Measuring the vibrations of runners’ strides could help prevent muscle injuries

Bad vibrations.
Credit: J Milburn via Wikimedia Commons

Despite its worldwide popularity as a form of exercise, running—whether it’s long-distance or sprinting—is grueling. It not only requires an incredible amount of mental focus and a high pain tolerance, but it’s also extremely taxing on the body. Unlike sports such as swimming or cycling, running is a high-impact activity. With each stride, your foot collides with the ground. This impact sends vibrations to every muscle you’ve got. Over time, that can lead to muscle fatigue and injury.

If we could understand how runners adapt to these vibrations, we might be able to better prevent the resulting injuries. That’s what a team of researchers from the University of Marseille in France is trying to figure out. What they’ve found so far is that our bodies are constantly adapting our strides to accommodate for the level of impact we experience. But overall, there is a core set of muscle movements and maneuvers that the body uses to manage these vibrations. Now the researchers hope to study these exact movements to unravel how they lead to injury.

The researchers outfitted runners with tiny accelerometers, which measure how fast a person is speeding up over a certain time period. They combined these with a motion capture system to measure the vibrational impact each stride inflicted. How could knowledge of this help runners in a practical way? Delphine Chadefaux, the lead researcher on the study, explained in a statement that not much attention is paid to this shock propagation or vibrations in other research. But with better info, running shoe companies could create shoes designed to reduce those vibrations without compromising runners’ speed. Chadefaux and her colleagues presented their work this week at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Boston.

But Chadefaux says there’s a lot more work to be done before your sneakers can perfectly protect you from dangerous vibrations. Bodies are extremely diverse, even among people who all run regularly, so it’s likely that the group of runners sampled in the study won’t be able to demonstrate all the different impacts each running maneuver can have on a person’s body. Further, the runners were all running inside, under controlled conditions. It’s likely that running on uneven pavement or on trails would have some impact on the vibrations, so anyone trying to design an effective intervention would have to study those variations as well.

But with more research, the team thinks this could lead to a better understanding of vibration injuries endured not only by runners, but perhaps by lovers of other high-impact sports as well.