feel as though I was balancing on a jackhammer and left me with a lingering sense of seasickness. Particularly for people who have had strokes, knee surgery or other conditions, evidence suggests that doing exercises on the platform can help with strength and balance.

And before I left, I ran on a treadmill that was submerged in four feet of water. I was surprised by how much I appreciated the gentle impact as I ran against jet-assisted resistance, which has some research to back up its benefits for training, especially when fatigued or injured. While using both the underwater and antigravity treadmills, I was also pleased to be in, at least temporarily, the same league as Minnesota's pro basketball teams, the Timberwolves and the Lynx, whose players regularly use the clinic's machines.

So, are the high-tech tools worth it? At the very least, new-generation machines can provide a good workout, de Heer says, helping athletes maintain fitness and a feel for running while recovering from injuries.

I enjoyed the equipment enough to consider trying it again. But I'll go into those workouts knowing that no high-tech device alone will solve all of my problems. "They're not magic pills," de Heer says. "But they can be useful tools for getting back to where you want to be."


Special to The Washington Post · Emily Sohn


Recent Stories You Might Have Missed