How Fast Can Fast Get?

Running and swimming records are broken again and again at almost every international athletics event. But, can human performance continue to improve indefinitely? Will runners continue to accelerate off the starting blocks and reach the finish line in faster and faster times? Will swimmers always be able to dive into the record books with a quicker kick?

Writing in the International Journal of Applied Management Science, researchers from South Korea have analyzed data from sports events over the last one hundred years and have calculated that we could reach the upper limits on elite human performance within a decade.

Yu Sang Chang and Seung Jin Baek of the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul used non-linear regression models to accurately extrapolate the data from 61 running and swimming events. They have found the "time to limit" to be somewhere between 7.5 and 10.5 years. So, we may still see records being broken at the 2012 Olympics in London and perhaps at Rio 2016, but after that...who knows? The researchers believe their discovery of a "time to limit" has a number of policy implications for the local and national sport associations as well as for the international rule-setting federations.

Of course, US swimmer, Michael Phelps famously proclaimed that, "You can't put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get." Phelps has set around 40 world records. Sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, similarly shaves split seconds from his 100-metre time almost every time he runs. Countless researchers have previously suggested that humans have a performance limit, Bolt's 9.58 second 100m shattered the previous theoretical running speed limit of 9.60s suggested 40 years ago.

"The limit of speed in sport events has been a popular topic for the public because watching athletes setting new records to win is exciting and stimulating for many sport fans," Chang and Baek suggest. "In addition, setting new world records may even be inspiring to the public because the process of improving and winning the competition reminds them of what they can accomplish in their own life."

Other researchers have criticized the use of linear regression to extrapolate to a limit. However, the present work uses the officially recognized world records on 61 sporting events during the period from 1900 to 2009. (29 running and 32 swimming events all at the Olympic level. "Therefore, this study may be the most comprehensive study undertaken so far," the researchers say.

Their statistical analysis suggests that improvements in running and swimming are slowing down and will eventually reach a maximum in the time period they suggest. However, their analysis does not take into account changes in the rules, measurements, and environmental conditions. If the governing federations move the starting blocks as it were, Phelps' prediction that there are no limits may come true and athletes will continue to make a splash in the record books indefinitely.

Source:  Inderscience Publishers  and Yu Sang Chang, Seung Jin Baek. Limit to improvement in running and swimming. International Journal of Applied Management Science, 2011; 3: 97-120

See also: The Fastest Man On No Legs and Usain Bolt Can Be Even Faster, Researchers Claim

The Physiology Of Speed

Usain Bolt, the triple Olympic gold medal sprinter from Jamaica, predicted last week that he could break his own world record of 9.69 seconds in the 100 meter sprint with a time as low as 9.54 seconds.  (8/15 update: he came very close running a 9.58 at the World Championships in Berlin.)

He claimed his coach told him its possible, so he believes him. His coach, Glen Mills, may have just finished reading some new research coming out of Duke University that showed sprinters and swimmers who are taller, heavier but more slender are the ones breaking world records.

At first glance, it may not make sense that bigger athletes would be faster. However, Jordan Charles, a recent engineering grad at Duke, plotted all of the world record holders in the 100 meter sprint and the 100 meter swim since 1900 against their height, weight and a measurement he called "slenderness."

World record sprinters have gained an average of 6.4 inches in height since 1900, while champion swimmers have shot up 4.5 inches, compared to the mere mortal average height gain of 1.9 inches.
During the same time, about 7/10 of a second have been shaved off of the 100-meter sprint while over 14 seconds have come off the 100-meter swim record.

What's going on
Charles applied the "constructal theory" he learned from his mentor Adrian Bejan, a mechanical engineering professor at Duke, that describes how objects move through their environment.

"Anything that moves, or anything that flows, must evolve so that it flows more and more easily," Bejan said. "Nature wants to find a smoother path, to flow more easily, to find a path with less resistance," he said. "The animal design never gets there, but it tries to be the least imperfect that it can be."

Their research is reported in the current online edition of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

For locomotion, a human needs to overcome two forces, gravity and friction. First, an athlete would need to lift his foot off the ground or keep his body at the water line without sinking. Second, air resistance for the sprinter and water resistance for the swimmer will limit speed.

So, the first step is actually weight lifting, which a bigger, stronger athlete will excel at. The second step is to move through the space with the least friction, which emphasizes the new slenderness factor.

By comparing height with a calculated "width" of the athlete, slenderness is a measurement of mass spread out over a long frame. The athlete that can build on more muscle mass over a aerodynamic frame will have the advantage.

The numbers
In swimming, legendary Hawaiian champion Duke Kahanamoku set the world record in 1912 with a time of 61.6 seconds with a calculated slenderness of 7.88. Some 96 years later, Eamon Sullivan lowered the world mark to 47.05 seconds at a slenderness factor of 8.29.

As the athletes’ slenderness factor has risen over the years, the winning times have dropped.  In 1929, Eddie Tolan's world-record 100 meter sprint of 10.4 seconds was achieved with a slenderness factor of 7.61. When Usain Bolt ran 9.69 seconds in the 2008 Olympics, his slenderness was also 8.29 while also being the tallest champion in history at 6-feet 5-inches.

“The trends revealed by our analysis suggest that speed records will continue to be dominated by heavier and taller athletes,” said Charles. “We believe that this is due to the constructal rules of animal locomotion and not the contemporary increase in the average size of humans.”

So, how fast did the original Olympians run? Charles used an anthropology finding for Greek and Roman body mass and plugged it into his formula.

“In antiquity, body weights were roughly 70 percent of what they are today,” Charles said. “Using our theory, a 100-meter dash that is won in 13 seconds would have taken about 14 seconds back then.”
Bolt puts his prediction to the test next month at the track and field world championships in Berlin. One of his main competitors is Asafa Powell, the previous world record holder, who is shorter and has a slenderness factor of 7.85. My money is on the Lightning Bolt.