How Running Technology Helps Us Envision the Future of Athletics and Society

Can you imagine a world where exoskeletons, implants, artificial body parts, or human-machine convergence alter the very nature of sport?
Headshot of author Frank Diana
Frank Diana
Expert Contributor
December 10, 2020
Updated: March 2, 2021
Headshot of author Frank Diana
Frank Diana
Expert Contributor
December 10, 2020
Updated: March 2, 2021

The rapid progression of science and technology is converging with societal, economic, environmental and geopolitical shifts in ways that alter our future. As a result, people everywhere are focused on the “future of X”, where “X” increasingly represents every domain.

It is not surprising, then, to see the future of sports impacted by this convergence. There is no doubt that the future of sports — and running in particular — is changing. Tata Consultancy Services launched #ThisRun, a new worldwide community for runners, reinforcing its long-standing commitment to global marathon and running partnership platforms. In support of this initiative, TCS conducted This Run Tech Survey, which captured runners’ views of technology and its role in the sport now and in the future. It provides a glimpse into the minds of a broad spectrum of runners, giving us foresight to see across horizons. With it, we can envision the future of running and explore how it may affect societal wellness.

Every analysis of future scenarios now includes the impact of COVID-19, and running is no exception. Our survey indicates that running has sparked more enjoyment and importance in the pandemic-filled lives of people. In fact, 67 percent of respondents said that running during the pandemic has been especially important in their life. With stress and depression amplified, running has reduced some of those worries. While the pandemic has been one key motivator, technology adoption represents another. Currently, running technology is used to track fundamental metrics such as pace, distance and time. The focus is primarily on individual runners connecting, capturing and leveraging data and technologies to improve their experience and performance. The survey indicates that runners are interested in practical uses of running-based technologies, with respondents interested in injury prevention (59 percent), runner performance (58 percent) and nutrition/hydration (58 percent).

Popular technology includes smart watches, distance tracking apps and heart-rate monitors. Our survey highlights several other technologies embraced by both avid and casual runners. The early adopter nature of runners creates a virtuous cycle, where technologies are adopted at a faster rate, thus accelerating product innovation and product demand. COVID-19 has amplified this virtuous cycle, as it has in many different domains. As the cycle continues, a broader lens illuminates the potential role that technology will play in the future of running (or any sport). Imagine how we might maximize performance through wearables, game technology, AI coaching, VR tracking, gene doping, neuro-coaching and, ultimately, brain-to-brain communication.

 

Reimagining the Nature of Sports

If we pull back our lens even further and envision the future athlete, we can see the total re-imagination of sports. We are likely to experience a complete blurring of boundaries between technology and the athlete. Exoskeletons, implants, artificial body parts or human-machine convergence could alter the athlete and therefore the sports themselves. Does this lead to enhanced leagues versus natural leagues? What happens if genetic engineering enables the creation of super athletes or genetic screening allows us to pick only the best children for participation in sports? It is not far-fetched to imagine leagues where robots compete against each other. Now, go even broader. These early indicators from our survey portend a world that is to come. As we look to this future, does the survey provide signals that help envision that future? Two key signals include the environment and wellness.

Our survey found that avid runners are more likely to be motivated by green technology — specifically the carbon footprint of races (59 percent of avid runners would be more interested in participating in a carbon-neutral or zero-carbon-footprint race).

From a wellness perspective, a connected health platform emerges to improve the health of athletes and humans more broadly. This connectedness ultimately drives a wellness ecosystem that accrues value to the collective. The ecosystem evolves to support individual needs, while athletes contribute to collective intelligence on wellness. This enables wellness that permeates every aspect of our lives.

We’re now able to monitor our health at the cellular level and our environment through the smart home; we enjoy 3D-printed food that meets our individual nutritional needs; our clothing regulates our body temperature based on our internal and ambient temperature; injuries are healed through smart bandages and rapid cell regeneration; and all of our health and wellness data is integrated into an AI-powered dashboard. These metrics improve overall health and wellness, contributing to the extension of healthy lives.

In this era of genomics, precision medicine and rejuvenation biotechnology, extending our healthy lives is not only possible but likely. Life scientists believe that the first person to live to 200 has already been born. When I look at innovation in the health domain and the rapid progression experienced in the last two decades, I see the possibilities. Catalysts like pandemics have always served as both obstacles and accelerants. In the area of health, it is the latter. Imagine the extended athletic careers these advancements may enable. When viewed through the lens of the athlete, a broader view of our emerging future materializes. Enjoy the journey!

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