RW looks to the future, and asks: what will running be like in 25 years?
She opens a panel in the wall that folds out to an enclosed treadmill. The walls comes alive with lush scenery as she steps onto the surface of the machine, which feels soft but responsive.
Her artificial intelligence (AI) coach begins assessing her recovery: communicating with her bed on the quality of her sleep, with a tracking app on her nutrition, and with various monitors regarding her heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, neurochemistry, muscle damage, and things we don’t even know are important yet. Taking into account her workouts over the past weeks, her injury history, her genetics and her goals, the AI coach suggests a workout.
The runner accepts and a hologram of the coach appears to lead her through her pre-run exercises – personalised, of course, to account for the nine hours she sat at a desk yesterday and her tight left hamstring. While she’s warming up, she scans a list of other runners and buzzes her friend in Kuala Lumpur, who runs at her pace and is looking for someone who will run a few companionable kays.
They agree on a venue – a section of Cape Town’s Sea Point Promenade, say – and both load the course. A 3D, 360-degree image of the Promenade appears around her and a breeze whistles in from the left, smelling of ocean and grass. Her friend appears beside her. The treadmill rises, falls and tilts with the terrain, automatically adjusting pace to keep the effort level appropriate, but easily modified with verbal commands, hand signals or subtle head or eye movements. Throughout the run, the treadmill harvests the energy of each step and feeds it back into the grid.
Post-run, the AI coach leads her through stretches and exercises, personally tailored to address weaknesses it observed in her stride. Electric pulses assist her in targeting specific muscle groups, while other currents enhance the plasticity of a specific location in her brain to help retrain movement patterns. Meanwhile, her kitchen is busy preparing the perfect smoothie, personalised with the nutrients she needs and will absorb most effectively, as revealed by her genetic profile, gut flora, and blood and brain chemistry.
On Sunday, she toes the starting line of the Berlin Marathon, without leaving her home. She runs the race at the same time as those on the streets, seeing the sights, hearing the crowds and bands, feeling the elements as they occur. If the weather is unseasonably hot in Germany this morning, she can choose to suffer with the actual field, or she can dial the temperature back to her ideal 10 degrees.
People who should know believe that all this will be possible and available in 25 years, if not sooner. The technology is being explored, and only time is needed to fully develop it. Focusing on the virtual reality sphere, companies such as Peleton, Zwift and iFit are already
Imagine a runner in 2043. She wakes at an appropriate time in her sleep cycle as the curtains open to let the sun into her bedroom, while recorded birdsong filters to her ears.
ON SUNDAY, SHE TOES THE LINE OF THE BERLIN MARATHON WITHOUT LEAVING HER HOME.
well on the way to creating immersive, interactive exercise experiences. “Our goal is to bring personal training into the home, as real as we can; content so real and immersive, it’s actually better than being outside,” says Chase Watterson, marketing director at Icon Health and Fitness, which makes the iFit technology, exercise equipment and monitoring devices. “You can go anywhere in the world, you can dial up any workout you want, and we will take you there, or at least trick your body into thinking you’re there – what you’re feeling, what you’re smelling, what you’re seeing – working out, running whatever race, climbing whatever hill.”
However, it’s fair to wonder whether such a running experience will be necessary or welcomed. Virtual or augmented reality may well allow the runner to never leave home in the future, but many will want to. Fortunately, running outside will be easier and more pleasant, if you believe Scott Cain, CEO of RunFriendly (runfriendly.com). Cain sees future cities as greener, more pedestrianised and healthier.
“We’ll see much more focus given to place and vibrancy, and to healthy people,” says Cain. “That plays out beautifully to a future where walking, running and cycling are very much bigger parts of how people go about their daily lives.”
Cain foresees running becoming integral not only to future lifestyles, but also to public policy. “Forward-thinking cities will ask, ‘How do we use transit to deliver other outcomes, including the health of the people of this place?’” he says. “Then walking, running or cycling become not just a transport choice; they become elements of the health strategy of the city. There is an opportunity to make running more of the answer to some of the big global challenges, such as climate change, obesity or air quality.”
As our transportation becomes increasingly pedestrian, running will become more common, both as an efficient form of exercise and for the same reason that young Kenyans run to school: you can get where you’re going faster. To make it more feasible, we will see shower and changing facilities in every business and in public facilities. Vending machines or kiosks will sell or rent inexpensive, business-acceptable attire and launder your athleisure apparel during your work day.
In Cain’s bright vision, runners will receive discounts on their taxes or health insurance, encouraging more people to get involved. “I think there’ll be an evolution in terms of how people understand their own well-being and health, both physical and mental,” he says. “I think running will play an integral part. I can see running being prescribed – I see it being the wonder drug of the 21st century.”
Not all share this optimistic view. A more dystopian vision of the future pictures a world divided by growing income inequalities, where running is reserved for the rich. “What we’re increasingly seeing in urban centres is the privatisation of public, open spaces,” says Tamar Kasriel, futurist and author of Futurescaping. “Lots of places are trying to build literal fences around where rich people are. For the non-rich, where you’re allowed to run, that will start to change.” This darker view sees future cities that are too hot, polluted and crowded to go outside, where only those who can afford it run in parks and climate-controlled stadiums, while the teeming masses get increasingly sedentary and unhealthy.
Cain can also envision bleak futures, but doesn’t consider them inevitable. “You work on a set of scenarios, then say, ‘Which is your preferred one?’” he says. “Then, you ask, ‘What is the best way of us realising that preferred future?’” It takes people like Cain, and the rest of us supporting them, to marshal the influence and resources to make sure the dystopian future remains a nightmare rather than reality.
Assuming there will still be an accessible, liveable outdoors, people will not only continue to want to go there, but will also want to gather with others. Few doubt that virtual racing will enable millions – including those who lost out on limited entries – to enjoy the world’s iconic races in realistic detail. Yet it won’t replace participating in events large and small.
“There is still a massive appetite for people to talk with each other, spend time with each other,” says Nick Pearson, CEO of parkrun. “That social interaction is incredibly valuable.” Running events provide a unique and rich context for that social requirement. However, what running events will look like and feel like may well change over the next 25 years.
Big, historic race fixtures show no sign of waning. “I still think the experience and the pageantry and celebration that happen at the finish of a large marathon, with a backdrop of the best global cities of the world – that will never lose its lustre,” says Tim Hadzima, general manager of the Abbott World Marathon Majors. Hugh Brasher, event director for London Marathon Events, says, “People getting together and participating in iconic events around the world will be just as important, if not more so, than now, because of the way it uniquely shows a togetherness – and the world is becoming less together.”
From the outside, these races may still appear much the same in 2043, but technology will alter elements of the race experience. Devices – be they clipped on, built into apparel, stuck on or implanted – will monitor multiple vitals and tell you when to drink more, when to take on carbs, when you’ve exceeded your anaerobic threshold and should slow down, when your posture has deteriorated or your cadence significantly slowed. They will also sound alerts and share your information with medical staff if, say, you’re dangerously overheating or having heart trouble. “I think that technology will have one of the biggest changes in how we look after people in an event,” says Brasher.
The big races will survive and thrive, but forecasters also see increased growth at the other extreme: informal, small, free events such as parkrun and running crews. The key to the sustainability of such events, says Pearson, is to keep them low cost, easily repeatable and appropriately scaled, requiring a minimal amount of structure and organisation.
Small events will avoid the problem of securing road closures and angering the
residents in increasingly crowded cities by sharing public spaces without overwhelming them. “Twenty minutes beforehand, you won’t know anybody is coming; and 20 minutes after, you won’t know that anybody’s ever been there,” says Pearson.
What will probably go away are many midsized events that are often unwieldy, invasive and bland. Those that survive will be exceptional, both in experience and logistics. Sam Browne, founder of letsdothis.com, sees races using technologies such as facerecognition to eliminate the hassles of registration, number pickup and image and video retrieval. Combined with carefully curated courses, support and race-day details, these events will “create a seamless and frictionless experience to get people to that euphoria in running”. Not only will races be better, but how you select them will be transformed. Browne is working towards a future where data from reviews, your training log and your racing and social preferences will be combined to curate your race schedule, ensuring optimal experiences.
Local runs, crews and clubs will be increasingly diverse, not only in style and culture but also in how they mix in other fitness and social activities, luring new participants off the couch and from other sports. “Running is going to fit into the totality of who we are in a different way,” says Mary Wittenberg, former president of the New York Road Runners and global CEO of Virgin Sport. She sees running in the future being an integral part of active, diverse, involved and connected lifestyles for all. “The future of running will be not only be about defeating obesity, but also an antidote to loneliness.”
Runners young and old will benefit from technology that will help coaches, trainers and medical professionals to better assess, monitor and connect with runners. This challenge is being pursued by companies such as FitQuest, which makes lab-quality fitness assessment machines currently being deployed in gyms around the UK. Brian Firth, FitQuest’s CEO, sees measuring capabilities expanding rapidly in quality and in the types of variables that can be examined.
A gait assessment that now requires a R3 million treadmill, for example, may be done in the future by R2 000 smart sensors that can communicate with each other. He predicts that improvements in battery life, computing power, camera technologies and the ability to measure increasingly small samples of body fluids non-invasively will allow us to accurately and affordably gather reams of important data and communicate it to you and your coach, PT and podiatrist.
Others share this dream. “Imagine you go to your doctor; instead of just saying ‘Ow’, they’ve got metrics they can look at easily,” says Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and director of the REP Biomechanics Lab in Bend, Oregon, US. “If you have knee pain, they can see your knee has been over-rotating for 80 per cent of your running volume. Let’s look at the factors that drive that; let’s look at footwear that could help with that; let’s look at giving our therapists the right tools.”
This data will be available to professionals anywhere in the world, transforming coaching. “Can I get coached by somebody in, say, Denver, when I’m in London?” asks Firth. “The more measurement data and quality of data you have, the more possible that is.”
Regardless of who is receiving the data, the biggest advances will be in making it useable. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of noise,” says Dicharry. “I would like to think that we would have some more individually prescriptive tools by then. That can be
DEVICES WILL MONITOR MULTIPLE VITALS AND TELL YOU WHEN TO DRINK MORE.
everything from how to pick better shoes, to how to optimise your stride, to how to determine that you’re fatiguing during a long run, to how to optimise your training.” People need help, because it’s hard to view yourself objectively.
Eventually, machine learning will integrate and interpret data to create personalised workouts and training plans – thereby greatly expanding the affordability and accessibility of informed coaching. iFIT already draws information from its sleep monitor, activity tracker and shoe sensor to modify workout plans, and its coaching programme learns over time how your body responds to workouts and your preferred patterns.
All of this will help you stay off the injured list, but runners will still find ways to get hurt. When they do, their treatment options will be far greater. Genetics promises some of the most exciting possibilities. “If runners have injuries, they will be able, with DNA and stem cell therapy, to recover much faster,” says Maarten van Dijk, founder of Pure Genetic Lifestyle. Implanted stem cells will be able to regenerate cartilage, ligaments and bone quickly and robustly. Active rehabbing will be easier than ever, with devices like an exoskeleton ‘bionic leg’ attachment bearing some of the load while you regain strength – a technology already being developed by Alter-G, makers of the weight-bearing treadmill popular with today’s elites.
THE SHOE FITS
The overarching trend that appears in every sphere is a shift from the generic to the personal. Monitors, ratings, datatracking and genetics all promise to provide training plans, nutritional advice and events developed and catered specifically for you.
The same is true with footwear. “Today we are very well aware that running form and foot-striking pattern is as individual and unique as a fingerprint,” says Olivier Bernhard, co-founder of shoe brand On. “The consequence of this learning needs to lead into personalised shoes that adapt to the runner’s need.” Every brand agrees that bespoke shoes are necessary and imminent. How personal those shoes will be is much less certain.
“In five years from now, you can order shoes specially made for you through the internet,” says biomechanics researcher Benno Nigg. “You have to answer three or four questions, then you get the shoe for you.” Nigg believes that even in 25 years, customisation will only address fit and preference for most runners. Personalisation, he says, will still be “more
what they like, not functionally determining what they need. We’re working on that, but it is damned difficult.”
Others have more confidence we will be able to create shoes that support your personal movement path, prevent injury and enhance performance. “A fully customised shoe will take a few years, but the rate at which we’re making improvements is pretty phenomenal,” says Geoffrey Gray, president of the Heeluxe biomechanics lab. “We’ve made some pretty good strides towards a shoe tuned for stride mechanics and tailored to your foot, your body weight, your running speed, and the types of things you like to feel.”
That confidence is based on the ability to gather data from large populations and process it to find usable patterns. “It used to be that a running biomechanics study would be 10 people in a lab over a couple of weeks or months,” says Gray. “Now we’ll be able to get data on tens of thousands of people in a few days.” Says Pete Humphrey, vice president of research and development at Brooks, “We’re moving so much faster now, just with motion-capture systems we have in-house. Now we start adding sensors to the body, start adding better dialogue with runners.”
To address these questions and make shoes that are truly personal will require the development of ‘smart’ materials that adapt to changes. “Imagine an upper that is completely supportive, yet feels and behaves like a sock, depending on environmental or situational cues,” says
Kurt Stockbridge, footwear development vice president at Skechers Performance. Wendy Yang, president of Hoka One One, dreams of “a midsole that can adapt shape, responsiveness, firmness, and so on – based on the runner, the terrain, the speed and more”.
Whether your shoes are printed for you, partially customised from various pieces or selected from a wide range of models, there is general agreement that they will be made closer to home, in robotic factories that create shoes on demand – reducing waste in shipping, inventory and materials. Those materials will have evolved to last longer and have a smaller environmental footprint. Bernhard predicts “biodegradable, natural and even better-performing materials will be the base of a running shoe construction”. Others talk about shoes created from recycled materials and designed to be regenerated post-use.
In all the glittering futures, it’s easy to forget that utopian visions have rarely panned out. “Many times when we try to outsmart nature, it backfires in our face,” says Kyle Pfaffenbach, nutrition consultant for the Brooks Beasts running club. “We often think of progress as some sort of technological advancement; but it doesn’t have to mean that.”
Progress in running may mostly come in how we understand ourselves. Pfaffenbach thinks advances in genetics may not lead to customised diets and training plans anytime soon, but instead to a more widespread appreciation of how unique and complex each individual is, freeing us from one-sizefits-all prescriptions.
John Kiely, elite-performance lecturer, says improved understanding of the effect of the brain on performance will not necessarily lead to technologies for manipulating the neurochemical environment, but recognition that “we can be better masters of our brain”. Future training programmes may focus as much on creating routines that foster mental health and build expectations of success as they do on volume and pace.
Any informed prediction of the future should also acknowledge the cultural pendulum that swings between embracing and repudiating technology. Even in the most optimistic industrial times, says Kasriel, “there’s always the sense of a lost, idealised, halcyon past when we were more in touch with nature than we are now.”
Alex Hutchinson, RW columnist, science writer and author of Endure, says, “I predict that a bestselling book 25 years from now (hopefully mine!) will spark a massive movement known as the New Minimalism, in which runners around the world decide to shed their wearable technology, unplug their implanted monitoring and analysis chips, and go for a run setting their pace based on nothing more than how they feel.”
About that feel: in the end it’s what remains and never changes. In 25 years, regardless of how the world is transformed, runners will head out the door and put one foot in front of the other. As they settle into a pace, the rhythm will take over, worries will fall away. They will feel powerful, connected and alive. They will run.
IMPLANTED STEM CELLS WILL BE ABLE TO REGENERATE CARTILAGE, LIGAMENTS AND BONE.
ANOTHER DAY IN FUTURE WORLD! First things first: let’s see how the Brexit negotiations are going…
DRESS CODE “Something from 2018, please. It was such a good time for fashion.Yes, it was.”
WE CAN DREAM “See those things? They’re cars. They ran on something called petrol, whatever that was.”