Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Running is one of the most popular fitness activities in the world, and in 2019 no fewer than 48 million people worldwide participated in the sport. But if the statistics hold true, as many as 37 million of them will experience some kind of lower extremity injury as a runner.
In the perspective of the team at Smart Strike, a competitor in this year’s Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge, that’s because runners don’t have the right tools to prevent injury before it happens.
“The whole purpose of this product is to be your digital running coach,” said Jon Cordisco, a junior studying mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Oregon State University and a cofounder of Smart Strike.
The team, which includes fellow OSU students Sadie Thomas and Jonah Diehl, sophomores studying computer science, designed a biometric running device embedded into a runner’s shoe that detects and tracks where and how hard a runner’s foot strikes the ground. Smart Strike hopes that this data will demonstrate running problems before they start and help everyday runners make strides in their fitness injury-free.
"There are a lot of people who are running hobbyists who enjoy running as a sport but don't have access to a full-on running coach,” Cordisco said. “They're not a high-level sort of athlete who is going for gold and they're maybe not a track athlete at a college or high school, they're just your everyday runner. We want to provide a coach and be that coach for them to help them improve.”
A thin sensor that inserts into a runner’s shoe, Smart Strike measures the ground reaction forces in three key locations where runner’s foot strikes the ground: the heel, the midfoot and the forefoot.
Currently, impact data collected by Smart Strike is stored on an SD card, but the Smart Strike team envisions integrating their data with Bluetooth transmission to a smartphone. “The important thing is getting live feedback of your data while you're running through a Bluetooth app,” Cordisco said.
That kind of information can help a runner make adjustments on the fly to prevent injury and improve performance, especially if Smart Strike can integrate their data with machine learning that can provide a deeper level of analysis.
This analysis would be pivotal for preventing injury and improving performance, but right now it is only available to those who have the resources to pay for it: elite athletes. Elite runners are often forefoot strikers, Cordisco said, but that just doesn’t characterize most runners. “A lot of runners, they go from heel, midfoot and forefoot and then push off the big toe,” he said.
Casual runners often suffer injuries that result from exaggerating one part of their foot-striking pattern, but it depends entirely on the individual runner. They may not have the need or desire for a running coach, but individualized data will take them a long way to truly understand how they run and what kind of adjustments can make running a safe, lifelong activity.
"Oftentimes if runners run on their heels too much, that puts a lot of stress on their knees,” Sadie Thomas said. "If they run on their toes, their forefoot, too much, it'll put a lot of stress on their calves.”
Exaggerated heel or midfoot strikes, for example, can influence shin splints, a condition that encompasses inflammation and stress to the lower leg in several different ways. But without any of the data that Smart Strike provides, runners have no clues to indicate how this common and infuriating condition is limiting their ability to run—and therefore no solutions.
Similarly, where a runner’s foot strikes the ground can not only stress certain parts of the body and lead to injury, it can affect speed or impair movement efficiency. Heel-striking runners tend to be slower and shift the impact to their knees. Conversely, forefoot-striking runners tend to be faster, but they also shift the impact to their ankles and calves.
Data about their stride could empower runners to customize their foot-strike pattern to create a desired effect. "If you're going more for sprints, you want to stay on your toes more, versus marathon runners, it's OK to heel strike a little bit and take some of that pressure off of your calves,” Thomas said.
But runners will find nuggets of wisdom in the data they collect even if they aren’t looking for anything specific. Charting his own data, Cordisco mapped the trends in a 3-mile run he finished on a prototype of Smart Strike.
Over time, his data showed that he shifted from a strong forefoot and midfoot strike early in his run to a heel strike as he fatigued. Knowing precisely when that happens and how exaggerated it is, Cordisco can adjust his gait or stop a run entirely before an injury occurs.
"With our product, it will work with any shoe, with any insert,” Cordisco said. That’s important for runners who want or need specific equipment. "A lot of runners also have their favorite sort of arch support or they need that support while they're running."
Its universality also means that a runner can use Smart Strike to find the right shoes they need. "People have their individual styles of running and then also a big factor is their height, their weight, where they like to run, whether they like to be trail running or street running,” Diehl said. “With this data, we can recommend a good type of running shoe for them."
For those who participate in one of the world’s most popular sports, finding a way to perform safely means that runners will be able to enjoy longer and healthier lives. Smart Strike promises them an individual road map for success—the key to joyful fitness.