Thursday, February 2, 2012

My experience as a lab rat

In graduate school, I had to work with lab animals (non-human primates, actually). The tests were on-going, so fortunately I didn't have to deal with project termination, ex-sanguination, and other unpleasantness. But, it was still tough seeing the little guys in that environment. I digress...

Fortunately for me, Brooks Running Company uses the uncaged, free-range, human variety of primate for their testing. Also fortunate for me, Brooks is located < 20 miles from my house!

Just so you know, ANYONE can be a Brooks Lab Rat, as long as you wear a size 8.5 (women's) or 9 (men's). I've wear-tested several of their fantastic shoes (that's how I discovered their Ghost), which you can do from pretty much anywhere as long as you agree to their wear test agreement. Today was my first day actually going to HQ to be a lab rat in their biomechanics lab.

Funny thing, Brooks HQ is in an office park located right across the street from where my husband has worked for years, I just never noticed. On the outside, it's a regular-looking office building. Inside, the lobby is NOT like the lobby of the environmental consulting firm where I work. Nope. Check it out:

I didn't get into the racing shoe...maybe next time?

There were lots of people going in & out who just looked like they "Run Happy," you know?

I checked in, changed into some compression shorts, then was taken back to the testing lab by Brooks biomechanics expert, S, who works with B (sorry, I didn't think to ask permission if I could use their names). Both S & B have graduate degrees in biomechanics, they are the only specialists of this type at HQ, and they are BUSY.

Of course, I had to ask if they had seen any of the Brooks-sponsored athletes. S said that when the athlete training/racing schedules permit, they (Brooks) try to bring the athletes in but it's certainly not an every day occurrence. S reported that Scott Jurek does go in to consult with the designers on trail shoes but does his testing actually on the trails rather than in the lab. Desiree Davila has been in Brooks before but hasn't run in the lab. Chrissie Wellington, on the other hand, got her foot scanned in their lab once. I wonder if her foot was bulging with muscles? I should have asked about that.

The testing consisted of three main steps:
  1. Run in various shoes for 3 minutes each at about 9 min/mile, wearing reflectors over key points on my hips, knees, ankles, and feet. 
  2. Complete 2-page survey on each shoe. 
  3. Run in each shoe again with an insert in one shoe that has 110 (or was it 101?) pressure sensors in it. 

I ran in 5 different shoes: a conventional shoe like the Adrenaline, 2 minimalist-style shoes, 1 PureProject shoe, and 1 shoe that was like a racing flat. At least one shoe was not on the market yet. The treadmill was about 2x the width of a regular treadmill and had a strange groove under the belt that felt really strange, especially in the minimalist shoes. There were no handrails on either side, just a bar at the front and I'm proud to say, I didn't fall off!

While running, large red "lights" mounted to the tops of the walls around the treadmill must have been shining down on me and somehow recording the reflection (I should have asked more about how this worked). On S's computer monitor, you could see ME represented by a point cloud which were the locations of the reflectors that they had stuck to my joints. These points represented my movements in 3-D - funny little dots like a runner constellation in motion, in space.

S & B will analyze the volunteer data to see how our point clouds varied depending on which shoe we were wearing at the time. Small changes in the outsole, insole, etc can affect how we move in our shoes and S & B are the ones who figure out what it all means.

*My hamstring-tendon thing is still tender but I'm happy to report it didn't affect my ability to run at all. I'm still going to take it easy and continue with the massage, ice, and NSAIDs. THANK YOU for all the advice!


This was actually the most difficult part of the testing. The survey questions were similar to those you answer when you wear test shoes from home and I always struggle with how to answer them. I have a tendency to rate the shoes based on what I'm used to, so that my answers reflect a comparison between the test shoe and my "baseline" shoe. It's difficult to evaluate each shoe independently.

Of the shoes I tried, I actually really liked one I thought I wouldn't like - it was like an aqua sock! The sole was surprisingly supportive and cupped my foot quite nicely. It was truly a "minimalist" type of shoe (and now my calves are aching as a result). Also, today was my first time trying a PureProject shoe and I liked it, but it surprised me that it is actually not a true "minimalist" shoe, especially compared to the aquasock type shoe! But, I think this is a real plus because I don't think I could use a true minimalist shoe to run very long distances without my feet getting very tired (3 miles max), whereas the PureProject shoe was substantial enough that I could envision running longer distances. Unlike the conventional shoes, the PureProject shoe facilitated my "new" mid-foot/forefoot strike I've been working on.

Sounds like I might be purchasing a PureProject shoe soon?

Another shoe I tried was sort-of in between a conventional shoe and the aquasock but my foot was swimming in the toe box and the heel cup was too small. NOT a good shoe for me. Maybe for someone else? That was the only shoe I just didn't like.

All in all, it was a lot of fun getting to try so many shoes that I wouldn't normally think to try (or aren't even on the market yet!).

Finally, I ran in each shoe all over again for just about one minute and B recorded how much pressure I was applying in my footstrike and where the pressure was applied. The image on his computer screen looked like the weather man's Doppler radar showing a storm moving across the state, only the state was foot-shaped and the eye of the storm (shown in red) was in the ball of my foot, moving southward toward my arch where the pressure gradually dissipated (colors fading to orange, yellow, green, blues). Very pretty.

At the end of the testing, about 3 hours had passed. The time flew by! Super sweet S gave me a nice parting gift before I left:
Brooks Infinity half-zip

Hopefully, I'll get a chance to try this again sometime. I enjoyed learning about what running shoe scientists do! For now, though, my calves need to recover from all that running in low profile shoes - ouch!


  1. That sounds like so much fun! Good job!

  2. What a great experience. I'm wondering if I can squeeze my sized 9s into an 8.5 without causing too much damage...

  3. That is awesome! You are fortunate that you are able to do this. Great parting gift as well!

  4. How cool! I really enjoyed reading about your experience. Cute jacket. I hope they also gave you a discount on a rain jacket.

  5. I have that half-zip and I love it!

    Now I understand why they must be rejecting my wear tester application. I wear boat-sized shoes (10.5)!

    Interesting how your calves hurt after just a few minutes of running in several pairs minimalist shoes. Really backs up the notion that people need to break those puppies in slowly. I've been wearing mine for walking daily for years but I'm scared to death to try running in them.

  6. I have the Brooks Pure Flow, and I really like it. Just like you said, Alma, it gives you just enough midsole to keep your feet from being severely punished, but it promotes a mid-foot fore-foot strike. I have been considering buying the Brooks Pure Grit trail shoe. I'd love to be a lab rat, but 9.5 is my size. Great blog post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. How fun and what a great experince.

  8. That is awesome and hey that IS my shoe size!

  9. If I had to be a lab rat, this is definitely the way I'd go! (In fact... I'm looking at the paperwork now...) Thanks for the insight! :)

  10. I've done this twice! Isn't it SO fun! I want to do it again. You got a way better "parting gift" than I did! :-) And doesn't it totally make you want to work there?

  11. i switched to the pure projects and LOVE them. I will run my first race in them this weekend and hope they feel the same at a longer distance (10 miles is longest so far). so cool about the lab rat stuff-i think it would be so fun to see what they do. who knew it would be so different in each shoe (that they can see i mean) and so scientific :)

  12. I have never heard about that program and just signed up! What a great way to get to run in new shoes and I would LOVE to get that shirt!!

  13. Awesome experience! If anyone is looking for the same experience with their own shoes or shoes they are looking at buying, check out another Seattle based company that has all the same technology but is open to the public. We do in-shoe pressure mapping, 3D gait analysis, you name it.

    Sorry for the plug but we are a new company so not too many people know we exist. We are currently running a deal for 60% off our services so people can get their off-season data figured out and start training!