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

Racial Physiology Differences Determine Race Performances

In the record books, the swiftest sprinters tend to be of West African ancestry and the faster swimmers tend to be white.  A study of the winning times by elite athletes over the past 100 years reveals two distinct trends: not only are these athletes getting faster over time, but there is a clear divide between racers in terms of body type and race.

Last year, a Duke University engineer explained the first trend -- athletes are getting faster because they are getting bigger. Adrian Bejan, professor of engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, now believes he can explain the second trend.

In a paper published online in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics, Bejan, and co-authors Edward Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University currently teaching at Howard University, and Duke graduate Jordan Charles, argue that the answer lies in athletes' centers of gravity. That center tends to be located higher on the body of blacks than whites. The researchers believe that these differences are not racial, but rather biological.

"There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites," said Jones, who specializes in adolescent obesity, nutrition and anthropometry, the study of body composition. "These are real patterns being described here -- whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian -- most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa."

Swimmers, Jones said, tend to come from Europe, and therefore tend to be white. He also pointed out that there are cultural factors at play as well, such as a lack of access to swimming pools to those of lower socioeconomic status.

It all comes down to body makeup, not race, Jones and Bejan said.

"Blacks tend to have longer limbs with smaller circumferences, meaning that their centers of gravity are higher compared to whites of the same height," Bejan said. "Asians and whites tend to have longer torsos, so their centers of gravity are lower."

Jordan Charles (L) and Adrian Bejan
Duke University

Bejan and Jones cite past studies of the human body which found that on average, the center of gravity is about three percent higher in blacks than whites. Using this difference in body types, the researchers calculated that black sprinters are 1.5 percent faster than whites, while whites have the same advantage over blacks in the water. The difference might seem small, Bejan said, but not when considering that world records in sprinting and swimming are typically broken by fractions of seconds.

The center of gravity for an Asian is even more advantageous to swimming than for a white, but because they tend not to be as tall, they are not setting records, Bejan said.

"Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward," Bejan said. "Body mass falls forward, then rises again. Mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster. In running, the altitude is set by the location of the center of gravity. For the fastest swimmers, longer torsos allow the body to fall forward farther, riding the larger and faster wave."

The researchers said this evolution of body types and increased speeds can be predicted by the constructal theory, a theory of natural design developed by Bejan that explains such diverse phenomena as river basin formation and basis of animal locomotion (

Jones said that the differences in body densities between blacks and whites are well-documented, which helps explain other health differences, such as the observation that black women have a lower incidence of osteoporosis than white women because of the increased density of their bones.

Jones notes that cultural issues can play a role in which form of athletic competition someone chooses, and therefore might excel in.

"When I grew up in South Carolina, we were discouraged from swimming," said Jones, who is black. "There wasn't nearly as much encouragement for us as young people to swim as there was for playing football or basketball. With the right encouragement, this doesn't always have to be the case -- just look at the Williams sisters in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf."

Source: Duke University and The Evolution of Speed in Athletics, Int. Journal of Design & Nature. Vol. 5, No. 0 (2010) 1–13

See also: The Physiology Of Speed and The Fastest Man On No Legs

Usain Bolt Can Be Even Faster, Researchers Claim

Well, maybe Usain Bolt was right after all.  As discussed in our Physiology of Speed story, Bolt predicted he could run 100 meters in 9.54 seconds, lowering his own world record of 9.69 seconds.

Earlier this week, he almost got there running a 9.58 at the World Championships in Berlin.

Now, researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands say he could shave another 3/100ths of a second off and hit the tape at 9.51 seconds.

Using the "extreme value theory", Professor of Statistics John Einmahl and former student Sander Smeets have calculated the fastest possible times for men and women.  Between 1991 and 2008, they chronicled the best times for 762 male sprinters and 469 female sprinters.  They did not trust the data prior to 1991 as possibly being tainted by doping athletes (not that's its gotten much better since then.)

For females, their current world record, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner, of 10.49 seconds could be theoretically lowered to 10.33 seconds.

Extreme value theory is a branch of statistics that tries to predict extreme events such as 100-year floods or major stock market movements that deviate signficantly from the median.  With less statistical confidence (95% confidence), Einmahl estimates the men could get to 9.21 while the women could run a 9.88.

To make this statistical postulating a reality, Bolt needs to find the secret competitive edge that will shave these tenths and hundredths of seconds away. Scientists at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology in Austria claim sunflower oil may be the super fuel that is missing.

They found that mice fed a diet high in sunflower oil, which contains n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, were 6.3% faster in sprint races against mice fed a diet rich in linseed oil, which is high in n-3 fatty acids.

Their research was presented in June at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting.

"The results of the current study on mice suggest that moderate differences in dietary n-6/n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake can have a biologically meaningful effect on maximum running speed", says Dr Christopher Turbill, lead researcher. "The application of this research to the performance of elite athletes (specifically those in sports that involve short distance sprints, including cycling) is uncertain, but in my opinion certainly deserves some further attention" he said.

So, a little sunflower oil mixed into the pre-race Gatorade? It might work until world records start to fall and its added to the banned substance list.

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.