Close to the historic city of Nuremberg, elite scientists are at work on some of the most innovative training solutions the sporting world has seen. To lift the curtain on the tech revolutionising your fitness pursuits, MH travelled to Germany for an excl
We give you an inside look at the Adidas Lab, where future world records are broken
On the secluded site of a former Luftwaffe airfield, close to the old Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, the headquarters of German sportswear brand Adidas occupies a secluded 39-hectare site. It is dominated by a futuristic, sevenstorey operations centre named ‘Laces’, after the walkways that criss- cross its 30m-high glass atrium. As befits a brand of its heritage – and one that reported a revenue of £17bn in 2016 – the campus is professional and inviting, appearing to have based its working culture on the giants of Silicon Valley. Outside, on its rolling lawns, a small group of its 3000 employees are playing volleyball, while inside, others sit down to lunch in one of a number of high-end campus restaurants. On today’s menu: a healthy chicken curry devised by the German football team’s Michelin-starred chef, Holger Stromberg.
But MH’S visit has nothing to do with participating in employee sports matches nor sampling bespoke baltis. Hidden in a far corner of the facility – and protected by rigorous security – is the portal to the Adidas Future Lab, an innovation hub where an elite group of 40 researchers, biomechanics and scientists are hard at work in the race to pioneer game-changing sporting equipment that will help you run further, score more goals and shatter your marathon PB. The tools at their disposal include advanced robotics, state- of-the-art sensors and highly-tuned machinery vetted by NASA, making this the vanguard of athletic progress. Today, MH has been afforded a rare glimpse of the future of fitness.
As the sound of flying footballs echoes around the cavernous, white-walled lab, youthful scientists (all dressed in jeans – there isn’t a lab coat to be seen) consult computer screens, analysing how alternate boot designs influence spin rate and speed. Across the room, a 3D
computer model tracks the lower-body biomechanics of an athlete performing 10m shuttles.
Much has changed since founder, Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler, cobbled together his first running shoes in his mother’s laundry room in 1924, pedalling a stationary bike to power his rudimentary sewing machine during electricity shortages. Opened in 2012, the lab is a place for the company to nurture its innovations away from the public eye. This is no mere production line. Nor are its researchers simply concerned with aesthetics. Here, each product is designed to offer micro-enhancements to your stamina, speed and mobility, with macro results.
The lab has already played a role in developing a number of high-performing (and high-selling) products, from the Ultra Boost shoe – using soles made from 3000 thermoplastic elastomers to literally ‘ boost’ forward momentum – to the laceless Ace 16+ Purecontrol football boot – with a flexible knitted yarn for ball control. And while marketing staff are busy planning for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the lab team is thinking further ahead, with products currently in development for release in 2023. In short, this is where future records are broken.
“This is my sandbox,” smiles Klaus Rolshoven, director of communications. An enthusiastic speaker in his late forties, Rolshoven has occupied his current role for 19 years, also working as a designer. Tinkering away on new inventory sits alongside home-brewing as one of his twin passions in life. “Our team is here to learn, make mistakes and ask questions. We’re not interested in limiting ourselves. We take an idea, dissect it, test it, improve it and do our best to turn it into something physical.”
It helps, of course, to have the right tools to hand, and here only the best will do. In a corner of the lab is a running track surrounded by a Vicon motion capture camera system. It is the same imaging technology NASA uses to test the mobility of its space suits, and has also been used
“This lab is where future world records are broken”
by Hollywood studios to perfect motion capture performances on the Star Wars and Jurassic World franchises.
As a test athlete runs back and forth, 16 high-speed cameras beam data to a giant screen, creating a 3D model of his movements for instant analysis. The cameras focus on every joint of his body, enabling technicians to accurately trace the arcs of individual body parts. This data will be used to refine the shoe, ready for another round of testing, and so on until the finished product is ready for launch.
“Vicon lets us test concepts like acceleration, deceleration, running economy and comfort,” explains Rolshoven. This instant feedback allows for an immediate indication of how to make each shoe perform better.
Race Against Time
Another key component in the lab is the Kistler force plate – a rectangular slab capable of measuring up to 20kn (equivalent to 2040kg) of force in order to detect subtle changes in a runner’s gait or balance. The plate is constructed from quartz crystals, which emit an electric charge when subjected to a mechanical load. So precise is this measurement, that it was Kistler technology that helped the European Space Agency land its Rosetta space probe on a moving comet in 2014.
It’s arguable that employing space age tech to develop shoes is as overblown as it is profligate. But in the professional arena, the data it produces proves invaluable. Features like weight and cushioning – often dismissed as the stuff of marketing spiel – are in fact proven performance-enhancers. “A weight reduction of 100g is proven to deliver a 1% increase in running economy,” says Mathias Amm, product category director at Adidas Running. In a sport where each millisecond counts, that 1% can be the difference between failure and a lucrative victory for athlete and sponsor.
Back in February, this theory was put to the test when, equipped with the new, lightweight Adizero Sub2 marathon shoe, two-time London marathon winner Wilson Kipsang ran the Tokyo Marathon in 2:03:58. At the time, it was the fastest completed on Japanese soil. But it wasn’t a record-breaker, nor even the fastest marathon Kipsang had run. Then, in May, Rio 2016 gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge ran an unofficial marathon in 2:00:25 as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. It is no surprise that the sportswear giants are
“Marginal gains can add up to a huge difference”
locked in a fierce battle to equip the first athlete to break this barrier. Kipchoge was tantalisingly close, comfortably eclipsing Adidas’s effort. But marginal gains could be the key to success. “Small, incremental improvements can make a significant difference when brought together across the 20,000 footsteps an athlete takes during a marathon,” says Amm.
The Adidas team also believes that grip will play a crucial role in improving performance. “We test it by applying force to a shoe and sliding it over a surface,” explains Amm. “If the foot slips 1mm with each step, this makes a significant difference in efficiency when attacking a world record.” Research in the Journal of Textile and Apparel has shown that hightraction soles can help runners shave 0.05s from every 16m. Over the course of a marathon, this equates to 132 seconds. If Adidas can become the first company to harness this, it may just make history.
One Step Ahead
The majority of the lab’s experiments may be focused on footwear, but high-tech shoes alone will not help an athlete achieve greatness if his body is at risk of overwork or overheating. This is why researchers submit each item of sports apparel to rigorous temperature- controlled tests in a climate chamber, capable of replicating an Arctic chill of -30°C, or a sweltering Saharan blast of up to 50°C.
According to Loughborough University research, men running at an average of 75% of their VO2 max sweat 120% more from their upper back than from their chest. Given that the back is exposed to fewer cooling air currents during running, this seems a somewhat inefficient method of regulating body temperature. The Loughborough researchers believe this may well be a legacy of our evolutionary past, when humans moved on all fours, exposing the back to greater airflow. Putting such theories to the test in order to optimise its latest sweat-wicking apparel is precisely the purpose of the lab. As is the tall order of measuring every metric likely to impact an athlete’s performance.
“During human tests in the chamber we measure everything from body temperature to VO2 max, heart rate and lactic acid accumulation in order to see how clothing influences performance,” explains Rolshoven. As befits a secretive innovations lab, some aspects of testing have a slightly more sci-fi leaning. “When entering the chamber, athletes swallow a dissolvable pill with a sensor inside it. It takes 20 minutes to enter the system, then we use a handheld radio device on their stomach to get an immediate and accurate body temperature reading.”
Improving comfort and durability also plays a significant part in the lab’s work. Recently, the New Zealand rugby team stopped by to test their new kit. “We ran some lineout tests to see where the shirts were grabbed so we could analyse where they needed more strength or flexibility,” Rolshoven explains. Using live-capture data, any small sticking point is noted, reworked and improved upon in such a way that a team’s performance wear is constantly evolving along with the game.
Unsurprisingly, football also forms a huge part of the lab’s focus, with product manager Philipp Hagel overseeing the development of all new boots. “Using our high-speed cameras [the same models Audi uses to monitor impact during crash tests] we get fantastic slow-motion footage of how specific parts of a shoe perform when a player changes direction. We can even see how muscles connected to the foot are impacted as they move.”
The latest boot to use this technology is the agility-enhancing Nemeziz, made from a wrap-like assembly of torsion tapes. “It was inspired by the way ballerinas wrap their feet and boxers wrap their hands,” says Hagel. “To test durability, we put prototypes in a machine that flexes them 100 times per minute. Then we do a minimum of 80 hours’ testing.” If that sounds excessive, consider that this forms but a small part of a twoyear process from inception to completion. And when your products will be used by some of the highest-paid athletes in the world, nothing can be left to chance.
So far, this considered process seems to be paying off: already this year Lionel Messi has scored a 20-yard strike and set up a goal with a twisting, turning run when he wore the shoes in Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Alaves in the Copa del Rey final in May. Meanwhile, Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino are among the players set to adopt the boot next season.
But even the best player cannot hope to better the lab’s most striking feature: an automated flywheel with an artificial foot dubbed ‘Roboleg’. Capable of kicking balls at up to 100mph (25mph faster than a pro player), it ensures perfect, replicable shots. In other words, if Optimus Prime played football, this is what his goals would look like. Roboleg is hooked up to 16 Hawk-eye cameras in order to measure the speed and spin rate of shots, enabling researchers to test the performance of both boots and balls. Which isn’t to say human opponents don’t try their luck. Hagel recounts with glee watching Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, test his gloves against the machine on a recent visit. By all accounts, Roboleg held its own.
With all of this new kit to play with, the staff’s Wednesday evening five-a-side matches are invariably interesting, with players able to take their pick of wacky prototypes fresh from the lab, as well as tried and tested favourites. But despite all of the state- of-the-art technology available, the Future Lab scientists still cannot predict where new inspiration will come from. “You cannot plan innovation,” says Rolshoven, gesturing around the lab. “That is why this place is set up like a playground. We play hard and try to turn interesting possibilities into something new.”
Your own office may not have a volleyball court, or some of the best athletes in the world stopping by on a regular basis. But the lab team’s approach can be adapted to infinitely improve creativity in any arena.
“We approach our work as though there are no boundaries,” Rolshoven says as our tour comes to an end. “Often, it is when we break out and do something different that the magic happens.” And should that fail, as innovators across the globe have shown, return to the drawing board enough times, and something spectacular is certain to emerge.
“This place is set up like a playground. We play hard”
‘SWEAT BOT’ NEWTON IS USED TO ANALYSE HIGHTECH APPAREL
PRESSURE LIMBS PUSH CUTTINGEDGE PRODUCTS TO THEIR LIMITS
A STATE-OF-THEART 3D CAMERA SYSTEM MONITORS EVERY DETAIL
MOVEMENTS ARE RECORDED WITH SUB-MILLIMETRE ACCURACY
PROTOTYPE BALLS PREPARE TO BE BLASTED FOR ANOTHER STUDY
ANALYTICS SHOW A FOOT CAN SHIFT 1CM SIDE-TO-SIDE, EVEN AT SLOW PACE
TESTS USE THE SAME CAMERAS AS WIMBLEDON’S HAWK-EYE SYSTEM