Running On Air

By Robert Lillegard

When you step into the Lightspeed Lift Body Weight Support System and get on the treadmill, you will feel like you’re running on air. This ingenious device, which features bungee cords attached to a metal frame, takes twenty pounds of weight off your feet. The benefits are simple: it reduces pounding, lets you sprint faster and further, and generally keeps you feeling great. It’s good for athletes, who use it to train themselves to sprint faster. It’s good for those nursing an injury, because it lets them run without pain. And finally, it’s good for people like me.

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror—or worse, looked down at the scale—and thought “I’m heavier than I used to be”? I have. I’ve put on about twenty pounds since my last marathon, and I can definitely feel it in my bones when I go out for a jog. That pounding, jolting feeling when I start to run makes it hard to keep going. Malcolm Macaulay, the Duluth-based physical therapist who invented the device, says that’s a common complaint.

“If you stop running for even a few months and start again, it’s tough,” Macaulay says. “With this system it allows you to get that feeling of quickness back. It’s no fun just slamming along.”

Well, there’s no slamming here. After putting on a pair of specially designed shorts and hooking the bungee-like lift bands to the shorts and to the Lightspeed Lift treadmill frame, I started jogging slowly. It felt great. My steps were light and gentle, my form was terrific. And when I started sprinting, it felt even better. I was tearing up the treadmill as if I was, oh, the weight I’m supposed to be. Macaulay says that this system is ideal for those starting out.

“It really helps people that are just starting a running program to get through the initial phase without injury and with greater enjoyment,” Macaulay says.

But there are even greater benefits for those who have been injured. If you’ve had trouble running in the past, running at 80–90 percent of your body weight can help you protect healing tissue, avoid stress-related injury, and restore normal gait mechanics.

“Number one, it decreases injuries,” Macaulay says. “It decreases the stress so people that have some arthritic joints or tender joints can run with less chance of overuse.”

Macaulay was inspired by the AlterG Antigravity Treadmill, a device originally designed for NASA and used by champion runners like Alberto Salazar and Kara Goucher. But while professional teams, elite medical facilities, and other high-end programs use the AlterG, the stiff $30,000 price tag makes it a barrier for most people.

“The trouble is they’re inaccessible because of the cost,” Macaulay says. “We have tried to bring this out of the rehabilitation field and into the mainstream.”

Duluthians are nothing if not resourceful. After Macaulay’s friend got a neck injury eighteen years ago, he rigged up a crude bodyweight support system with a boat winch, a fish scale, and a traction harness. It worked. Several iterations later, the Lightspeed Lift system is simply a frame that fits around any treadmill, a few support straps, and a pair of specially designed shorts. It’s easy to use, and it’s only $1,500.

The Y in Duluth has two of the systems, and so does Achieve Physical Therapy. The Center for Muscle and Joint Therapy in Superior and the UMD Athletic training room each have one. But Macaulay is just getting started. Bodyweight support running helps joint pain, allows for quicker turnover, and makes running a better experience, and that’s a message he’s hoping to spread to the masses.

“It’s just amazing how many people exercise on treadmills,” Macaulay says. “If I can get a reasonable percentage of them to do even 25 percent of their runs using this system they’re going to be healthier.”

Original article appeared in Duluth Superior Magazine