A Brooks biomechanist predicts the scientific future of running shoes
"We want to benefit the runner three to ten years out."
Matt Trudeau said he’s always been fascinated by the way people move. That may explain his reaction to the sci-fi classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
“I saw the movie when I was a kid,” he said. “I was like, I want to be that guy who invents the terminator.”
He hasn’t invented a cybernetic organism yet, but he did enter a field that sounds like it might one day: biomechanics is an area of research that focuses on the study of the way humans move their bodies.
“A biomechanist's role is to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury or breaking of the human machine,” he said. “I'm basically a mechanic for the human body.”
Trudeau, 40, is the senior manager of the Future Concepts Team at Brooks Running, which focuses on helping runners be more efficient. He’s the co-author of 25 published papers, mostly on the way physical activity affects the body. In one study published in the journal Nature, his team learned how running shoes affect the knees differently.
In the experiment, study participants ran on a treadmill for 75 minutes, then were immediately scanned with an MRI machine. They repeated this process three times over the course of three weeks in different running shoes.
“We were able to measure cartilage volume loss in their knees, and we saw that it was different from one person to the next, and from one shoe to another,” Trudeau tells Inverse. “We found that we could tell which person could benefit from a given shoe because their loading would be reduced in their knees.”
For the latest in its New Pioneers series, Inverse spoke with Trudeau about biomechanics and how running will become more personalized over the next decade. He also shares a bad science joke.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first exposure to biomechanics?
I have a background in mechanical engineering, but it was a bit too dry for me. I had a passion for sports growing up in Montreal. I played hockey all my life and a lot of ultimate frisbee competitively. I was looking for a topic for a graduate degree, and I combined my love for physics, math, and engineering with my love for sports, and that was biomechanics. I moved from Boston, where I was doing my doctoral degree in ergonomics and biomechanics at Harvard, to Calgary in a U-Haul — and started a sports biomechanics postdoc.
I got involved with the industry because I did some work with Adidas and Mizuno. One thing led to another and a job opened up at Brooks about five and a half years ago now. At that time, there were five people in the lab. Now we're 19 people. The company grew; we were doing well and started to innovate more. I became the lead of the team that was dedicated to innovation, looking three to 10 years out.
“[Humans] are just really sophisticated machines.”
What's the purpose and goal of your team?
We want to benefit the runner three to ten years out. We're looking to create novel technologies, and that doesn't necessarily mean footwear. We're looking into the science of run signature and how it evolves. Run signature is based on how we all move differently. That's important because it means that our footwear and product requirements are all different. We're understanding the runner better than anybody else really. We're developing the science and then testing prototypes, and looking at how personalization could be applied to running products.
Our research isn't necessarily intellectual property; we want to publish it so people realize that the concept of run signature exists and it's scientific truth. The rate of running injuries, especially knee injuries, hasn't declined over the years, despite the fact that folks’ footwear has become more innovative. You see new foams, new support technologies, all this stuff happening in the market. The reason is I think there's a mismatch between how shoes are fitted to the person. Brooks is known as a running shoe company, but actually, we're a running brand, so what else could we do to benefit runners as much as possible? That's what my team is working toward.
How did you think about mechanical engineering when you were young?
When I was a kid, I would think of someone in mechanical engineering building or fixing a car. But when you think about it, humans are machines. That's how I like to think about it; we're just really sophisticated machines. One of the reasons why I was so interested in biomechanics growing up is I was always fascinated by how people move differently. Seeing someone you know from far away, you could recognize it's them just by the way they move. In playing sports, I was always fascinated by how the more talented athletes move smoother, whereas with lower-level athletes, it's more jerky.
When did you know this field of biomechanics was for you?
When I started my master's degree around 2008 on the role of fascia in biomechanics. Fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds each of our muscles. It's connected from one muscle to the next. It's basically strings throughout our bodies where if I were to move my arm, I'm lengthening and putting tension on a string that connects all the way down to my leg. The fact that we didn't really know what the purpose of fascia was, or still is, in biomechanics, I thought was fascinating. That's where I was like, this is the field for me, because I just can't stop thinking about it.
What's a time you failed in biomechanics?
There's a lot of fails. I like to say my team’s job is to fail as much as possible because that's the way we learn. One real failure was when we did a study a few years ago where we were interested in how different groove orientations inside a midsole affect the way that someone runs. We had what we call puck shoes that have the same simple midsole that we cut different grooves in at a machine shop. We put them on people and tested them in the lab with motion capture. They ran on an instrumented treadmill to capture their forces.
When we were done, we realized that the foam under the shoe was so soft that putting any groove into it just made it bottom out. So the effect of our grooves from one shoe to the next was the exact same. The biomechanical metrics were the same from one person to the next. What we should have done is just test it out on one or two people. Then we would have realized there’s no point in continuing because we’d know we messed up the midsole. We lost a lot of time and that's something that won't happen again.
What's a rookie mistake you've made?
Reading the text when giving a presentation. I remember giving a presentation at this international conference early on in my career, and I was so nervous and wanted to make sure I didn't forget the points that I wanted to make. So I just read my text throughout. It was such a boring conference presentation. I don't think anybody could remember what I said. You have to be genuine when you give a presentation. That's something that I've definitely improved on -- being able to know the topic so well that you're just able to have a conversation about it instead of just reading.
What do you think your superpower is?
Explaining scientific concepts in a way that anybody could understand. That involves understanding who your audience is and what their background is and being attentive to detail in how you describe things and how you analyze the opportunity to communicate ahead of time. One of the best classes I've ever taken was called the "Arts of Communication" at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
I was the little biomechanics engineer surrounded by these politicians-to-be. We were tasked with giving talks that were engaging and motivating to convince the audience of a certain topic. That's where I learned that communication is an art. When we find scientific results, if I'm not able to explain them to a developer, designer, or product line manager, then all the work we put into the study is useless.
What's one thing you’d tell your teenage self?
Let go of your ego. I used to be a little bit my way or the highway. I've grown to be a much better listener and to value other people's perspectives and circumstances in coming up with a solution to a problem. Another thing is not taking things too personally. If I had an idea, and it's rejected by a few of my peers, that's OK. It might be because it was a bad idea, so put it on the shelf and keep it for later.
What's a prediction you have for 2030?
A runner's choice in their running products will be more data-driven. It'll be based on running patterns from wearables, for instance, or based on anatomy from scans of their body and feet, biomechanics, maybe even their medical history and DNA. People respond differently to footwear technologies and some don’t respond at all. It would be really useful to know what you as a runner can respond to. My team is learning more every day on how we could use runners’ data to tell what will work for them. I definitely think that, in 2030, we're going to have a lot of that involved in the footwear selection process.
If your biography were written today, what would the title be and who would you want to write it?
The title would be Don't Go Through the Motions. That's been my motto for a while now. About 12 years ago, I wrote that on a little Post-it Note, and I carried it with me. Now it's by my desk. What it means to me is that I want to push myself all the time, not just in sports, physically, but in my personal life and my work. Our minds and bodies often want to find the path of least resistance. By pushing out of that and pushing ourselves a little bit intellectually and physically, we could really get the most out of life. For the author, there's a French-Canadian journalist that I've always loved. He's retired now, but his name is Pierre Foglia. He used to write for La Presse in Montreal. He was funny, impactful, but satirical and down to earth. I feel that's the way I am. You can look at me and think that I'm serious. I'm a bit of a nerd, obviously, because I'm a scientific person. But I like to make fun of myself and make jokes.
“My team's job is to fail as much as possible.”
Who's a game-changer you want a shout out?
One of my mentors at the University of Calgary was Dr. Vinzenz Von Tscharner. He's a genius mathematician. He was amazing at thinking outside the box and teaching new analysis techniques, such as machine learning techniques that he would invent himself. He's a game-changer because, oftentimes, you think of machine learning and think of a black box, but he explained what they do and had people visualize their analyses. That would provide an insight into how the body is reacting to a given shoe, for example. He was a real pioneer in that way and a mathematical genius, and he doesn't get enough credit for it.
What's next for you?
I'd like to help Brooks go from being known as the running shoe brand to being known as the runner's brand. So anything that relates to running, that Brooks is the expert and everybody knows that. Besides that, I'd like to become the best leader and manager that I can be. Getting other people on board with ideas is really important. That takes persuasion as I mentioned earlier. It takes leadership.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I thought of a really nerdy joke that relates to what my team and I do at Brooks. The reason why it's called research is because we search, we fail, then we have to research.
And just like a runner, you fall down and get back up again.
Boom. Yeah, you got it.