Invention and introduction of blades

Blades are prosthetic lower limbs, used by amputee runners. Thanks to their curved shape and carbon fibre construction they are light and springy and allow runners to reach much higher speeds than traditional prosthetics. Leading manufacturers of running blades include Össur and Ottobock.

The first running blade 'the Flex-Foot' was designed by Van Phillips in the 1970s. He was an American inventor and an amputee himself. Van Phillips came up with the idea of running blades by observing animals like kangaroos and cheetahs as well as the mechanics of diving boards and pole vaulting. Until this point prosthetics had tried to mimic human bones, his focus was more on replicating ligaments and tendons. Since the 1970s running blades have developed significantly.

The 'Cheetah' blade

The Cheetah running blade, manufactured by Ossur, in the starting block on an athletics race track

Made by Icelandic manufacturers Össur, the blade is named the cheetah after the big cat. Van Phillips, based his original research on observing cheetahs. The ‘Cheetah’ was first launched in 1996 for competing athletes, the backward curve mimics the leg shape of the big cat. The curve creates a spring that stores the runner’s energy as they step down then releases it, propelling them forwards.

How are they made?

Modern running blades are made from 100% carbon fibre. The layers of the carbon fibre are structured in a specific way to suit the category of style manufactured. The strength of the blade comes from multiple layers of carbon fibre; at least thirty and as many as ninety sheets of carbon fibre are fused together. The more layers used make the blade stronger. Each layer is thinner than human hair. The manufacturing is computer controlled to ensure that each foot made is to exact specification.

How do they help Para athletes?

Modern running blades and their design help minimise the disadvantage that Para athletes have. However, the athletes training and effort is the main reason for improvement in running times.

Para athlete Richard Whitehead in training

The benefits of blades? They give me a platform for success, which every athlete wants, whether you have an impairment or not.

Richard Whitehead MBE, Paralympic Athlete

Fun facts