The Speed Limit Of Sprinting

The maximum speed that it is possible for a human being to sprint has been speculated, guessed at and proved wrong for the past 100 years. In 1912, Donald Lippincott ignited the flame with his world record time of 10.6 seconds over 100m. Nowadays, that seems pretty average because in 2009 we were witness to Usain Bolt smashing the world record with a time of 9.58 seconds over 100m. This means that in a 100 year time frame, the world record over 100m has been reduced by over 1 second. It seems a tiny amount of time but to the athletes that train to beat a record where 0.01 seconds makes the difference between success and failure, it is a massive amount of time.

The beauty in athletics has always been that somehow year after year, someone finds a way to defy all expectations and grasp hold of a new world record. I’d like to think that in our lifetimes we will not see the fastest human that will ever exist, while it would be amazing to witness, how uninteresting and damaging would it be to athletes aspiring to set world records? Not only that, but many of us base our life goals on achieving the ‘impossible’ so what if things really did become impossible and we could never again beat our ancestors at something we were born to do?

It would be great to think that over the next 10 years, Bolt’s 100m record will be beaten by new and upcoming athletes (no offence to Bolt of course) and judging by the continuous improvement of world records over the past 30 years, it is relatively likely this will happen.

You only have to take a look at the sprint times for the 100m final at London 2012 to realise how far sprinters have come since 1912. Many of the ex-world record holders would not even qualify for the final this year!

Athlete Country Sprint Time(s)
Usain Bolt Jamaica 9.63
Yohan Blake Jamaica 9.75
Justin Gatlin USA 9.79
Tyson Gay USA 9.80
Ryan Bailey USA 9.88
Churandy Martina Netherlands 9.94
Richard Thompson USA 9.98
Asafa Powell Jamaica 11.99 (INJURED)

The Science

Sprinting has represented half of the ‘fight or flight’ instinct since humans came into existence, yet we still have no idea of our true limitations and perhaps we never will.

Scientists believed that the speed limit of a human was 25-26 mph. Well, Bolt has already run at 28mph and as far as I can tell, he’s doing pretty well. He certainly doesn’t appear to have stressed his muscles and ligaments beyond repair as was predicted.

Scientists used to think it was down to how much force we could apply when in contact with the ground and still remain biomechanically intact; it was then found that sprinters actually exert double the force that scientists thought the human body could withstand.

As you can imagine, scientists headed back to the drawing board to investigate. Research went into the forces that subject’s applied to the ground while hopping only on one leg at high speeds and it was found that the forces applied were ~30% higher than the force applied during top-speed sprinting. This is what has turned attention to our muscles as it is clear our body can deal with more force than it is currently under while sprinting at current top-speeds.

It is thought that our limits now rest on the minimum time needed to apply the large forces necessary to propel the body forwards at such a speed. The new research shows that running speed limits are set by contractile speed limits of the muscle fibres. Fibre contractile speeds set the limit on how quickly we can apply force to the running surface.

Scientist’s projections indicate that muscle contractile speeds allowing for maximal (or very close to) forces would enable humans to sprint at speeds of 35-40mph. If this was sustainable, we could cover 100m in 5.6 seconds!

The Maths

The pattern of setting world records cannot continue as it is currently. FACT. If you plot a straight line through the world record holder’s sprint times, the line would predict that eventually a man will run 100m in 0 seconds. I’m sorry if this disappoints anybody, but I don’t think a non-existent race would be all that interesting to watch.

Mathematicians have been using logistic equations to try and predict our speed limit. The equation plots a curved line through the world records and eventually reaches a plateau. The issue with this is that as the new records are plotted on the graph, the ‘limit’ changes.

In 1999, the curve predicted that the limit over 100m would be 9.68 seconds.....yeh, Bolt killed that one. In 2002, it predicted that the limit of sprinting over 100m would be 9.48 seconds...now this one is still plausible, although it would be pretty disappointing if we are only 0.20 seconds from the pinnacle of sprinting. The prediction once Bolt’s 2009 record was added to the graph was a little more interesting. Fancy running 100m in 8.96 seconds? Beating the 9 second barrier sounds far more exciting to me! Of course, this could decrease even more if Bolt’s record is beaten anytime soon.

There will be an ultimate limit, but just because there’s a limit mathematically, that doesn’t mean we will ever reach it.

It is already established that over a 10m split Bolt’s fastest time is 0.82 seconds and there are a few other sprinters who have achieved 0.83 seconds. Perhaps the key to optimising human speed is by working on how to endure speeds that the human body is clearly already capable of. If you don’t allow for acceleration, a time like this over 100m would set the world record at 8.2 seconds. Maybe cutting back on the chicken nuggets could help?

If you want to find out how fast you are capable of sprinting, check out our article tomorrow on how to improve sprint speed. Perhaps you could be the next world record holder...

References:

Weyand PG, Sandell RF, Prime DNL, Bundle MW, The Biological Limits to Running Speed are Imposed from the Ground Up, Journal of Applied Physiology, 2010, 108(4):950-61.

Nevill AM, Whyte G, Are There Limits to Running World Records? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2005, 37(10): 1785-8.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.

Comments

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