This Body Suit May Make Running Easier

by Sarah Fielding

We've all been there: You set your alarm an hour early determined go for a run before work. Then morning comes, your alarm goes off, and the snooze button is immediately hit. I'll run tomorrow, you tell yourself. While there are some people out there who love running, the free exercise is dreaded by many. So what if you could run the distance you dream of while making it feel like the length you actually can? Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University have accomplished just that, by creating a tethered soft exosuit which has the ability to lower the metabolic cost of running on a treadmill by 5.4 percent — essentially, a body suit that makes running easier.

So what does that mean? To break it down, your 9:14 mile could be reduced to 8:49, no training required. The idea is to increase performance without additional strain on the body. During testing, participants ran on the treadmill while wearing the exosuit. At the same time flexible wires connected the apparel at the back of the thigh and waist belt to an external actuation unit. As the person ran, the unit pulled on the wires, acting as a second pair of hip extensor muscles. This applied force to the legs with each stride taken. Basically, instead of your body having to put in any extra effort, the exosuit does it for you.

The scientists confirm that there is room for physical improvement in our running, no exosuit required. “Homo sapiens has evolved to become very good at distance running, but our results show that further improvements to this already extremely efficient system are possible,” says corresponding author Philippe Malcolm, former postdoctoral research fellow at the Wyss Institute and SEAS. However, the team understands that running is much more costly to the body than walking, making the exosuit a potentially better solution than increased training.

Looking longterm the team hopes to improve runner's function even more. “Our goal is to develop a portable system with a high power-to-weight ratio so that the benefit of using the suit greatly offsets the cost of wearing it. We believe this technology could augment the performance of recreational athletes and/or help with recovery after injury,” says Giuk Lee, a Wyss postdoctoral fellow.

While this product isn't available to buy — yet — the idea of improving our functionality without any repercussions is very exciting. “Studies like this are also a great example of the power of thinking beyond the limitations that nature has handed us and asking, ‘Can we do better?’” Wyss Director Donald Ingber states. Who knows what way scientists will think of next to defy our genes.

While they keep working on improving our biology, we'll have rely on ourselves for the time being to overcome the dread and get out of bed for our morning run. Good luck tomorrow morning. Hopefully your exosuit is right around the corner.