A new analysis suggests top running speed has room for significant improvement.
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt has redefined the limits of sprinting in recent years, lowering the 100-meter world record to 9.58 seconds (actually, 9.572, but the rules require rounding up). This hasn’t ended the debate: How fast can a human run? In fact, it might have increased such speculation.
Most prior estimates have involved simple mathematical extensions of the world record improvement rate for 100 meters. However, Australian physiologist and coach Jeremy Richmond takes a different approach in the IAAF’s “New Studies in Athletics.” He looks at known observations and physical reaction times to predict the ultimate human running speed for 100 meters.
His answer: 9.27 seconds.
Simple arithmetic tells us that Bolt averaged 10.43 meters/second (23.34 miles per hour) in his world record race. Of course, he ran much of the distance faster than this, because sprinters start from a stationary position in the blocks. Indeed, Richmond says the best analysis of Bolt’s race indicates that he hit a top speed of 12.34 meters/second (27.61 mph) at 68 meters.
If Bolt or someone else could run the full 100 at this pace, he’d hit the tape in 8.10 seconds. This can’t happen because a sprinter’s start will always be relatively slow.
Richmond believes that Bolt and sprinters of his caliber have already maximized the amount of force they apply to the track when sprinting. That leaves just one crucial variable that can be improved–ground contact time. The faster you put ’em down and pick ’em up, the faster you can run.
Studies of top sprinters have shown they have reached a ground contact time of 80 milliseconds. Richmond thinks this can be lowered to 70 milliseconds. He bases this on studies of fast-twitch muscle fiber contractions, and of quadriceps muscle contractions.
If Bolt or a future record holder can run 100 meters with Bolt’s force production, plus a ground contact time of just 70 milliseconds, he’ll reach a top speed of 12.75 meters per second. That’s 28.53 miles per hours, and it would lower the 100-meter record to 9.27 seconds, Richmond says.
“If scientists and coaches can develop a training method to further shorten muscle contraction time,” Richmond writes, “it seems plausible that human beings could run even faster.”
Below are Bolt’s 10-meter split times from his world record race vs. Richmond’s predicted splits for a 9.27 race.
|Section of Race||Bolt’s WR Split||Predicted 9.27 Split|
|Start-10 meters||1.88 seconds||1.82 seconds|
|Finish Time||9.58 seconds||9.27 seconds|