Ever Faster

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SummaryResearch on Usain Bolt shows the importance of drag and leaves open the door for specialised equipment

Every time an athlete does the seemingly impossible—run faster, swim longer or jump farther, for example, than previously thought possible—scientists get very excited. Here is a rare specimen of humanity who seems to break the natural laws of human endurance; how does he do it? When swimmer Michael Phelps—who has now gone on to become the greatest Olympian in history—first began to break records, scientists found that he was naturally gifted with a body shape that enhanced his talents. Similar research was conducted on Australian swimmer Ian ‘The Thorpedo’ Thorpe and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Now, scientists have turned their gaze to sprinter Usain Bolt, the current 100m world record holder. Bolt’s record of completing the 100m sprint in 9.58 seconds was an extraordinary achievement considering the previous record was 9.74 seconds and had been reducing by only 1-5 milliseconds before Bolt’s feat. What the scientists found was extraordinary: Bolt managed to become the fastest human despite his drag coefficient (the drag per unit area of mass) being more than an average human’s. That is, he had to battle against higher wind resistance than a normal human. The scientists found that less than 8% of the energy produced by Bolt’s body was used for motion—the rest was absorbed by drag.

While the scientists haven’t pinpointed all the factors that make Bolt so fast, they have narrowed one of the causes down to his unusually large stride length—a function of long legs and an ability to stretch them while sprinting. However, underlining the importance of wind resistance in sprinting, this research begs the question: can specialised aerodynamic clothing, such as what swimmers and cyclists use, make sprinters even faster? The Olympic regulatory body banned the use of full body suits in swimming, saying they gave an unfair advantage to some, but skin-tight, specialised swimming shorts are still allowed. Why can’t similar techniques be applied to sprinting?

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