If you’ve never had a running coach, let me describe the experience: your coach doesn’t just plan your workouts and critique your form. They also make sure you’re eating the right food and wearing supportive shoes. He or she might even make you do sit-ups when you start slouching like a 90-year-old grandma from the Planet Slow.
The best coaches are a combination of ruthless drill sergeant, physical therapist, and older sibling. Many fitness wearables purport to recreate this dynamic, and smart running shoes may come closer than most. In addition to collecting standard data like distance, routes, and pace, smart shoes can also measure your step cadence (how many steps you take per minute) and your foot strike zone. These additional pieces of information can maximize your energy efficiency and minimize the chance of injury.
Smart running shoes can’t follow you down the hall, bellowing, “What are you doing?” when you try to hide from them after deciding to go out for volleyball instead of cross-country. But in terms of what they can measure, they can do a lot better than a running watch.
Roll With It
Of course, by opting to manufacture a smart running shoe instead of a sock or insole, Runtopia Reach makes the big assumption that even a novice runner hasn’t already found a shoe that fits their particular preferences.
My tester Runtopia Reach shoes came in an retina-searing shade of bright orange. The treads aren’t very deep, and the upper isn’t waterproof. The shoes have a neutral chassis and are heavily padded.
I have a very low-volume foot, which slid around quite a bit in these squishy shoes, but with a heel lock tie I was able to keep my heel from sliding too much. The upper also had slashes in the textile to keep my tootsies cool and fancy-free. I would describe these as entry-level treadmill or road running shoes, and I stuck to fairly level three to five mile road runs while testing. However, the Runtopias didn’t feel secure enough to take running on the trails behind my house.
Accessing the built-in smart features is easy. Download the Runtopia app, select “Add Device” under “Devices & Gadgets”, and scan the code on the sensor unit to connect the shoes to your phone. The chip fits neatly into a small pocket under the insole. Once it was in, I didn't notice it at all.
You can check a multitude of metrics on the Runtopia app, which will probably look very familiar to anyone who uses Nike+ Run Club to track their runs. In addition to standard metrics like maps, distance, and pace, the shoes also sense whether your feet are hitting the ground on the recommend forefoot or midfoot, versus a heel strike. It counts how many steps you take per minute, and your impact force. Light, quick steps on the forefoot or midfoot are more energy-efficient and make you run faster.
It can also track your pronation, which is a fancy word for where your foot hits the ground when you're running. Overpronators have duck feet, while underpronators have pigeon toes. Over time, chronic over- or underpronation can cause hip, knee, or ankle pain if not corrected.
When using the shoes, you can leave your phone at home, but if you want to take full advantage of the sensor, you can also opt for the real-time audio coach. Since my tester model arrived with a running belt (hint hint), I decided to try it. I signed up for the Runtopia Premium trial and picked a training plan. The coach tells you when to run and at what pace. You can also turn on the cadence metronome to find out how many steps you’re taking per minute.
The coach also warns you if you overpronate or heel strike, but as a 98-percent normal pronator and a 91-percent fore/midfoot striker, I was unable to trigger it.
And finally, and also like the NRC, Runtopia is an online community, with friends able to comment on your runs. Since I can think of nothing worse than letting a bunch of strangers know when and where I will be sweating, distracted, and vulnerable, I immediately set my profile and account to private.
A League of Their Own
Of course, there’s a reason why I believed I was a chronic underpronator when the Runtopia chip indicates that I’m clearly not. Back in the distant sands of time—that is, in high school cross-country and track—someone painstakingly coached it out of me with drills, physical therapy, and switching out my shoes.
It is really, really hard for a chip and an app to take the place of a human being. For example, I turned off the cadence metronome early on. Trying to pace myself with it made my mile times slow down. It's only adjustable in increments of five; I don’t run at precisely 160 steps per minute, or 175, and it's impossible to dial it to, say, 172.
And of course, it’s important to know if you under- or overpronate in order to protect your legs from injury. But once you diagnose a problem, the first and easiest way to correct it is to…buy a supportive pair of running shoes. These aren't corrective footwear.
Fitness trackers are now so ubiquitous that I notice when people aren't wearing a Fitbit or Apple Watch. But for all our eagerness to strap heart rate monitors to our chests or mini computers to our wrists, we have yet to effectively stem the tide of recreational runners who get injured every year. Analyzing your stride with a smart shoe seems like a reasonable place to start.
But smart running shoes still have a ways to go before they become universally helpful. The Runtopia Reach shoes are cushioned and comfortable enough to be worn by a variety of beginner runners, and they can give you some very important pieces of data.
However, if you’ve been running long enough to have developed some preferences—whether you like Hoka’s cushioned rocker, Vasque’s ruggedness, or Nike's, well, everything—then I might suggest a cheaper alternative first, like the MilestonePod. Or even hiring your own coach!
After all, once you’ve self-diagnosed yourself with overpronation, how else are you going to fix it? Not only can a coach run you through drills, they can also empathize when you barf after your first ten-miler. It’s hard to put a price on that.