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Mo Farah Vs Usain Bolt

23-Aug-2013

Great Britain’s greatest ever distance runner racing against the fastest man on earth. Sounds like a nail biter, who do you think will win? Run3D's Andrea looks to the science before making her decision!

Mo Farah, born in Somalia and raised in Great Britain, is most recently known for his double Olympic and double World Championship wins in the 5000 m and 10,000 m distances – only the 2nd person ever to achieve this “double double” accomplishment. He was the first British man to run sub-13 minutes for the 5000 m race in 2010, and broke his own record a year later with a time of 12:53:11. To top it off, he is also the British and European world record holder for 1,500 meters with a time of 3.28.81, set in July 2013 (BBC Sport, 2013). Comparatively, the Jamaican superstar, Usain Bolt, who has been regarded as the fastest man of all time, holds the world records for both 100 m and 200 m sprints. He has claimed 6 gold medals at the previous two Olympic Games in Beijing and London, and still holds the fastest time ever for 100 m sprint at 9.58 seconds. (Image taken from: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02307/mo-farah_2307758b.jpg) 

If these two phenomenal athletes were to battle it out on the track, who would win? More needs to be considered here. First and foremost, the length of the race. Although nothing has been officially confirmed, Farah boldly challenged the confident Jamaican to a 600 m race to raise money for their respective charities. A distance too long for Bolt and too short for Farah, it seems like the perfect compromise. Although Bolt likely has the fitness capacity and supposedly trains 600 m distances (The Independent, 2013), does he have the endurance to maintain his famous lightening pace three times longer than his normal race distance – especially when Farah is known for his incredible sprint finishes? What are the differences in their running styles that will give either Farah or Bolt an advantage in this situation?

Previous research has looked into the differences and similarities between sprinters and distance runners, analysing a variety of variables contributing to performance, including: reaction time, running technique, biomechanics, force production, and physiological variables (Mero et al, 1992).  Reaction time, defined by time from the sound of the starter's gun to the moment of pressure against the starting block, is more of a crucial aspect for a sprinter. However, there is no correlation to reaction time and performance levels, even in the elite athletes (Mero et al, 1992).  Although this is particularly dated research, it is an interesting fact to note that Usain Bolt is not the fastest off the block, which evidently does not have a huge impact on his result! The obvious answer for which athlete will be the fastest over this awkward distance will be determined by each runner's speed and acceleration. Whether it is at the beginning of a sprint or the end of a longer distance race – the ability to accelerate to a maximal speed is key (Kugler & Janshen, 2010). However, this is as helpful of a tip as telling someone to simply run faster. So although easier said than done, there are some answers which help to explain why these athletes have the ability to run at such incredible speeds over their respective distances. 

Mo Farah PacingGreat consideration needs to be given to the technique differences between a sprinter and long distance runner. Sprinting is a combination of power and explosiveness to achieve maximal speed, with little regards to movement economy – A.K.A. how efficiently you move. Conversely, economy is a major factor for a distance runner, as they need to be efficient and have little room to waste on unnecessary vertical movements (Bushnell & Hunter, 2007).  Pacing strategies are obviously very different as well. Where a sprinter will go all out for the entire race (Debaere, 2013), a longer distance runner obviously does not have the luxury of such a simple race plan and requires more consideration towards pacing in accordance to their strengths and weaknesses.  However, this all goes out the window towards the end, when economy is sacrificed to increase stride and speed for the sprint finish (Bushnell & Hunter, 2007).  So in this instance, Farah may have a slight advantage with a pacing strategy over the semi sprint distance of 600 m. (Image taken from: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02307/mo-farah_2307758b.jpg) 

Foot striking patterns are a major area of debate in both the running community and research (Daoud et al, 2012). You’ve likely been told that forefoot striking is the best way to run – a fact that research has yet to confirm.  That being said, unless you are a sprinter or only running very short distances, you are going to have a lot of trouble (and potentially injuries) maintaining longer distances running on your toes. Mid-foot striking is actually the gait pattern that many long distance runners or ‘barefoot’ runners have recently adopted (Lieberman et al, 2010) and there is current research that has observed faster runners mid-foot striking in a race (Hasegawa et al, 2007). Which is better? They both have their pros and cons, and there isn’t one foot striking pattern that is going to work for everyone, as it will depend upon a number of variables such as: your running style, distance, mileage, biomechanics, strength, flexibility, alignment, and injury history – just to name a few. The controversial research on running injuries and foot strike patterns to date has shown us that one is not better than the other but that they are simply different (Goss & Gross, 2012; Hamill & Gruber, 2012; Kulmala et al, 2013, Paquette et al, 2013). Heel striking has been previously found to be beneficial for higher mileages, as it allows greater absorption of forces going through the body. However, sprinters are notoriously forefoot strikers, as heel striking works against them and has a tendency to increase running braking forces (Bushnell & Hunter, 2007). An editorial on running gait retraining scrutinized Alberto Salazar's (Mo Farah’s coach) decision to attempt an experiment on some of his athletes to increase their efficiency, performance and reduce risk of injury (Heiderschiet, 2011). Gait retraining has been previously used in healthcare to assist with pathologies such as neurological injury, rather than sport performance. However, research and clinical cases currently exist, which have identified biomechanical factors in relation to running that have contributed to running injuries. In agreement with previous research (Nummela et al, 2007), Heiderschiet (2011) concluded that there is unlikely one single important parameter that will be appropriate for all runners to conform to – rather it is more likely to be a collaboration of variables that make a difference. 

bolt sprintingThe biomechanical umbrella is a much larger and a more confusing field to consider, taking into account stride rate, stride length, joint angles and ground reaction forces. Research has shown that there is an optimal relationship between stride length and stride rate in correlation with speed: as speed increases, step length and cadence also increase (Mann, 1980).  Nummela et al. (2007) reported that 90% of a runner's speed is attributed to stride length and anything thereafter increases through rate. Sprinters also take longer strides, have a faster recovery of their trailing leg (Buschnell & Hunter, 2007) and spend less time in contact with the ground (Mann, 1980; Bushnell & Hunter, 2007; Nummella et al, 2007). Interestingly, this difference in contact time was shown even when they were running at similar speeds (Buschnell & Hunter, 2007), which would indicate reducing contact time is a training technique adopted specifically by sprinters. Usain Bolt has managed to disprove this theory, which although is accurate for your typical sprinter, doesn’t explain the fastest man in the world’s technique. Video analysis of Usain Bolt’s gait showed he not only takes fewer steps (41 vs. 45) than his Olympic competitors, but he has a reduced step rate (4.28 vs. 4.54), suggesting that he generates enough power behind each step to take him further, even though his limbs are moving on average slower (Beneke & Taylor, 2010). Debaere (2013) reported that longer leg length leads to longer step length and ultimately leads to faster running. With Usain Bolt towering at 1.96 m, weighing 96 kg – he definitely has a stride advantage over Mo Farah at 1.75 m, and weighing only 58 kg (Wikipedia, 2013). (Image taken from: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/dam/assets/130726195222-usainbolt-072613-single-image-cut.jpg)

Other biomechanical variations lie within joint angles. Sprinters have greater plantar flexion and less dorsiflexion at the ankle (Novacheck, 1998), greater hip flexion and greater knee flexion (Mann, 1980; Novacheck, 1998; Bushnell & Hunter, 2007). As speed increases, the centre of mass of a runner shifts forwards and downwards as a result of greater hip and knee flexion, which acts to maximize the horizontal forward propulsion (Mann 1980; Novacheck, 1998).  Bushnell & Hunter (2007) found that sprinters had 10-15 degrees greater hip flexion angles compared to distance runners, which created an advantage of longer step lengths. Ground reaction forces need to be considered as well, with a more forward vector being favorable for forward propulsion and effective acceleration (Kugler & Janshen, 2010). 

Lastly and possibly most importantly, physiological composition plays a large part in the ability of a runner to produce speed, maintain endurance, or both  An elite sprinter isn’t your everyday runner - they are physiologically different (Van Dyke, 2008). Sprinters have been found to have greater percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers (75%), allowing for greater production of force, power, and speed of movement – whereas distance runners will have greater percentage of slow twitch than fast twitch fibers (Zierath & Hawley, 2004).  Usain Bolt, again, likely takes the cake in this competition, with his greater muscle power and likely a greater number of fast twitch fibers, he has the ability to a create powerful and fast push-off with every step (Beneke & Taylor, 2010).  Utilisation of different energies is another aspect that has been researched in the running literature when comparing sprinting and distance running. Anaerobic energy resources are used at the start of any vigorous activity, which quickly diminishes and switches to oxygen requiring aerobic metabolism.  Ward-Smith (1999) proposed that running distances greater than 800 meters are mainly determined by aerobic metabolism.  This again, would technically put Mo Farah at a disadvantage, as even in his shortest distance he still mainly utilises aerobic energy. 

After this whirlwind comparison of sprinting and long distance running, over a distance of 600 meters, it is certainly going to be a close race.  Bolt has overall greater power, exceptional physique, optimal sprinting biomechanics, speed and his ability to utilise anaerobic energy systems more efficiently.  However, Farah’s recent average 100m split time for the 1,500 m race, was a mere 13.9 seconds. Farah also has the advantage of having the ability to efficiently pace for over a lap, whereas Bolt will waste energy with unnecessary vertical movements. Even as a distance runner, it is likely that Mo Farah also does speed work training to achieve his extraordinary sprint finishes – and let’s be honest, most of our sprinting times wouldn’t even compare to Mo Farah’s 10,000 m splits. However, all things considered, my personal opinion is that 600m is still short enough for Bolt to maintain a faster speed than Farah…but I’m secretly hoping that Mo will win! One thing is for certain, no one will want to miss this! 


Written By: Andrea Bachand (MSc PT, BSc Kin), Physiotherapist and Clinical Lead at Run3D

References

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