Anyone who has seen Oscar Pistorius running on his carbon fibre legs has witnessed the power of technology to enhance athletic performance. The incredible energy captured in his artificial limbs reinforces how devices that mimic the natural, rotational spring-like action of hip, knee and ankle joints can increase a runner's speed – so much so that Pistorius's athleticism is considered by some as superior to regular runners.
Darren Stefanyshyn of the University of Calgary is exploring how this advantage can be applied to able-bodied, high-performance athletes to give them an edge over competitors. He is working to identify ways to supplement joints using high-tech apparel. He studies whether elastic or compression garments can be used to store and return energy, like a joint, to improve running and sprinting.
In partnership with Adidas, Dr. Stefanyshyn's research team has developed a stiff, elastic band-based garment worn across the hips that shows measurable improvement to the performance of sprinters, jumpers and bobsledders. The difference depends on the individual athlete but it's generally about two to three percent. That may sound miniscule, but it can be the difference between winning a gold medal and not even making the finals.
"We try to make our country's athletes perform better, so it's exciting to turn on the TV during the Games and see that a product you've researched for many years and helped to develop can have a direct impact on athletes' results and Canada's success," says Dr. Stefanyshyn.
In the future, almost anyone facing mobility challenges could benefit from such technological innovations. Given Canada's aging population, and the fact that older people are prone to difficulties walking, a lot of people may some day feel like they've won a medal when wearing the next generation of high-tech garments that put a spring in their step.