How Usain Bolt could have run even faster.
Slate online magazine journalist Adam Willis covered the research of SMU biomechanics expert Peter Weyand and his colleagues Andrew Udofa and Laurence Ryan for a story about the world’s fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, and whether he could possibly run even faster with different form.
The article, “Making the Perfect Sprinter More Perfect,” published Aug. 4, 2017.
Weyand, who leads the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory, is an expert on human locomotion and the mechanics of running. In his most recently published research, Weyand was part of a team that developed a concise approach to understanding the mechanics of human running. The research has immediate application for running performance, injury prevention, rehab and the individualized design of running shoes, orthotics and prostheses. Called the two-mass model, the work integrates classic physics and human anatomy to link the motion of individual runners to their patterns of force application on the ground — during jogging, sprinting and at all speeds in between.
His lab also reported in June that world champion sprinter Usain Bolt may have an asymmetrical running gait. While not noticeable to the naked eye, Bolt’s potential asymmetry emerged after the researchers dissected race video to assess his pattern of ground-force application — literally how hard and fast each foot hits the ground. To do so they measured the “impulse” for each foot.
Udofa presented the findings at the 35th International Conference on Biomechanics in Sport in Cologne, Germany. His presentation, “Ground Reaction Forces During Competitive Track Events: A Motion Based Assessment Method,” was delivered June 18.
The analysis thus far suggests that Bolt’s mechanics may vary between his left leg to his right. The existence of an unexpected and potentially significant asymmetry in the fastest human runner ever would help scientists better understand the basis of maximal running speeds. Running experts generally assume asymmetry impairs performance and slows runners down.
Udofa has said the observations raise the immediate scientific question of whether a lack of symmetry represents a personal mechanical optimization that makes Bolt the fastest sprinter ever or exists for reasons yet to be identified.
Weyand also has been widely interviewed in years past on the controversy surrounding double-amputee South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Weyand co-led a team of scientists who are experts in biomechanics and physiology in conducting experiments on Pistorius and the mechanics of his racing ability.
Weyand, who is Glenn Simmons Professor of Applied Physiology and professor of biomechanics in the Department of Applied Physiology & Wellness in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development, is director of the Locomotor Lab.
The researchers described the two-mass model earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Biology in their article, “A general relationship links gait mechanics and running ground reaction forces.” It’s available at bitly, http://bit.ly/2jKUCSq.
By Adam Willis
Usain Bolt is the only person to win both the 100 and 200 meters at three Olympic games. He is also the only person to do this at two Olympic games. Bolt has broken five individual outdoor track and field world records, three of them his own. He has run three of the five fastest 100-meter races and four of the six fastest 200-meter races in history. As Bolt gets set for the World Athletics Championships in London, the final meet of his beyond-illustrious career, we should be grateful for all the memorable moments the world’s fastest man has given us. We should also be ingrates and ask: Could he have run faster?
Bolt has an uncanny knack for making the incredibly difficult look easy—like Muhammad Ali coming off the ropes, like Westley fencing with his left hand, like James Joyce writing Ulysses from Paris. It’s only natural to wonder, then, if he could have done more. His midrace celebrations, his apparent aversion for practice and affinity for parties, his less than sensible diet—he reportedly ate 1,000 Chicken McNuggets in 10 days during the Beijing Olympics—all suggest history’s greatest sprinter might’ve had a little bit more in the tank.
After Bolt breezed to a 9.69 world record in the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics, jogging and chest thumping across the finish line just days before his 22nd birthday, his coach Glen Mills made headlines with his claim that Bolt would have hit 9.52, at worst, if he had just run through the line. Scientists took on the task of projecting the time that might have been, with most concluding that 9.52 was, at best, a slight exaggeration. Bolt, though, made that claim look less sensational when he tore through his own world records at the world championships in Berlin a year later, posting 9.58 in the 100 and 19.19 in the 200. Still, Bolt would never reach the 9.52 that Mills estimated, nor, for that matter, the 9.4 that he himself predicted. He would never best those world records that he set in Berlin, when he was not yet 23 years old.
“We haven’t seen the 2009 Bolt since 2009,” says Peter Weyand, the director of the Locomotor Performance Laboratory at Southern Methodist University and a leading expert on the science of sprinting. When I asked Weyand about Bolt’s early peak, he told me that, although 22 or 23 is not an unusual age for a sprinter to top out, he would have predicted more after Bolt’s 2009 performances.
While recent research from Weyand’s lab concluded that Bolt’s stride is abnormally asymmetric, Weyand says it’s unlikely this asymmetry held Bolt back in any way. He does point, however, to several aspects of Bolt’s form that are considered unorthodox and potentially suboptimal.