Usain Bolt has recently said in a BBC interview that he is hopeful of running the 100 metres at the London Olympics this summer in 9.4 seconds http://bbc.in/IN8PGn
Such a run would smash the current world record, and this exciting prospect set me to wondering what limits there actually are to human speed, and just how far we can push them (when I say we I mean men like Bolt, of course!).
In 1912 the American Don Lippincott established an official world record for the 100 metres of 10.6 seconds; 100 years later, Bolt has moved the record on to 9.58 (and if you look at the Youtube video of him achieving this time in Berlin, it’s pretty clear that he’s characteristically not running his absolute fastest at the end, so 9.4 certainly looks possible. http://bit.ly/bSQdp
The physiology of speed is science rather than social science territory, but the whole question of what we can ultimately achieve is endlessly fascinating, mainly because there’s a tantalising element of psychology mixed up in it. In other words, what we can do is often strongly linked to our expectations, which are infinite.
In the early days of women’s running all sorts of dire predictions about endurance racing gained currency, with the result that most of the women who ran the 800 metres in 1928 collapsed at the end, overcome by their inculcated ideas about what was physically possible. Watching Kenyan runner Mary Keitany storm home in the London marathon in 2.18.37 showed that those days really are over, and the women’s 100 metre record now stands at 10.49, which would easily have won the men’s event in 1912. Advanced training methods, better nutrition and expectations have had their inevitable effects.
There has been quite a lot of research done on the limits of human speed, and physiologists are more prepared to pronounce on this aspect of athletics than that of endurance running, the limits of which seem to be rapidly disappearing into the distance along with its practitioners themselves. Speed is obviously a different matter: world records in the 100 metres go down by hundredths of seconds and improvements have been slowing down over time, suggesting that the limit to human speed is relatively close. A perfect start, lack of wind resistance, peak form, a good attitude and tough competition also have to combine to create the world record, and this combination isn’t always present.
A number of scientists, such as John Einmahl, Sander Smeets, Peter Weyand and John Hutchinson, have been looking at the question, and think that performance enhancing developments - not drugs, but legal enhancements like improved shoes and track surfaces - might be the key factors now in pushing back the barriers. However, these might fall foul of regulations similar to those which now prohibit swimming competitors from wearing special swimsuits. This again raises the issue of which technological advances should be approved and which not. So, more headaches for the IOC.
J R Hutchinson
‘Biomechanical modelling and sensitivity analysis of bipedal running ability. 1. Extant taxa’ in Journal of morphology. Vol 262, no 1: 2004, 421-440
Lending collections shelfmark: 5021.000000.
J H Einmahl; J H Smeets
‘Ultimate 100-m world records through extreme value theory’ in Statistica Neerlandica. Vol 65, no 1, 2011, 32-42
Lending collections shelfmark: 8447.390000.
P G Weyand et al.
‘The biological limits to running speed are imposed from the ground up’ in Journal of applied physiology. Vol 108, no 4, 2010, 950-961
Lending collections shelfmark: 4946.000000.