Usain Bolt, a Jamacian sprinter, is the most successful athlete in the World Championships over 100m. He is currently still the world record holder for 100m (9.58s in 2009) and 200m (19.19s in 2009) sprint times and has won gold medals in both events over 3 Olympic games (2008,2012,2016) - which is known as the "The Triple Double".
What makes a sprinter, like Usain, so fast? ...And can you do it too?
There is clearly a very niche person who is able to move that quickly - it ultimately comes down to three things:
- Running Technique
- Physiological Variables
- Running Biomechanics
In the most simplified terms, running is essentially putting one foot in front of the other (Napier, 2020). However, a sprinter needs to be able to do this quickly and efficiently, and for those two things you need a few more techniques under your belt.
Reaction time for a sprinter is marked by the sound of the starters gun to the moment of pressure against the starting block. This is typically thought of to be a very crucial aspect to sprinting, as it will effect your over time. However, according to Mero et al (1992), there is no correlation to reaction time and performance. Usain Bolt is well known for being one of the slow sprinters off the block. But where he lacks in his initial reaction speed, he clearly makes up for later.
Running Economy is the energy demand required for a given running speed. Sprinting economy, unlike that for a distance runner, is sacrificed at all costs in order to achieve the optimal amount of power and explosiveness to achieve the maximal speed (Bushnell & Hunter 200&).
Pacing Strategies - this is a factor which is considered over long distances, such as the 400m or 800m to achieve the most efficnet usage of energy to cover the distance as fast as possible, without burning out before the finish line. However, for 100m and 200m events, there just isn't enough time to pace and sprinters must go all out for the entire distance (Debaere, 2013).
Foot-strike - Sprinters very rarely land on their heels. Especially in the shorter distances like the 100m, you are more likely to see forefoot striking or sometimes a mid-foot strike as these positions are most powerful.
Sprinting form - In 2011, runners world came out with an article on how to mimic usain bolts running technique to be a faster runner. However, according to his coach at the time, Usains' technique isn't perfect, and he has room for improvement. Keep in mind, the fastest man in the world isn't going to run just like everyone else. Nonetheless, here are their main tips on how to try:
- Shoulders down and relaxed
- Head upright and in line with the body
- Shoulders straight
- Avoid lateral rotations ( apparently usain does this a lot)
- Run tall with a strong core
- Push knees forwards and high for greater power
- 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 shoulder level to drive them forwards
- Heels should travel in high arcs off the floor and nearly be kicking your bottom, before circling around through to the front.
We won't go into the nitty gritty details of this section as we'd be here all day. Here are some main points to consider.
Physiology compition plays a large part in the ability of a runner to produce speed, maintaing endurance, or both ( Van Dyke, 2008). Sprinters have been 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 dimishes and switches to slower oxygen requiring metabolism.
Usain Bolt takes the cake here. The combination of a likely large percentage of fast twitch fibres and phenomical anaerobic capacity, he has the the ability to create a powerful and fast push off with every step ( Beneke & Taylor, 2010).
We saved the best for last. Again, a very complicated subject that we can simplify to make a point. First of all, what is biomechanics?
Biomechanics is the study of forces and movements of the body during running - also known as "running form". ( Napier, 2020).
To put it simply, it's how you move when you run. Here are four main factors which determine your running form:
- Stride Rate
- Stride Length
- Joint Angles ( for example: Ankle dorisflexion, knee flexion/ extension, hip abduction, etc).
- Ground Reaction force
Stride Rate & Length
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, and even though some of these suggestions will work for most people, it will of course depend on the other factors that are intertwined with it, such as your physiology. Video analysis of Bolt's gait showed that he not only takes fewer steps (41 vs. 45) than his competitors, but he also has a reduced step rate (4.28 vs 4.54). This suggests 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. Sprinters have greater plantar flexion and less dorsiflexion at the ankle, as well as greater hip flexion and greater knee flexion ( Novacheck 1998, Mann 1980, 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 maximise 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 favourable for forward propulsion and effective acceleration ( Kugler & Janshen, 2010).
In a nutshell, Usain Bolt is fast, not because he has great form, but because has managed to optimise how he moves to his height and weight to perfect his running speed. According to his coaches, "his technique isn't the best, he has a lot of lateral movements, and is slow out of the blocks". That being said, he has managed to tune into his physiological and biomechanical strengths to makeup for some of the technique flaws.
So to answer the question– can you run like Usain Bolt?
We won’t say definitely not, but we hope that you have a few physiological advantages and biomechanical strengths to help you!
- 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.
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