Dan Toon and Tom Waller, Loughborough University
Meera - Performance sportswear plays a major role in the sporting events of today and as a result it’s a growing field of scientific research. This week I went to the sports technology institute at Loughborough University to meet sports technologists Dan Toon and Tom Waller to see what sports technology is all about. Here’s Tom Waller.
Tom - Sports technology is one part of a very big machine of getting an athlete ready for race day. If you think about it there’s sports scientists that will be dealing with their technique, their conditioning, their nutrition. Psychologists to help them prepare for the day. We’re dealing with all of their equipment. Any inanimate object that the athlete interacts with from the footwear, the socks, the compression apparel, the training apparel, rehabilitation aids, gloves, helmet - you name it. If it’s something that an athlete has to interact with to carry out the sport that they’re competing in a sports technologist will have been involved in some part of that process.
Meera - So a lot of the projects you’ve been working on are helping our Olympians. What particular pieces of equipment have you been enhancing?
Tom - There’s quite a big project going on with personalisation in footwear. Essentially what we’re looking at is tuning the properties of a shoe to aid sprinting.
Meera - Why is there a need to tailor footwear specifically to athletes? Why can’t they just wear the things that are available in the high street?
Dan - For an elite performing athlete it’s important to personalise the mechanical properties of footwear for maximum performance. To give you a little bit more detail I’ve been particularly looking at the sole unit. In a sprint spike this differs significantly to standard athletic shoes. Standard athletic shoes have a sort of elastomeric or flexible sole unit whereas a sprint spike is made of a very stiff sole unit.
Meera - I can see actually, you got some samples here. The bottom is actually very solid. I didn’t realise that sprinters’ shoes were this hard.
Dan - What I’ve actually been doing is I’ve designed a range of different stiffnesses from really quite flexible right through to something which is incredibly stiff like you demonstrated. Then what I’ve had athletes doing is running in the sprint spikes and performing jumps and various different sprinting-related tasks and then measuring their performance in the different shoes such that I can quantify how their performance differs.
Meera - What’s it actually doing to them to their body or their leg in order to overall make them a faster runner?
Dan - It really comes back down to simple mechanics. If we look at the ankle joint by increasing g the stiffness of the shoe what you’re essentially doing is increasing the lever length about the point of application of force generation in the foot about the ankle joint itself. By making a shoe stiff you’re increasing the lever length and therefore they can generate energy more efficiently.
Meera - How much of a different has it made? Have you seen a good difference in the people that have tried them?
Dan - generally speaking, when we look at a comparison with a barefoot condition by optimising the stiffness you can probably expect to double the amount of mechanical energy you can generate at the ankle. It makes a substantial difference to getting from A-to-B in a sprint run.
Meera - Tom, what makes this any better and less immoral than resorting to drugs?
Tom - We’re treading a fine line. When you talk about performance-enhancement you always raise concerns. Drugs on one hand are changing the human being. They’re really changing the physiological make-up of that person whereas we’re bolting things onto the outside. So for example, in Dan’s situation we’re looking at the shoe and how we can optimise that shoe to enhance the performance of the athlete but only within the rules. What we’re not doing is putting giant springs in the bottom of their feet to make them jump higher or jump longer or run faster in that way. When we’re put onto this planet we’re essentially naked, we’re naked without any of these tools and pieces of apparel: footwear, equipment around us. All of these sports involve things that we interact with. In terms of swimming we wear hats, we wear goggles because we have to cope with the environment that we’re performing in. We’re making athletes more comfortable and we’re helping them to perform at optimal levels.
Dan Toon and Tom Waller are based at the University of Loughborough, and are NOISEMakers - part of the EPSRC's New Outlooks in Science and Engineering (NOISE).