Emerging Runner meets emerging technology at MIT

Fascinating group at the Media Lab this week

Tuesday’s run (treadmill): 3.1 miles
Thursday’s run (street): 2.5 miles

I’m back to NYC after three days in Cambridge. Normally I’d have run my favorite loop along the Charles River and over to Boston and back, but my schedule at the Media Lab was just too tight. That, plus the early morning weather was chilly and raw and I only packed running shorts and short sleeve jerseys. The events at MIT were great, and I got to rub shoulders with people like Peter Gabriel and Reid Hoffman, among other high profile artists and techno-geeks. But I did miss the experience of crossing the Longfellow Bridge at sunrise.

Virtual meets physical

There wasn’t much new stuff that related to running, but I did see a couple of interesting projects that connected physiology to technology. One demo showed a way to train or do physical therapy using an animated virtual trainer. The subject performs tasks like kicking a ball towards a target. The closer the ball comes to the designated spot, the better they have performed the movement.

Much more than a fashion statement

Another technology that caught my eye came out of the Affective Computing Lab. It’s called the WristQue, a sensing device that goes far beyond the capabilities of wrist-based devices like the Nike Sports band and the MOTO wristband. It captures the usual metrics as well as bio-indicators like galvanic response. It can even respond to your environment, changing ambient lighting as you move through an area. Cool!

I was pleased with my treadmill run on Tuesday morning. I seem to be able to sustain much better paces on Life Fitness treadmills than on my home unit. I covered 3.1 miles under 9:00/mile and felt strong throughout the session.

Wednesday morning was a washout, I didn’t have the time to run (plus I had a pounding headache) in the morning. Today I got outside and covered my route in around my usual time. I was careful to notice my form and how I felt. I’m hoping that I can maintain a credible pace over 12 miles this weekend, my last long run prior to the LI Half. I’m still undecided on which running shoes to use for the upcoming race.

It’s been a very busy week and it’s only Thursday! Tomorrow morning I’ll go out again and finish my training program this weekend, as I start my taper.

Massachusetts Institute of (Running) Technology

Today’s workout (elliptical): 23 minutes

I’m back in NY so last night I thought I’d do a morning run in my neighborhood. When I got up I considered my mild cold and decided to do an indoor workout instead. It had been over a week since I’d cross trained so I did a shorter than normal elliptical session that generated a good sweat. If the weather is clear this weekend I’ll try for a long base run as I train for the half marathon that’s happening in three Sundays from now.

My visit to the Media Lab was enlightening as usual and I came upon a couple of interesting activity related projects. The Cardio Cam, from the Affective Computing Lab, is a mirror with a webcam mounted at the top. You position yourself so that your face is centered in a frame that’s superimposed on the mirror. After a couple of seconds, large numbers appear on the lower right that show your heart rate. It’s as simple as that. The webcam images your face and the algorithm calculates your heart rate based on a spectral analysis of your image samples — or as they put it “Non-contact, automated cardiac pulse measurements using video imaging and blind source separation.” The display showed my pulse just a bit under 60, which would be right for me under normal conditions.

A project that came out of the Speech & Mobility group used location tracking on a smartphone that feeds a narrative that plays while a person runs. In the demo, a runner plays an adventure game by listening to instructions that tell him where to run and turn to perform steps in the game. The app was written by a grad student who was bored running the same old streets of his neighborhood. Sounds familiar. I wanted to try it but it’s Android only. Another reason to dump the iPhone!

Running once again along the mighty Charles

Long live Red Sox Nation!

Today’s run (Charles River, Cambridge & Boston): 4 miles

After all the rain on Wednesday I was wondering what conditions we would see this morning. Despite the weather it’s been a good trip. I was able to meet my brother for dinner last night near his Cambridge office after a useful and interesting day at the Media Lab. My hope this morning was to run my favorite Cambridge to Boston loop before heading over to MIT for today’s activities. I got up early and saw that the skies had cleared but I waited for sunrise before I headed out.

It was 43 degrees and breezy outside when I started. I wore my lightweight half zip shirt with shorts and felt comfortable, especially after leaving shady Kendall Square for the sunny path along Memorial Drive. Like last time I ran this route, I noticed that many runners followed a clockwise direction, opposite to the way I go. It occurred to me today that  those runners probably started their run from the Boston side and came north across the Harvard Bridge.

There were quite a few fast runners this morning. I suspect that some of them were training for Monday’s Boston Marathon. In any case I got passed so many times that I stopped counting. I’ve been feeling slow lately and this didn’t help. I maintained a steady stride and crossed the Harvard Bridge toward Boston, chuckling at the measurements in “smoots” as I observed the scull teams practicing on the water. I ran along the southern edge of the river and regretted not having sunglasses for this eastern stretch. I saw a steady stream of runners, one of whom lapped me twice (from the opposite direction) since I’d come over to the Boston side. That meant he was probably running in the 5 minute per mile range.

I crossed the Longfellow Bridge back into Cambridge and followed Main Street back to Kendall Square to complete my run. In all it was only four miles but the city views and the river made it feel like a trip. Two runs while travling ths week and over seven miles covered. I always miss Boston when I visit – it’s so great seeing family and it’s fun seeing Red Sox merchandise everywhere instead of the ubiquitous Yankee logo.

Running technology report from the MIT Media Lab

Interior of the new MIT Media Lab building

 Today’s run (street): 4.5 miles at 8:52 per mile

My recent visit to the MIT Media Lab was fascinating (as usual) and I was happy to see friends and faculty again after so many months away. I’ve written a couple of posts about my great runs along the Charles River this week but today I’m going to focus on noteworthy technologies that relate to athletics. Besides hearing from the architect of the beautifully designed new Media Lab building and from visionaries such as Stewart Brand and Nicholas Negroponte (who said the Media Lab’s goal was to create solutions looking for problems) there was the usual “Open House” where students show off their latest research projects. It’s essentially the coolest science fair in the world.

Bio-sensitive stretchable fabric

Above is a picture of a woven sensor that appears to be a piece of stretchable fabric but acts like a sensor that can pick up information such as core temperature, blood pressure/flow, heart rate, pH, etc. Imagine if your HRM or foot pod could be sewn into your running clothes? 

SportSemble performance capture system
Portable variable light illumination device

Another interesting project was the use of the SportSemble (above, top) system to capture the most minute details of movement by major league baseball players. In this project, players from the Boston Red Sox are wired with multiple sensors that capture metrics such as the speed of a pitcher’s waist relative to the speed of the wrist of his throwing hand. The data is captured and correlated and the goal is to determine how certain sympathetic actions, however minute, can result in higher performing athletes. Go Sox!

In a more running related project I was given a demonstration of a lighting system that constantly reads conditions and enables lights based on the users needs. I often run with a headlamp at 4:00 AM and on dark days with no moon I really need the maximum amount of illumination. On other days, with clear skies and a full moon, I really don’t need any extra light. This device can deliver, to the lumen, the exact amount of light needed at every moment. This conserves battery life and ensures that the light you need is delivered exactly where it’s needed. The research assistant pictured above told me I could make this device myself with a simple microprocessor. I may need her help, especially since I’ve proven I can’t change the battery in a Garmin 50 without destroying it.

Hugh Herr talks about devices to augment human running performance

During the Wednesday morning session Dr. Hugh Herr, who runs the Biomechatronics group at the Media Lab, talked about human augmentation. This group has developed the most advanced prosthetic legs in use today with capabilities that allow single and double amputees to walk and run with the same (or better) energy efficiency as able bodied people. Much of the research done in this lab is focused on augmenting athletes, especially runners. Imagine running a five minute mile while expending no more energy than a stroll in the park. I know my Saucony Kinvaras and Grid Tangent 4’s give me a boost but that takes it to whole new level!

I thought about the science of human augmentation and the small differences in form and stride that can make a big difference in running pace. This morning I set out with my Kinvaras for a 4.5 mile run around the neighborhood and finished with an overall pace under nine minutes that just felt too easy. I definitely run faster in these lightweight trainers. Does running a little faster provide a greater training benefit than running slower? Hard to know. I loved the feeling of moving along in 50 degree temperatures on a cool, clear late May morning. Yes, the shoes are great but this morning’s run was about much more than that.

3,877 smoot run, 400 on the bridge

Today’s run: (paths, river, bridges) 4.1 miles at 8:40 per mile

While I’m not a big fan of duplicating my route on consecutive days I think I could run along the Charles River every day of the week. I feel the same way about Central Park. That said, I didn’t exactly duplicate yesterday’s run this morning. Unlike the day before, I started my run outside my hotel and crossed directly over the Longfellow Bridge into Boston. It was a different experience for me because I usually run west on Memorial Drive and over the Mass Ave (AKA Harvard) bridge first. Crossing the Charles, I was pleased to see so much activity on the water with sailboats and rowing sculls of all sizes. Like yesterday, there were plenty of other runners, cyclists and walkers making their way around. I was prepared to run a shorter distance today because it felt much hotter than Tuesday and I basically kept to the circular route between the bridges. Along the way I covered the distance of the Harvard Bridge which has regular markings of “smoots” which is a (nonstandard) unit of measurement that represents the height of Oliver Smoot, a Lamda Chi Alpha pledge at MIT in 1958 who was used as a human ruler as a prank. According to the markings, the bridge is about 400 smoots, give or take an ear.

Upon returning close to the point where Main Street meets the Longfellow Bridge I shifted over to the feeder road and continued east until I reached my hotel. I covered 4.1 miles at a speedy 8:40 mile pace and was very happy with the run. This morning there was some discussion of technologies to increase the speed and efficiency of runners and I saw a demonstration of a leg device that allows a person to run with some speed while expending less energy than walking. Great when viewed as an alternative to city transportation but for recreational running I’d say “What’s the point?” I was fortunate to get to see my brother for dinner on Monday night and do the same last night with some good friends. I’ll report more on the performance and measurement technologies in the coming days.

Running the Charles from Cambridge and back

Longfellow Bridge (bottom), Harvard Bridge (top)

Today’s run: Central Park (tentative)

I’m planning to be up in Cambridge next week for some MIT Media Lab activities. It’s always interesting to visit the Media Lab and the ideas and future technologies are both exciting and inspiring. Many of those technologies have found their way into athletic gear. The science behind the Garmin and Polar foot pods, as well as the Nike+ system, came by way of the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group. As stimulating as I find MIT, my favorite part about visiting is when I’m able to run the loop over the Harvard Bridge into Boston and then return to Cambridge over the Longfellow Bridge. The entire four mile run takes place around the Charles River with views of both city skylines looming. I often see runners wearing Red Sox hats and that always makes me feel like I’m home again.

I’m so hoping for decent weather for the early part of the week. Nothing will be as disappointing as a thunderstorm that forces me to stay inside and use the hotel treadmill. I’m not going to worry about that though. I’ll get to see some great people, including family and friends. Running along Memorial Drive always brings back great memories. I’d just better not forget to pack my Red Sox cap.

Heading to the Charles

I’m getting ready to leave for another trip to MIT. I have a busy day on Monday but I’m planning to take a little time in the morning to do my favorite run along Memorial Drive in Cambridge. This morning I ran about 4 miles at 9:08. I’m not quite sure why my pace has slipped back over 9:00 but it has. I’ve been concentrating on distance and less on speed but all the same I feel like I’m pushing pretty well. I tried to calibrate the Garmin this morning using the automatic feature. It didn’t quite work out but I believe I’ve managed to get it back to spec through manual adjustment.

Only three weeks until the New Hyde Park 8K. I wish they’d put the online registration up on the site already!

Trip summary

This has been a busy week, so busy in fact that I didn’t even have time to post on Thursday. Due to the fact that my access to a PC has been limited I haven’t posted to the Runner’s World Loop in two days. Being a media person I certainly respect the need to publish so I’ll summarize the last couple of days.

I’m up at the MIT Media Lab for the spring meetings for the CE 2.0 Working Group (creating best practices for consumer electronics usability and connectivity) and the Digital Life Consortium which focuses on media, technology and society. My role as liason to MIT is one of my favorite parts of my job. My wife and kids came by the Media Lab on Wednesday and interacted with some very cool stuff including singing robots and WII enabled guitars.

The theme of yesterday’s meeting was Smart Sustainable Cities and there was much discussion about innovative directions on energy, housing and healthcare. Hugh Herr, who directs the Biomechatronics group at the Media Lab, spoke about advances in prothesis designs that can help amputees regain their ability to walk to the degree that their gait and balance are indistinguishable from a non-disabled person’s. Hugh also showed a running shoe that he and his team designed that gave a measurable advantage to the runner. The shoe had a carbon fiber spring that efficiently stored and released energy to the degree that a marathon runner could gain 8 minutes over the length of his or her run. Hugh also showed some exoskeletal designs that would help an able bodied runner gain 30% efficiency in his or her running. I would love that for Sunday’s race.

My colleage Adventure Girl is very focused on environmental science and sustainability and she also came up to Cambridge for yesterday’s session. We met at the fitness center of the hotel where I completed my last workout before my race on Sunday. AG ran on the treadmill while I worked the elliptical. It was a fairly low impact session for me but she ran almost 4 miles while we talked. This morning I’m at a different hotel and my first thought was to go down to the fitness center and run. I then remembered that I’m resting.

Being from Boston I always try to catch up with people when I travel there. Last night my wife, kids and I visited some very good friends and this morning we’re seeing my brother and his family. Tomorrow I will rest and stretch and as for Sunday, well you know about that.

Newsflash: eating less calories helps weight loss

I was amused to see the article that the NY Times published last Wednesday confirming that reducing calories, regardless of source (fat, carbs, sugars, etc.) is the only way to reduce weight. Although this should be a very obvious point it’s often missed and most diets center on the types of calories, not their overall reduction. Of course we also know the evil side of this revelation when people reduce calories using very unhealthy methods – anorexia and bulimia as examples. Eating less will cause you to lose weight. Eating less, concentrating on nutrition and running will make you lose weight and keep you healthy. Hey, if the NY Times can be that obvious then I can too.

I’m traveling up to Cambridge MA later today to visit the MIT Media Lab. I’ve served as my company’s affiliate to MIT for the last ten years and I’m always excited by what I see and hear when I’m there. Since I’ve got back into running I have a deeper appreciation for some of the people I see there, like Joe Paradiso, who heads up the Responsive Environments Group at the Media Lab. This group developed most of the motion sensor technologies that are being used by companies like Nike in products like the Nike+ iPod and Sportband tracking systems. While I’m up there I’m hoping to do some running but the weather report is not encouraging: 8 to 12 inches of snow and ice expected for the northeast by midday on Monday. So it looks like indoor running for me. It’s a good thing I like hotel treadmills.

This morning I ran 3.3 miles at about the same pace as yesterdays. It snowed a little overnight so I wore my Kutu’s, which felt a little snug. I also suspect the Kutus are slightly heavier than the Turbulence 13’s which makes me tire a little sooner. I noticed today that when I end my long runs I’m almost never winded. It’s more fatigue than lung capacity that makes me stop. I’m making progress with conditioning and I’d rather meet the challenge of fatigue than deal with aerobic energy limitations. I was happy with my run today but I admit I struggled more than Saturday when I ran a mile further.