For making athletes’ dreams a reality. Last year, the world’s largest sporting-goods maker hit the sweet spots of its most loyal customers in rapid-fire succession: First came the FuelBand, a consumer wristband that tracks the wearer’s footsteps and calorie consumption. Then came a line of sensor-embedded training shoes to help runners brag on social media. And finally came the coup de grace, which debuted at the Olympics: FlyKnit, a shoe made from a single, lightweight knit upper that delivers sock-like comfort and feather-like weight; four years in the making, it is unlike anything else on the market. Nike’s innovation has been unparalleled, which is why it is No. 1 on this year’s roster of Most Innovative Companies.
For designing an ultra-immersive exercise game of survival. This Kickstarter-funded app is one part audio book, one part video game, and one party sneaky personal trainer. Designed by Six to Start (a group that includes an avid runner, a graphic designer, and an award-winning novelist), it blends audio clips with a user’s iPhone music to take you through a four-week story (and exercise routine) that revolves around post-zombie apocalypse missions. When a zombie is approaching, for instance, the runner has to pick up her pace by 20 percent for up to a minute (tracked through the phone’s GPS or accelerometer) or risk being eaten by the undead.
For spinning a studio concept into a lifestyle brand. Renowned for turning stationary cycling into a whole new workout–think yoga breathing, hand weights, and candlelight and rock and roll–SoulCycle has been busy expanding the reach of its boutique empire. After conquering New York and the Hamptons, it opened on the West Coast, with more than 60 locations planned before 2015. But SoulCycle is thinking way beyond the studio: It recently introduced a $2,000 retail bike (Lady Gaga travels with one while on tour) and opened its first retail shop, where it sells leggings, candles, and crystal-encrusted iPhone cases. Up next are streaming classes.
4_EMG Live Fitness
For being the Netflix of the e-workout movement. EMG’s website combines the variety and accountability of a group fitness class with the do-it-anywhere flexibility of a workout DVD. While its competitors are niche, EMG’s strategy is broad: it records classes from across the country, from a front-row point of view to guarantee an authentic experience. Users can follow along with live-streaming classes or access a rolling archive for $5. The company, which initially targeted stay-at-home moms and folks who felt too out-of-shape to participate in group classes, has seen an uptick in recommendations from trainers who want to keep their clients busy between sessions.
For turning a dance-fitness craze into an empire. If you think it’s easy to dismiss Zumba as just another group-workout trend, consider this: Two big-budget investors–Insight Venture Partners and the Raine Group–have poured tens of millions of dollars into the fitness company, which has brought Zumba’s value to more than $500 million. The company has sold more than 10 million instructional tapes and DVDs, and its video game, available on the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect, has sold more than six million copies. Zumba is also developing a concert program that will let fans sweat to live music.
For designing a hybrid machine that’s easy on the joints. Elliptigo spent five years perfecting an outdoor running-cycling hybrid machine with zero impact, which required lengthening the stride to simulate running while keeping the bike light and maneuverable. The time paid off: the machine, which nine Americans used for cross-training in the run-up to the Olympics, hit $10 million in sales in 2012.
For making anyone believe they can train like an Olympian. The moves at a CrossFit gym aren’t new, but it’s now the fastest-growing gym chain in the United States, thanks to its grueling, no-frills workouts and built-in sense of camaraderie. Members complete a “Workout of the Day,” which is grueling enough to wipe out military personnel. It now has more than 3,400 locations worldwide, with 1,000 opening in the United States in the past year alone. Reebok, for one, is convinced the booming brand isn’t a fitness fad: The shoe giant signed a 10-year deal with the company to sponsor its annual CrossFit Games, design shoes and workout gear for the routines, and partner with some 70 CrossFit gyms in 30 countries.
For envisioning a whole new type of gym membership. As big-box gyms and boutique fitness centers continue to compete for customers, many affluent women are juggling multiple memberships. FITiSTtakes the work out of such schedule hopping by leveraging technology to deliver a convenient, flexible interface. Users book classes at 120-plus gyms directly through the site, which streamlines all payments and class schedules. For free, members can also take advantage of daily flash sales on classes at discounted prices (think GILT for fitness).
For creating a vibrant virtual locker room for endurance athletes. As biometric gadgets continue to surge, Strava has done what others wish they could: created a vibrant social community that extends far beyond bragging about your run time on Facebook. The company combines bragging rights–“King of the Mountain” status for a particular route when you score the fastest time, for example–with robust forums. An estimated 60 percent of San Francisco cyclists are members, and most users swiftly upgrade from the free app to the premium version. Last summer, Strava introduced weekly challenges to up the competition even more, allowing users to compare their time with those of Olympic cyclists.
For letting gym rats pedal their way to environmental bliss. Green Revolution has designed, and manufactures, a generator for stationary bikes in sports clubs that turns human exertion into electricity. Already installed in more than 100 fitness centers across the U.S., Green Revolution enlarged its footprint when it introduced the technology to Europe last year. The generators, which smartly work with existing bikes, cost just $200 to install, and most facilities earn back that investment inside of two years.
[Image: Flickr user Earl]