Inside a refurbished warehouse in Lawrence, MA, Trampas TenBroek and Pedro Rodrigues have one job, to figure out how to make the best running shoes possible. Working in the New Balance Research Lab, the guys are using cutting edge technology to figure out what works and what doesn’t, as well as see how a New Balance sneaker stacks up to the competition. “We really do several different things to help build better products. Some of the time that’s just testing products. If we have a new product coming out, we want to make sure it’s the best in class. We bring in the competitor’s product, our product, and test them against one another,” TenBroek says.
TenBroek and Rodrigues use a three part testing system that helps them not only see how their shoes perform, but how specific athletes respond to wearing them. In order to see how it all works, I volunteered as their test dummy for a day. Though each athlete is unique, the goal at New Balance is to develop shoes that appeal to a wide range of runners. “We have to have enough of a range of the people that we bring in that the information is going to translate to anybody who puts on the show. Sometimes that’s a 60-year-old walker, sometimes it’s an elite Olympic-caliber athlete,” TenBroek says.
The first step in the testing process is for the guys to figure out how my foot moves while I’m running. In order to do that, they start out with basically a blank slate of a sneaker. As you can see, there’s nothing fancy about this. There’s no arch, just a flat bottom and it’s the first step in figuring out which sneaker works best for the athlete. The first test was on a treadmill designed to feel just like concrete. By attaching sensors to both my legs and feet, the guys can see how I respond using high speed cameras. A big thing they’re looking for is what they call pronation. “Typically when someone runs, they land on the outside parrot of their heal or at least 80% of people do, and their foot rolls towards the inside and that’s a complete natural motion. However, some people roll their foot too far, and that’s where it becomes an issue with injuries,” Rodrigues says. By using 3D imaging and slowing down my feet, the guys can see that I’m a light heal striker and pronate just a bit. After watching me run at full speed over what they call a force plate, they recommend a fairly neutral shoe for my body and running type.
Another component of the New Balance Research happens in the Smash Lab. It’s where they can put sneakers through a rigorous workout, without having to usa an athlete. In fact, some machines can have a sneaker run the equivalent of a marathon in just 15 minutes to see how it responds. As far as long term wear and tear, these guys can se the machine for the weekend, and have a sneaker run 400 miles, and then take a look on Monday. It is a way to determine when a runner might want to think about buying a new pair of sneakers. “We typically say 300-500, 300-600 miles is generally a good range, and again that’s going to depend on your body weight, how fast you run, even depends on how long your stride is,” TenBroek says.
All of this research gives us, the athlete, the information we need when buying a pair of sneakers. You may think it’s all about comfort, but there’s a lot more to it. “You want to go to the store in the afternoon, when your feet have kind of swelled during the day. You want to go in at the point when your feet are a big as they’re going to get for the day,” TenBroek says. The benefits of exercise are no secret, and thankfully for all of us, people like TenBroek and Rodrigues are making sure we’ve got the technology to stay active for a long time.