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Running’s Tech Boom Is Just Getting Started

What's on the horizon for running and technology?

I’ve been telling everyone for years that whatever happened in George Jetson’s technology-enhanced life, we’d one day be able to experience in ours.

The long-running popular cartoon series and 1990 animated film about a family from a futuristic outer space society are ancient history—just like the running shoes, clothes and accessories of the original running boom—but the age of technology is obviously upon us. As 2016 unfolds, a new generation of high-tech running gear is dawning, and some of it would make ol’ George Jetson proud.

This year’s new gear will certainly continue the paradigm shift that has seen running become more intertwined with technology in recent years.

RELATED: The Best Running Tech Products For 2016

In short, the game-changing products and technologies that are emerging have the ability to help runners become more efficient, smarter about training, wiser about recovery and ultimately faster. Although first-generation wearables—heart rate monitors, basic smartwatches, simple step counters and even so-called sleep monitors—have gained traction and acceptance, the latest innovations—from advanced smartwatches to tech-enhanced shoes and apparel to sophisticated gait monitors and running power meters—definitely represent what’s next.

“I think what is apparent is that the world of technology and sport are colliding in a really cool way,” says Chris Ladd, executive vice president of New Balance, which recently launched a Digital Sport division focusing on game-changing digital experiences and wearable technologies. “I think the data, the sensors, the technology available right now allow the athlete to have an unprecedented view of their performance. It’s a really exciting time.”

Ladd points out that New Balance’s expertise is in developing athletic footwear, apparel and accessories, not electronics or advanced technologies. But, he says, that’s exactly why it has forged partnerships with leading-edge tech companies like Intel, Strava, Google and Zepp. It’s through those partnerships that joint understanding of athletic training and improvement can be understood and game-changing products can be developed.

RELATED: What Runners Will Love from CES 2016

The new division will initially focus on three product categories: devices, including a new smartwatch that will allow runners to track workouts and listen to music untethered from a smartphone; embedded technology, such as intelligent sensors integrated into New Balance footwear and apparel; and performance sport, including a sports equipment micro-fob that senses, analyzes and provides feedback of an athlete’s performance.

The first tech-enhanced shoes from Altra and Under Armour are expected to debut by late winter. Using a chip in one of the shoes, the Under Armour Gemini 2 Record Equipped ($150) automatically tracks a runner’s speed, distance, cadence and route and seamlessly downloads the data to the brand’s Map My Run platform.

The Altra IQ ($199), which interacts with iFit wearable tech devices and software, has been designed to provide real-time running analysis and coaching feedback that can make a runner more efficient. It has full-length sensors in each shoe and can tell runners if they’re overstriding, have too slow of a cadence or have a stride imbalance.

“The way technology becomes useful in running is not just by giving runners data but by helping runners use the data for improvement, for example their gait or their fitness,” says Golden Harper, one of the founders of Altra Running. “Our goal wasn’t so much to create a tech shoe, it was to continue with the reasons we started Altra and that’s to help runners improve and reduce the chances of injuries.”

RELATED: First Look: Altra IQ Tech Shoe

The new Stryd chest strap power meter is another good example of modern technology benefitting runners. It measures the power an athlete produces while running, allowing that runner to instantly understand how much effort they’re putting forth—a little or a lot, too much or too little—during a particular run.

Ultimately, it’s a device to help a runner understand efficiency and run at any speed or effort while keeping their power output as low as possible—either by fixing minor form flows, adjusting intensity on the go or developing workouts to promote efficiency, although in theory it could even help a runner choose the most appropriate shoe for a particular type of run.

“There is more and more technology coming into sport and the challenge is to find out what is actually useful and what is noise in the background,” says triathlete Craig Alexander, a three-time Ironman World Champion. “For me, I see two real applications to monitoring power output: working on your efficiency, monitoring it and seeing where it breaks down and being able to make adjustments; and also being able to monitor it and build fitness based on it.”

What’s Next?

How far will technology push the envelope in running? Sensoria’s new apparel line includes socks, a shirt and a sports bra that can track running data in real time, and a new arrangement with Microsoft will lead to a system for collecting soccers players’ biometric data and track movements on a pitch. Oakley’s soon-to-be-released Radar Pace sunglasses have a built-in, voice-activated “coach” that responds to your workout data in real time. More next-level tech shoes are on the horizon, and in the not-so-distant future, custom-built shoes designed specifically for a runner’s specific gait details could become a reality. With help from Intel RealSense imaging technology, New Balance has already created a small batch of shoes with custom 3D-printed midsoles based on the specific foot size and shape, along with impact force data of individual runners.

Imagine what it would mean if you could walk into a running store, undergo a quick 3-D scan of your feet and a few days later lace up a pair of running shoes customized to your specific foot and gait specs. Being able to scale that kind of technological advancement and sell mass quantities of those products might take a while, but the technology is already here.

“Certainly where this could go is to the notion of performance customization,” Ladd says. “To be able to make product for an individual based on their stride, their strike, their cadence, their gait and really understanding what their foot does under load and under pressure on a run will ultimately provide the runner with a greater ride and better performance.”

To complement the wearable consumer products it is developing, New Balance says its new tech division will also focus on developing digital experiences, the first of which will be via the New Balance Run Club. This digital and physical community of runners will be powered by Strava and utilize its platform to bring more New Balance runners together, online and offline.

On one level, it enables New Balance to get into the tech-enhanced running community the way Nike (Nike+), Salomon/Suunto (Moves Count) and Under Armour (Map My Run and Endomondo) have been involved for years. Runners will use Strava to connect with each other, track performance, share their favorite routes and celebrate accomplishments, while also being able to participate in group and individual virtual training programs for key races and running events, as well as virtual races between individuals and clubs.

New Balance is taking it one step further, though, as actual Run Club activities will be centered in New Balance stores and include local runs, group training, alternative training and classes. The first Run Club will launch at the new NB Run Hub at the Flatirons Running store Boulder, Colo., in early 2016, while others will launch in the U.S., Europe and Asia later in the year.

“Digital technology has truly revolutionized, very quickly, this industry and New Balance wants to continue to be a brand on the forefront, arming our athletes with the cutting-edge products that will help them reach peak performance,” says Rob DeMartini, president and CEO of New Balance.

VIDEO: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich Shows How Sport and Technology Are Connecting (Go to 49:00 of the video to see New Balance President & CEO Rob DeMartini discuss 2016 developments.)

How Can You Use Technology?

How much your own running is influenced by technology in this age of advanced analytics is entirely up to you. Although old-school purists might discount the use of technology, most runners are already using some form of applied science in a wearable tracking device or online community.

You can gain valuable insights from your training data and use your digital feedback to boost your motivation and accountability. To improve as a runner, you have to train consistently while avoiding injury, overtraining and burnout. You can share and compare your training and racing stats and achievements and that, in turn, can motivate you to train more consistently, more wisely and more diligently.

But as much as all of this new technology is definitely changing running, all of this new technology isn’t necessarily changing running at all. That might sound contradictory, but it’s quite simple. Long-distance running has always been a pretty basic activity. Put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, lace up your shoes and head out the door and put one foot in front of the other.

To become a better runner and faster runner, you need to improve your fitness level by building your aerobic base and then fine-tune your fitness by stimulating your system with various types and paces of running. The technological revolution that is afoot won’t offer any shortcuts to becoming a better runner. However, new technologies have already proven to be extremely helpful and engaging in how we understand, talk about and analyze running.

And with creative minds, high-powered technology and athletic brands working on new products, the technological infusion is not only here to stay but it will continue to surge and proliferate. The advancements in wearable technology and real-time feedback are playing a big part in what is being called the “sensification of computing,” and ultimately the tracking of running data is one of the leading mechanisms of this new era.

Imagine what it would be like to watch an Olympic 10,000-meter race on the track and be able to view real-time performance data of each runner on a TV or computer screen. That’s another dimension of where technology is heading.

“I think what’s really exciting is not just the technology, but how technology creates new experiences and enhances our performance,” says Steve Holmes, vice president of Intel’s New Devices Group. “As technology gets more compact, more power efficient, more powerful, it can actually enhance the sporting experience, not just for athletes but for coaches, commentators and for the audience and fans. And that’s why wearables represent the next generation of computing.”