Research: The speed secrets of super sprinters

sprinting

Research: The speed secrets of super sprinters

The world’s fastest sprinters have unique gait features that account for their ability to achieve fast speeds, according to two new studies from SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

The new findings indicate that the secret to elite sprinting speeds lies in the distinct limb dynamics sprinters use to elevate ground forces upon foot-ground impact.

“Our new studies show that these elite sprinters don’t use their legs to just bounce off the ground as most other runners do,” said human biomechanics expert Ken Clark, a researcher in the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory and lead author on the studies. “The top sprinters have developed a wind-up and delivery mechanism to augment impact forces. Other runners do not do so.”

The new findings address a major performance question that has remained unanswered for more than a decade. Previous studies had established that faster runners attain faster speeds by hitting the ground more forcefully than other runners do in relation to their body weight. However, how faster runners are able to do this was fully unknown. That sparked considerable debate and uncertainty about the best strategies for athletes to enhance ground-force application and speed.

“Elite speed athletes have a running pattern that is distinct,” Clark said. “Our data indicate the fastest sprinters each have identified the same solution for maximizing speed, which strongly implies that when you put the physics and the biology together, there’s only one way to sprint really fast.”

The critical and distinctive gait features identified by the study’s authors occur as the lower limb approaches and impacts the ground, said study co-author and running mechanics expert Peter Weyand, director of the Locomotor Performance Lab.

“We found that the fastest athletes all do the same thing to apply the greater forces needed to attain faster speeds,” Weyand said. “They cock the knee high before driving the foot into the ground, while maintaining a stiff ankle. These actions elevate ground forces by stopping the lower leg abruptly upon impact.”

The new research indicates that the fastest runners decelerate their foot and ankle in just over two-hundredths of a second after initial contact with the ground.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology in the article, “Are running speeds maximized with simple-spring stance mechanics?” It appears online at Physiology.org in advance of appearing in the print journal.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

September 18, 2014|Faculty in the News, Research, Year of the Faculty|

Research Spotlight: Breaking the human speed limit

SMU sprinter Ebony CuingtonJamaican sprinter Usain Bolt‘s record-setting performances have unleashed a wave of interest in the ultimate limits to human running speed. A new study published Jan. 21, 2010, in the Journal of Applied Physiology offers intriguing insights into the biology and perhaps even the future of human running speed.

The newly published evidence identifies the critical variable imposing the biological limit to running speed, and offers an enticing view of how the biological limits might be pushed back beyond the nearly 28 miles per hour speeds achieved by Bolt to speeds of perhaps 35 or even 40 miles per hour.

The new paper, “The biological limits to running speed are imposed from the ground up,” was authored by Peter Weyand of SMU; Rosalind Sandell and Danille Prime, both formerly of Rice University; and Matthew Bundle of the University of Wyoming.

“The prevailing view that speed is limited by the force with which the limbs can strike the running surface is an eminently reasonable one,” says Weyand, associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

“If one considers that elite sprinters can apply peak forces of 800 to 1,000 pounds with a single limb during each sprinting step, it’s easy to believe that runners are probably operating at or near the force limits of their muscles and limbs,” he says. “However, our new data clearly show that this is not the case. Despite how large the running forces can be, we found that the limbs are capable of applying much greater ground forces than those present during top-speed forward running.”

The researchers found that the critical biological limit is actually imposed by time – specifically, the very brief periods of time available to apply force to the ground while sprinting. In elite sprinters, foot-ground contact times are less than one-tenth of one second, and peak ground forces occur within less than one-twentieth of one second of the first instant of foot-ground contact.

The researchers used a high-speed treadmill capable of attaining speeds greater than 40 miles per hour and of acquiring precise measurements of the forces applied to the surface with each footfall. They also had subjects perform at high speeds in different gaits. In addition to completing traditional top-speed forward running tests, subjects hopped on one leg and ran backward to their fastest possible speeds on the treadmill.

The unconventional tests were selected to examine the prevailing belief that human running speed is limited by how forcefully a runner’s limbs can strike the ground. However, the researchers found that the ground forces applied while hopping on one leg at top speed exceeded those applied during top-speed forward running by 30 percent or more, and that the forces generated by the active muscles within the limb were roughly 1.5 to 2 times greater in the one-legged hopping gait.

The new work shows that running speed limits are set by the contractile speed limits of the muscle fibers themselves, with fiber contractile speeds setting the limit on how quickly the runner’s limb can apply force to the running surface, the researchers say.

Read more and review international press coverage at the SMU Research blog

(Above, sophomore sprinter Ebony Cuington of SMU’s track and field team.)

January 26, 2010|Research|
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