How UMass brought science to footwear worn by millions
Look down—at your shoes. Chances are UMass had something to do with what’s on your feet. Think Reebok, Brooks, New Balance, Nike, and even Cole Haan.
For over three decades, professors and students in the Department of Kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences have implemented the scientific method alongside the stopwatch. They have quietly changed the game in design, technology, and comfort across the footwear industry—for hikers, marathon runners, golfers, and even those who favor high heels.
“I knew that UMass was the place to be to get into the shoe industry,” says Laura Healey, a researcher in the department’s Integrative Locomotion Lab in the basement of Totman Gym. “It’s unique to be in brainstorming meetings explaining how the company can build a better running shoe. To work on shoes that, within the next year, will be on the shelf for people to buy.”
There are more moving parts in a foot than meets the eye—28 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
On the day I visit the laboratory, a student wearing shorts is running on a treadmill at a solid clip. He’s at the far end of the long, brightly lit room that contains computers, desks, sensor equipment, treadmills, and floors that move called force platforms.
Five mounted high-speed retroreflective 2D cameras capture the student’s movements and convert them into 3D images. Sensors measure airflow, oxygen concentration, and carbon dioxide output so the researchers can calculate how much oxygen the student is using to burn carbohydrates and fatty acids. Computers combine kinematic and kinetic information to calculate forces and movements at the knee to determine which muscles are moving and how.
Scientists here are testing prototypes for an athletic footwear manufacturer that is developing a new line of marathon running shoes. The measurements reveal the real energy expenditure per minute and are calculated in joules, a derived unit of energy used in physics, explains Assistant Professor Wouter Hoogkamer. “The testing is speed specific.”
I ask how long the student test subjects have to run. After all, doesn’t it take hours to run a marathon?
“Actually, after just five minutes the body is using as much oxygen as it does after an hour,” explains Hoogkamer. “It remains fairly constant. He’s running just under nine miles an hour. We do five minutes in each shoe and we test each one twice to get more data points.”
Hoogkamer is part of a department with a rich history. When it was created in 1965 it was the nation’s first Department of Exercise Science. Today, researchers in what is now the kinesiology department investigate the mechanical, neurological, biochemical, physiological, and behavioral components of human movement.
Professor Joseph Hamill came to UMass in the mid-1980s. His research projects focused on lower extremity function and injury, particularly overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis, anterior compartment syndrome, and iliotibial band syndrome. The Massachusetts shoe company Saucony approached Hamill after hearing about his work in injury.
“This company wanted to help prevent footwear-related injuries,” says Hamill. But footwear is a “very, very, very small contributor to injury,” Hamill explains. One’s anatomy, gait, and injury history are more significant factors. Still, he says, certain parameters of shoe design are thought to ward off injury.
“Our job is to make sure the shoe falls within those parameters, and if they do, you can be assured they are as close to being as safe as possible,” says Hamill. “Though it’s not a guarantee,” he adds wryly.
After Saucony, more athletic footwear firms approached the department, including Brooks and FootJoy. “We use multiple disciplines like physiology, the physics of human motion, engineering, anatomy, biology, psychology, computer science, and mathematics,” explains Hamill. “This work with industry is simply an application of my research in lower extremity motion and injury.”
The next to come knocking was Boston-based company New Balance. Today, five of Hamill’s former students work for New Balance—one is the director of their biomechanics lab.
Other alumni of the department include Paul Litchfield ’86MS, a leading product creation expert who spent many years as vice president of Reebok Advanced Concepts and created innovations like the famous Reebok Pump basketball shoe; and Denise Gravelle ’94, senior manager of Footwear Product Testing for PUMA North America. “I fell in love with Joe’s class and biomechanics,” says Gravelle. “It’s the perfect melding of biology, math, and physics that really interested me.” During her time at UMass, Gravelle worked on flexibility in military boots and took an internship with Converse. After UMass, she ran Reebok’s human performance and engineering lab for nine years, doing fit and wear testing and innovation work in biomechanics research. Today she is helping PUMA reemerge in the competitive running shoe marketplace.
“I am certain there are a lot of people and athletes with shoes in their closets that Professor Hamill has helped develop over the years,” says Gravelle. “The department has been instrumental in the industry.”
Runners take note: with every additional 100 grams of shoe mass, your need for oxygen increases by 1 percent.
Jeremy Determan ’03, director of Advanced Concepts at Adidas in Portland, Oregon, concurs. “The department built the scientific foundation for me and really set me up for tremendous success afterward that helped launch my career—the fundamental principles of human movement and footwear performance testing that I still use today.” At UMass, Determan worked on a skateboarding footwear project. Today, he oversees product innovation for football, baseball, ice hockey, and lacrosse.
UMass’s innovative contributions aren’t limited to just the playing fields, however. Associate Professor Katherine Boyer and several graduate students in the department have been helping solve the riddle of the high heel: limited real estate.
“There are many well-documented negative impacts of wearing high heels in terms of foot health—developing bunions, pain, and general discomfort,” explains Boyer. “Yet women are still required to wear them in many professions around the world.” Enter Cole Haan, a footwear and accessories brand out of Chicago that wanted a new line of comfortable heels.
“We provided the scientific background data that informed their design,” says Boyer. “We were able to show that with different shapes of the forefoot and shapes of the arch, and how steeply the shoe went down, you could change movement mechanics slightly.” The result is a heel with more arch support and cushioning in front, which the company calls Grand Ambition: “for the aspiring, urban, and on-the-go woman.”
Now Boyer is collaborating with OOFOS recovery footwear. Lou Panaccione ’79, its cofounder and CEO, wanted to develop a line of shoes worn by athletes who were injured—shoes that would aid recovery from sports injuries.
“We want to find out about walking in a regular shoe compared to a running shoe compared to OOFOS flip flops,” says Boyer. “We want to understand whether there’s a difference at all. People anecdotally say these flip flops feel different, much better, but we don’t yet have any real evidence.” So, the team is measuring student-athletes’ performance to assess the differences in injuries and pain, and to see whether there’s a positive impact over six weeks.
“The best work we do is to use technology and science to advance sports performance, to increase mobility, and to prevent injuries,” says Boyer. “That’s what we hope for.”
Editor’s note: OOFOS recovery footwear, led by CEO Lou Panaccione ’79, recently donated over 3,000 pairs of shoes to 22 hospitals as gifts to health care workers who are on their feet all day during the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Midsole Cushioning
Encapsulated air, gel, or lower-density foams are the most common systems used within the midsole.
Grip, durability, and water resistance are the important properties for making contact with the ground.
3. Toe Spring
The curvature of the shoe here enhances the foot roll-off when a runner is pushing off.
A shoe’s front door, it also spreads out the force of the laces, preventing painful pressure points.
Anatomy of a Marathon Shoe
Assistant Professor Wouter Hoogkamer made his mark with Nike’s Vaporfly competitive running shoe—arguably the fastest in the industry. He helped prove that the shoe improves running economy by 4 percent. Running economy is the measure of a runner’s energy utilization at an aerobic intensity, plus the multiple contributing physiological and biomechanical factors.
Nike was the first to integrate curved carbon fiber plates into foam cushioning, and Hoogkamer and his team measured multiple parameters—both physical and biological—such as oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output in runners, and confirmed the 4 percent improvement. “There’s a missing ingredient we are still looking for,” says Hoogkamer. “Now, we are trying to figure out if we can change the geometry of the plate and see if it can apply to walking and to uphill running.”
Hoogkamer is a marathon runner himself. He ran his best time—2 hours, 32 minutes and 50 seconds—in the Nike AlphaFly NEXT%, a prototype version of the same shoe that Eliud Kipchoge wore when he ran a marathon in Vienna in under two hours last October. Hoogkamer hasn’t yet decided what shoes he will wear for his next marathon.