Inspired by the springlike action of biological legs, running-specific prostheses are designed to enable athletes with lower-limb amputations to run. However, manufacturer’s recommendations for prosthetic stiffness and height may not optimize running performance. Therefore, we investigated the effects of using different prosthetic configurations on the metabolic cost and biomechanics of running. Five athletes with bilateral transtibial amputations each performed 15 trials on a force-measuring treadmill at 2.5 or 3.0 m/s. Athletes ran using each of 3 different prosthetic models (Freedom Innovations Catapult FX6, Össur Flex-Run, and Ottobock 1E90 Sprinter) with 5 combinations of stiffness categories (manufacturer’s recommended and ± 1) and heights (International Paralympic Committee’s maximum competition height and ± 2 cm) while we measured metabolic rates and ground reaction forces. Overall, prosthetic stiffness [fixed effect (β) = 0.036; P = 0.008] but not height (P ≥ 0.089) affected the net metabolic cost of transport; less stiff prostheses reduced metabolic cost. While controlling for prosthetic stiffness (in kilonewtons per meter), using the Flex-Run (β = −0.139; P = 0.044) and 1E90 Sprinter prostheses (β = −0.176; P = 0.009) reduced net metabolic costs by 4.3–4.9% compared with using the Catapult prostheses. The metabolic cost of running improved when athletes used prosthetic configurations that decreased peak horizontal braking ground reaction forces (β = 2.786; P = 0.001), stride frequencies (β = 0.911; P < 0.001), and leg stiffness values (β = 0.053; P = 0.009). Remarkably, athletes did not maintain overall leg stiffness across prosthetic stiffness conditions. Rather, the in-series prosthetic stiffness governed overall leg stiffness. The metabolic cost of running in athletes with bilateral transtibial amputations is influenced by prosthetic model and stiffness but not height.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY We measured the metabolic rates and biomechanics of five athletes with bilateral transtibial amputations while running with different prosthetic configurations. The metabolic cost of running for these athletes is minimized by using an optimal prosthetic model and reducing prosthetic stiffness. The metabolic cost of running was independent of prosthetic height, suggesting that longer legs are not advantageous for distance running. Moreover, the in-series prosthetic stiffness governs the leg stiffness of athletes with bilateral leg amputations.