SportTechie contributor Dominic Massimino competing for Occidental College during the 2021 cross country season.
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By the time I graduated high school, I’d been diagnosed with three stress fractures, all in my right shin. That number ballooned to five as I hobbled my way through a tumultuous college distance-running career.
Notorious among distance runners, stress fractures are usually the product of overtraining, low Vitamin D or calcium intake, old shoes or biomechanical issues. Without getting too far into the weeds, my flat feet and shin structure cause overpronation, which led to increased stress on my tibia. Orthotics helped, but in the end, this was a problem I would have to manage and mitigate—not solve.
Then, in my fifth year of college and halfway through my last cross country season, I heard the dreaded words once again: “Medial tibial stress syndrome, edema on the posterior tibia—stress fracture.”
That’s where the Boost One came in. My university, Occidental College in Los Angeles, just so happened to have a Boost treadmill tucked away in the storage closet of our athletic training building. So, every evening at 5 p.m., while my teammates headed to the track or trail system around our campus to train, I’d head to a musty room to try to salvage my career.
It was a revelation. The team at Boost attaches a bubble-like apparatus to a Woodway treadmill that inflates, lifting the user up and allowing them to run at a lower-than-normal body weight. For a guy who’d been nicknamed ‘Mr. Glass’ by his teammates, Boost proved to be the perfect training tool.
To use the Boost, you don a pair of rubberized compression shorts with a zipper at the top. Then you step into the bubble—which can be adjusted to match the height of your hips—and attach yourself via the zipper. Once sealed, the bubble inflates to a level of your choosing, lifting the runner’s hips slightly due to the higher level of pressure in the sealed space. Massimino trained daily on the Boost One inside a musty storage closet at his university.
Running inside the Boost bubble feels peculiar at first. Given my diagnosis, I spent my first runs on the treadmill at around 65% of my body weight, which was noticeably different from running on the ground or even a normal treadmill. Instead of the compressive load on your joints you would normally feel upon landing and push-off, your foot gently bounces off the floor. Think, “One small step for man, one giant leap for an injured college athlete.”
The three founders of Boost—Tom Allen, Jimmy Bean and Sean Whalen—were transplants from the original “zero gravity treadmill” company, AlterG, which was founded by Whalen. The three left to pursue other opportunities, later returning to the impact-reducing treadmill market and founding Boost.
AlterG treadmills were the pioneers in the space, with the late Kobe Bryant and MLS star Tony Beltran using AlterG treadmills as part of their rehab routine when returning from Achilles tendon and ACL injuries, respectively (In 2017, Boost was sued by Alter G for a series of alleged contract and patent infringements. The case reached a settlement in June 2020).
According to Whalen, the unweighting function of the Boost One comes from the pressure differential between the inside and outside of the Boost bubble, which lifts a user’s hips higher above the ground.
“The best analogy I’ve found that resonates with people is to consider a carbonated bottle, like a champagne bottle,” Whalen said. “As you build up a pressure differential across a surface, there's a force exerted on that surface. So, in the champagne bottle, when you shake it up, the cork is kind of plugging the top and so that's your surface. And the pressure built up inside is trying to pop that cork out the top — your body in these machines is like the cork.”
In terms of fatigue, running at this body weight percentage can leave you winded, but with very little muscle activation or soreness post-run. Because of the lower percentage of body weight, you have to run much faster to achieve the same aerobic effect, which I measured using the built-in heart rate monitor on my older model Garmin Forerunner 35 . If I wanted to run easy at a given body weight percentage, I’d keep my heart rate below 150 bpm. If I wanted to do a tempo run, I’d keep it below 180.
“There's a range of pressures in there where you can get these nice unweighting effects without overcoming the user's body weight — effectively the force of gravity pushing them down,” Whalen said.
Another oddity of the Boost is the temperature inside the machine. Due to the bubble, the body heat produced by your legs is trapped inside, leading to a somewhat unpleasant sauna effect.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the Boost I worked out on was in an old storage closet which had no air conditioning.
“We encourage a standing fan,” Bean later told me with a chuckle.
Despite these unforeseen challenges, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of exertion I managed to replicate on theRunning in a Boost One left Massimino 'winded, but with very little muscle activation or soreness post-run.' Boost and how much it felt like prototypical running. Normally, runners with stress fractures are relegated to the pool or, if you can manage it pain-free, the elliptical. Running on the Boost was still running .
According to Bean, details such as dampening the machine’s noise and ensuring user comfort were a goal in designing the Boost One.
“Nobody says, ‘Hey I want to go run on a treadmill today,’ to start their day,” Bean said. “But I think it makes the experience really nice.”
As the weeks went by and the pain in my shin diminished, I slowly increased my body weight in increments of 5%. By the time I was around 80 %, running on the Boost felt more like running on the ground, with the landing and push-off actually stimulating my muscles. Before long, I was able to run the same workouts my teammates were doing, but at 90% of my body weight to mitigate some of the toll that running on land takes on your legs.
With access to the Boost One, I was able to maintain and even build my fitness throughout the season and race at my conference championships. Had I not been able to continue aerobic training through that period immediately post-injury, I likely wouldn’t have been fit enough to compete at all.
While the Boost One was a recovery tool for me, Boost’s founders hope performance uses of their product will include not only injury rehabilitation, but widespread integration into everyday training.
Boost boasts a long list of customers, largely in the college sports market, including the University of Washington Track & Field and cross country teams, the Arizona State Women’s Basketball team, Clemson University Sports Medicine and the renowned Bowerman Track Club .
Boost’s success in the NCAA sphere makes sense, in part because the Boost One price tag of $32,499—an amount which is relatively affordable in the unweighting treadmill market—is cost-prohibitive for almost any individual to own. According to Whalen, that’s a problem Boost has been working to solve.
“It's something that people should have access to whenever they need access to it,” Whalen said. “That's really the focus, I'd say, for our company — how do we make this technology accessible by anyone, whenever they need it?” Without the Boost One, Massimino doesn't believe he would have been able to compete in this past year's conference championships.
According to Allen, Boost aims to bring down total costs by delivering a product that is built to last—prioritizing inexpensive repairs whenever problems arise and eschewing subscription-based services which has become the status quo among many fitness tech companies.
“We recognize that it's a big investment for our customers. When I’ve bought something that isn't cheap, the last thing I want to have is [to] get charged a lot of ongoing or service costs, and so I think we're also really focused on bringing those down,” Allen said.
To Boost’s founders, the possibilities for unweighting technology are boundless.
“A cool part of the product is [that] if you walk into a bar, or you're out at a park, everybody would have a reason to get on a Boost, and their reasons would be different,” Bean said.
Sadly enough for this washed-up college athlete, Boost can’t offer me titanium legs or bone-repairing nanobots (that’s for another Sandbox), but it did give me one last season of college sports, which I will forever be grateful for.
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