Smart runners keep on running

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Smart runners keep on running

Over two and a half million people in the Netherlands do it. But they could do it more often, and safer. That’s why researchers at Industrial Design are looking for ways to motivate and support runners using smart technology.

photo Pantelis Katsis

The majority of Dutch runners are not a member of an athletics club and practice their sport without coaching or medical supervision. Running is such a popular activity because everyone can do it anywhere. But this comes with a few drawbacks: the usually ill-prepared runners quickly get injured, and the run in the park gets skipped over disappointingly often without the necessary motivation.

That is why the Systemic Change group of TU/e’s department of Industrial Design started a research program in collaboration with Fontys Sports College, under supervision of TU/e professors Aarnout Brombacher and Steven Vos, who is also a lecturer at Fontys. Within this program, dubbed ‘Data-enabled Running’, a group of PhD candidates focuses on various aspects of recreational running, such as an app that draws up a personal training schedule;  portable devices that analyze your running technique; a search for how to design ‘running-friendly’cities; and special designs that help take away the mental obstacles that keep people from running. The common denominator - as was to be expected at Industrial Design - is smart technology.

Many runners give up with injuries, often because they push too hard when they start training

Mark Janssen
Human movement scientist working at Fontys

Mark Janssen is a human movement scientist and lecturer and researcher at Fontys who is currently working on a doctoral research within the Data-enabled Running program. He stresses that the program’s overarching objective is to help recreational runners stay on track. “We see that many runners give up with injuries, often because they push too hard when they start training.  In addition, they usually set themselves a specific goal, such as the half marathon, which is so hugely popular nowadays. Once they’ve accomplished that, they lose their motivation and quit.” And that’s a shame, because running, obviously, can be a healthy hobby.

In order to gain more insight into the different types of runners, Janssen surveyed over twenty thousand participants of the Eindhoven marathon on their sporting experience. It turns out that you can break runners down into roughly four categories, he explains. “There are social-competitive runners, who like to compare their performance to that of others, and there are individually-competitive runners whose focus lies more on their own records. Then there is the so-called group runner, for whom running is mostly a social event. This group usually runs shorter distances and is made up of a relatively high percentage of women. And finally, there are the fit-runners who want to get in shape and who run purely for health reasons, without worrying about their performance.”

It turns out that the competitive runners in particular are interested in running watches with a heart rate sensor. That’s a pity actually, Janssen believes, because advice based on heart rate is relevant to other types of runners as well. “The problem is that information about heart rate doesn’t mean much to these people. Group runners and fit-runners, for instance, would benefit more from an app that tells them to run faster or slower based on their heart rate.”

Read on below the photos.

Janssen developed a prototype of such an app, called INSPIRUN, in collaboration with the developers at 2M Engineering. “That app measures heart rate and speed, and asks the runner’s feedback on how he or she feels. The only thing the runner will hear via an earpiece is to go faster or to slow down. On the basis of the results, a personalized running schedule will then be made for the next sessions.” After each session, the user will see a percentage that indicates whether the performance was above or below expectations.

According to Janssen, this is the first app that provides runners with a truly personalized training advice. Furthermore, INSPIRUN was positively evaluated by fifty test subjects. “Practically everyone indicated that the advice they got was just right. Sometimes they thought that it was too easy for them in the beginning, but they progressed nevertheless. That’s exactly what we wanted, because we expect that this is how you prevent injuries.” The most serious challenge for now is how to take into account the influence of difficult terrain, such as dirt tracks, and differences in height. “The estimates were just fine on asphalt, but on more difficult terrain, it takes more exertion to reach the same speed. We still need to make some adjustments for that.”

I try to come up with devices that correspond more with the wishes of less performance-orientated runners. And most of them are women

Daphne Menheere
PhD candidate at Industrial Design

Beginning runners quit relatively often, a problem that applies probably even more to women than men, because the current training tools - such as activity trackers and running apps - are quite specifically aimed at performance and competition. “That doesn’t really appeal to a large number of women, as it turns out,” says PhD candidate Daphne Menheere. “That’s why I try to come up with devices that correspond more with the wishes of less performance-orientated runners. And most of those runners are women.”

The majority of the women she interviewed for her research indicated that the moment they change clothes is decisive: once they wear their running outfit, they’ll actually start running. “That’s something we can use in our design. How do you make that moment of changing clothes less of an obstacle?” One playful example she came up with together with students is a hanger that gives light signals and starts moving when it’s time to practice sport. “I’ve also made a sports shirt with thermo ink, on which an encouraging text will appear when the T-shirt gets warm. Upside down, so that the person wearing the t-shirt can read it. People see that as a very personal message.”

Another problem she wants to address is that of the somewhat male-orientated design of many sporting attributes. “Quite a number of women feel that a black plastic watch doesn’t suit them at all. They also don’t feel very comfortable with a sportive look. That is why I made, together with students, a handsome bracelet with a moiré pattern; you can set it in such a way that a pattern will appear that tells you, for instance, that you were planning to practice sport. That’s very different from a watch with figures that reflect your performance, and I believe it suits my target group much better.”

Running technique and running in the built environment

Besides Menheere and Janssen, three more PhD candidates are active within the Data-enabled Running program. Jos Goudsmit, like Janssen, is a teacher and researcher at Fontys and focuses primarily on improving running technique, tailored to the individual runner. He uses various motion sensors, applied to the shins for instance, which carefully register the runner’s movements. Based on measurements from a different sensor, developed by TU/e spinoff JimFIT, Goudsmit even managed to provide runners with direct feedback in the form of spoken recommendations. An improved running technique will eventually lead to less injuries, and consequently improve the motivation to keep on running, Goudsmit says.

Juan Restrepo also aims to prevent injuries. His focus lies on identifying risk factors in the daily lives of recreational runners, such as work stress, sleep deprivation and other sports activities. He follows a large group of runners day and night for this, using portable devices and smartphone apps. On the basis of the data from this research, Restrepo tries to design new, portable devices - preferably integrated in clothing, or applicable to skin - that can support recreational runners in practicing their sport safely.

Read on below the photo.

Finally, Loes van Renswouw studied Architecture, Building and Planning at TU/e and currently conducts her doctoral research on how to use big data when designing new, smart environments. For her case study, Van Renswouw collected data from two popular running apps in the Netherlands and Belgium, which she then analyzed and made comprehensible with the use of data visualization. Her aim was to find out how we can use this ‘user-generated data’ to make environments more ‘movement friendly’ in order to motivate and encourage people, in a subtle way, to be physically active more often.

More sport

Quite a lot of sports-related research took place at TU/e throughout the years. Below is a selection of the more recent efforts in this field.

Josje van Houwingen, herself a swimmer, conducted her doctoral research on the optimal swimming movement. Read more here.

Startup SmartGoals originated at Industrial Design. It designs intelligent pylons that light up and can be used during football training sessions, for instance. Several parties expressed an interest, including Ajax, AC Milan and the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB). Read more in this article (in Dutch only).

Smart technology can also be used to lift mental coaching of athletes to a higher plane; this collaboration between Industrial Design and football club PSV proves it.

PhD candidate Yannick Balk discovered that top athletes perform better if they relax regularly. A hobby can help with that.

Student athletics club Asterix became involved with Industrial Design’s sports research a few years ago.

PhD candidate Lin Xu and his supervisor Massimo Mischi built a fitness device that can make a workout session more effective by adding vibrations.

And, last but not least: TU/e’s wind tunnel is the site of a series of tests with ice skaters and cyclists in particular, conducted under the inspirational leadership of professor Bert Blocken. The results of those measurements - strategically presented just prior to the start of a major cycling race - always generate much publicity. Read more here and here.

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