April 13, 2001 -- This coming Monday, runners from around the world will converge in Massachusetts for the 105th running of the famed Boston Marathon. And it's a fair bet that many of them will have trained for the race using some new, high-tech items designed not only to provide motivation, but also to reduce the chance of injury.
Computers are at the center of some of these products, such as the Raven ThinkShoe from VectraSense Technologies. Designer Ronald S. Demon says ThinkShoes provide comfort and protection.
"The shoe can basically look at how you move, the pressure distribution on the foot, and adjust how the shoe feels," he tells WebMD. "Inside the shoe is a very small computer with seven sensors. These continuously sense the pressure being applied [by the foot]."
When the foot-strike changes, the computer alters the pressure inside an air bladder at the bottom of the shoe. Demon says the chip analyzes these changes within a two-second window -- that way, it won't activate inconsequential things like stepping on a curb. The computer is the size of a nickel, Demon says, and more durable than you might think possible.
"It's water-resistant, shock-resistant. You could throw the shoes off a 10-story building and they might come apart but the computer won't be harmed," he says.
The price: just under $150 and sold only on the VectraSense Technologies web site.
Computer adjustments while running may be extraordinarily useful to some athletes. But in the view of Gregory Lekhtman, they don't address the central problem with the sport.
"Physically, we are not designed to run," he says. Lekhtman, president of Biosig Instruments, of Champlain, N.Y., has for several years been trying to get across the message that the best way to run is to "lope," and the best way to do that is by attaching his Exerlopers to running shoes.
The strap-ons consist of a collapsible, elliptical spring whose rationale stems from this Lekhtmanism: Our muscles are just not fast enough to compensate for the impact of running, and so transfer most of the force to the skeleton.
"It means with running that we spend 2/3 of our energy to abuse our skeletons," he tells WebMD. "Only 1/3 is absorbed by the muscles. The muscles and the skeleton in biomechanics work like parallel systems. What the muscles can't take the skeleton does."
With the Exerlopers, Lekhtman says, the muscles do more of the work, burning three times the number of calories in the process. A pair of Exerlopers goes for $159.
Years ago, runners relied on stopwatches and car odometers to assess performance. But that has all changed, thanks to computers. The FS1 Speedometer, manufactured by FitSense Technology of Wellesley, Mass., sits in a lightweight pod secured between running shoe laces. It picks up speed, pace, distance, and calorie data and transmits them wirelessly up to a wristwatch.
It costs $180, says company spokesperson Ted Fitzpatrick, and for an extra $59, runners can uplink the watch to the FitSense web site to, for example, keep track of their progress.
"People want a higher level of feedback, more accurate information, and information available while doing the activity," Fitzpatrick says. "People want feedback that is positive, that compels them to work out more. When people out there see the numbers build, it becomes very powerful."
Past attempts at this kind of motivation -- the use of hip-worn pedometers in the late 1970s -- didn't work so well.
"Most pedometers sat on the hips. It assumed a fixed stride length, so it lost much accuracy," Fitzpatrick says. "The new idea is not to get a fixed stride length but the movement of the foot. Our rate of accuracy is 98%."
Runners content with logging their information after running have numerous computerized choices -- from software to internet sites. Many carry obvious names: Log-A-Jog, Runner's Log, i-run.com. By entering a minimal amount of information, runners can come up with some of the same data available on more expensive speedometers -- and more, such as visual representations of favorite running routes.
"One of the benefits is graphing," says Tim Meehle of VCR Incorporated, in Indiatlantic, Fla., which markets the Log-A-Jog. "In a logbook you might have one page [to write]. With electronic logging you can track your progress as part of a graph. Doing that in a logbook would be difficult."
Of course, some runners would simply rather use a logbook.
"I'm a writer and that has a lot to do with it, ... and I have 17 years of running logs," says Michael Selman of Alpharetta, Ga. "Maybe it's more out of habit than anything else. But low-tech is the way to go. There's nothing like picking up a log from 1983 and reading about my running on the day my daughter was born."
Selman says he usually sticks with the technical aspects of his run in those logs, but reading those opens a window. One example, from May 21, 1994, reads like this:
"Very pleased with today's swift run. Weather was cool + breezy. Will try hard to keep up training to some degree throughout the summer. 1st mile and total very close to projection. Pigged out today, but why not."
But there was much more to say behind that entry -- where he was, the tactics he used, and a mile-by-mile description of the course.
"I have a comfort level with logs," Selman says. Maybe if I had started running during the time of online logs I would have used them."
And maybe not.