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Usain Bolt - How does he run so fast?
Usain Bolt - How does he run so fast? - blog post image

Usain Bolt, arguably the fastest man in the world, has just announced his retirement at the IAAF World Championships. It sparks the question, how does he run so fast?  

For those of you who don't know who he is (seriously?), Usain Bolt is a Jamaican Sprinter, and the most successful athlete in the World Championships. He is the world record holder for the 100m (9.58s in 2009) and 200m (19.19s in 2009) sprint times and has won gold medals in both these events in the previous 3 Olympics (2008, 2012,2016) - better known as " The Triple Double". 

Fact: Usain held the "Triple Triple" title last year, as he also contributed to 3 gold medal wins in the 4x100m relay's. However, his team was stripped of one of these medals from the 2008 Olympics earlier this year after a team mate was found guilty of doping. 

So what makes a sprinter fast? Is it in their genes? Is it running technique?


The answer is that it is all of those things, plus more. These are three headings you could group them under:

  • Running Technique
  • Physiological Variables
  • Biomechanics
 
Running Technique


Reaction time is defined by the sound of the starters gun to the moment of pressure against the starting block. You would assume that this is a very crucial aspect to sprinting - and for the most part it does affect your overall time. However, according to Mero et al  (1992), there is no correlation to reaction time and performance. Usain Bolt is actually known for being 'slow' off the block, believe it or not. But where he lacks his initial reaction speed, he makes up later. 

Sprinting economy is very different than distance running economy. In fact, a sprinters economy is almost completely thrown out the window in order to achieve the optimal amount of power and explosiveness for maximal speed ( Bushnell & Hunter, 2007). 

Pacing strategies - Over an 800m race, possibly even 400m, pacing would be a factor considered to achieve the most efficient usage of energy to cover the distance as fast as possible, without burning out. For the 100m and 200m events however, there just isn't enough time, and sprinters must go all out for the entire distance ( Debaere, 2013). 

Foot-strike - needless to say, sprinters very rarely land on their heels. Especially in the shorter distances, you are more likely to see forefoot striking or perhaps a mid-foot strike. 

Sprinting Form - What is the optimal form for a sprinter? Can we all learn how to run like Usain Bolt? ...unlikely.


Runners world produced an article a few years ago on how to mimic Usain Bolts running technique - but actually in the end that wasn't the case. According to his coach, Usains technique isn't perfect. This makes sense ( to us at least), as it unlikely that the fastest man in the world is going to run "just like everyone else"...

Here are some general sprinting tips on sprinting form from "Running with Us" coach Nick Anderson, as suggested by the Runners World article: 

  • Shoulder down and relaxed
  • Head upright and in line with the body
  • shoulders straight 
  • avoid lateral rotations ( Usain does this a lot)
  • Run tall with a strong core
  • push knees forwards and high for greater power
  • Longer strides cover more distance
  • Lift toes upwards towards the shins
  • Land on your mid-foot underneath your body
  • Arms should be relaxed and loose at right angles
  • Pump the hands up to should level to drive forward
  • heels should travel in high arcs off the floor and nearly kicking your own bottom, before circling round through to the front. 
 
Physiological Variables 


Physiology composition plays a large part in the ability of a runner to produce speed, maintain endurance, or both (Van Dyke, 2008). Sprinters are found to have:

  • Greater percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers (75%)
    • this allows for greater production of force, power and speed of movement
  • Anaerobic energy resources
    • used at the start of any vigorous activity, it quickly diminishes and switches to slower oxygen requiring metabolism
 

Usain Bolt takes the cake here, with his muscle power and likely large percentage of fast twich fibers and therefore anaerobic capacity, he has the ability ot create powerful and fast push-off with every step ( Beneke & Taylor, 2010). 

 

Biomechanics



We saved the best for last. 

  • Stride rate
  • Stride length
  • joint angles
  • ground reaction force
 

There is an optimal relationship between stride length and stride rate to produce speed. As speed increases, step length and cadence also increase ( Mann, 1980). Nummela et al  (2007), reported that 90% of a runners speed is attributed to stride length, and anything thereafter increases through rate. 

Sprinters also take longer strides, have a faster recovery of the trailing leg (Buschnell & Hunter, 2007) and spend less time in contact with the ground ( Mann, 1980; Bushnell & Hunter 2007). 

HOWEVER, Usain Bolt isn't your typical sprinter. Video analysis of Usain Bolt's gait showed that he not only takes fewer steps (41 vs 45) than his 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).  His longer leg length leads to longer step length and therefore greater speed (Debaere, 2013). With Usain Bolt towering at 1.96m, and weighing 96 kg, he has a stride advantage over his smaller competitors. 

Joint Angles are another biomechanical variable to consider. Sprtiners have greater plantar flexion and less dorsiflexion at the ankle, as well as,  greater hip flexion and greater knee flexion ( Novacheck 1998, Man 1980, Bushnell &Hunter, 2007). As speed increases, the center 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 ( 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 can't go without a mention here. A more forward vector being favorable for forward propulsion and effective acceleration ( Kugler & Janshen, 2010). 

In a nutshell, Usain Bolt is fast, not because he has the perfect form, but because he's actually different than his competitors.  He has managed to optimize how he moves to his height and weight to perfect his running speed. According to his coaches, his technique isn't great, he has a lot of lateral movements, and is slow out of the blocks. That all may be true, but he still did pretty well, considering!! 

 

References:

 

Beneke, R., & Taylor, M. 2010, “What gives Bolt the edge – A.V. hill knew it already!”, Journal of Biomechanics, Vol. 43, pp. 2241-2243.

Bushnell, T. & Hunter, I. 2007, “ Differences in technique between sprinters and distance runners at equal and maximal speeds”, Sport Biomechanics, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 261-268.

Debaere, S., Jonkers, I., & Delecluse, C. 2013, “ The contribution of step characteristics to sprint running performance in high level male and female athletes”, Journal of strength and conditioning research, Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 116-124.

 

Heiderscheit, B. 2011, “Gait retraining for runners: in search of the ideal”, Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, Vol. 41, No. 12. Pp. 909- 910.

Hunter, J., Marshall, R., & McNair, P. 2004, “Interaction of step length and step rate during sprint running”, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 261-271.

 

Mann, R. 1980, “ Biomechanics of walking, running and sprinting”, Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 8., No. 5, Pp. 345-350.

Mero, A., Komi, P., & Gregor, R. 1992, “Biomechanics of Sprint Running”, Sports Medicine, Vol. 13, No.6, pp. 376-392.

Novacheck, T. 1998, “The Biomechanics of running”, Gait and Posture, Vol. 7, pp. 77-95.

Nummela, A., Keranen, T., & Mikkelson, L. 2007, “Factors related to top running speed and economy”, International Journal of sports Medicine, pp. 1-7.

 


Ward-Smith, A. 1999, “The bioenergetics of optimal performance in middle-distance and long distance track running”, Journal of Biomechanics, Vol. 32, Pp. 461-465.

Wikipedia. 2013, Mo Farah, [online]. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mo_Farah [Accessed August 21, 2013].

Van Dyke, D. 2008, “How fast can humans go?”, Times: Science & Space, [online]. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1835420,00.html [Accessed August 21, 2013].



 


 


 


 

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