In this study we tested a simple passive elastic assistive device's ability to improve human running economy in a speed controlled trial. We collected motion, kinetic, and EMG data in addition to energy expenditure to verify the savings from the device.
Human running is inefficient. For every 10 calories burned, less than 1 is needed to maintain a constant forward velocity – the remaining energy is, in a sense, wasted. The majority of this wasted energy is expended to support the bodyweight and redirect the center of mass during the stance phase of gait. An order of magnitude less energy is expended to brake and accelerate the swinging leg. Accordingly, most devices designed to increase running efficiency have targeted the costlier stance phase of gait. An alternative approach is seen in nature: spring-like tissues in some animals and humans are believed to assist leg swing. While it has been assumed that such a spring simply offloads the muscles that swing the legs, thus saving energy, this mechanism has not been experimentally investigated. Here, we show that a spring, or ‘exotendon’, connecting the legs of a human reduces the energy required for running by 6.4±2.8%, and does so through a complex mechanism that produces savings beyond those associated with leg swing. The exotendon applies assistive forces to the swinging legs, increasing the energy optimal stride frequency. Runners then adopt this frequency, taking faster and shorter strides, and reduce the joint mechanical work to redirect their center of mass. Our study shows how a simple spring improves running economy through a complex interaction between the changing dynamics of the body and the adaptive strategies of the runner, highlighting the importance of considering each when designing systems that couple human and machine.