Harvard Scientists Have Created Semi-robotic Running Shorts That Make Running Feel 5% Easier

Man running in Harvard's running efficiency-boosting exosuit
Courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University

We get it: Working out is hard.

And while some people would argue that it’s essentially the point of hitting the gym, that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to make working out a little easier. MIT scientists, for example, have created a living, breathing suit to cut down on sweat mid-workout.

Now it’s Harvard’s turn. Scientists there have created running shorts that could make running feel a little bit easier—and speed up your average running pace without any added effort or training, according to a Harvard press release.

The shorts are a technically a soft “exosuit.” They have flexible wires that attach the back of a runner’s thighs and waist to an actuator—a unit that pulls the wires and serves as an extra set of hip extensor muscles—which is able to cut the metabolic cost of running. Think of it like a lightweight version of Iron Man’s suit, except for your legs.

In test studies, which were published in Science Robotics, participants ran on a treadmill wearing the exosuit as they tested two different wire-pulling patterns. The first, based on human biology, tensed the wires when the runners’ legs were at maximum hip extension. The second pattern was based on a simulation of “exoskeleton-assisted running,” discovered by Stanford University researchers, which applied the force slightly later in the running stride.

The result: The “exoskeleton” pattern was twice as effective as the biology-based method, which translates to a 5.4% more efficient running stride.

“The biological profile only takes into account the amount of torque in the hip joint, but the human body is not a series of independently acting parts—it’s full of muscles that act on multiple joints to coordinate movement,”

We’re still a ways off from being able to wear such a suit: The actuator unit (its motors, electronics, and power supply) requires runners to be tethered to it and, thusly, treadmill-bound.  

So even if it’s not available for that upcoming half-marathon you signed up for back in February, the researchers have a few ideas for the suit’s real-world application.

“Our goal is to develop a portable system with a high power-to-weight ratio so that the benefit of using the suit greatly offsets the cost of wearing it,” said lead study author Giuk Lee, a postdoctoral fellow who worked on the experiment. “We believe this technology could augment the performance of recreational athletes and/or help with recovery after injury,” he adds. 

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!