How Usain Bolt Can Run Faster – Effortlessly

Usain Bolt can achieve faster running times with no extra effort on his part or improvement to his fitness, according to a study published today in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association. Cambridge Professor of Mathematical Sciences John D. Barrow illustrates how, based on concrete mathematical evidence, Bolt can cut his world record from 9.58 seconds to 9.45.

Usain Bolt holds the current 100m world record, at 9.58s, and has been described as the best sprinter there has ever been, dramatically reducing his running times since he first won the world record in 2008. Previous scientific studies have been carried out aiming to predict his maximum speed, yet have failed to take all the relevant factors into account, and Bolt has already surpassed the speeds they predicted.

Today’s Significance study highlights the three key factors instrumental in improving Bolt’s performance, which combined produce an improvement of 0.13s.

Firstly, Bolt’s reaction time is surprisingly poor, in fact one of the longest of leading sprinters. By responding to the gun as quickly as possible without triggering a false start, with 0.10s, he would shave 0.05s off his world record to 9.53s.

Secondly, advantageous wind conditions can help athletes improve their times, although this is supposedly taken into account. Bolt’s Berlin record of 9.58s benefitted from a modest 0.9m/s tailwind. If he were to benefit from a maximum permissible tailwind of 2m/s, he would expend less effort on beating wind drag and reduce this record further by 0.05s to 9.48s.

Thirdly, running at altitude reduces the air density in the wind drag calculation, as was witnessed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (2240m above sea level), where significant improvements over short distances were displayed (although for longer distances the altitude makes running more difficult). As a result, athletics world records are only permitted at altitudes of up to 1000m, but this still allows Bolt to reduce his time by a further 0.03s to 9.45s if he runs at this altitude.

“With the relatively big chunks we’ve seen Bolt take out of world records, we are still a long way from understanding the limits of his, and others’, sprinting speeds,” said Professor Barrow. “What this study serves to illustrate is the insight maths can give into sports performance, which has not been done previously to such a degree of accuracy.”


This study is published in the April issue of Significance. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article may contact physicalsciencenews@wiley.com.

Full citation:: Barrow JD; How Usain Bolt can run faster – effortlessly; Significance (2012); DOI: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2012.00552.x
URL: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2012.00552.x

About the Author: John D Barrow is Professor of Mathematical Sciences and Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge University. He is the current Gresham Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London. He took his first degree in maths and physics, which was followed by further postgraduate degrees in astrophysics (Oxford) and astronomy (Berkeley). Dr Barrow is the recipient of numerous prestigious international awards including the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize in 2008, and the 2006 Templeton Prize, and is a prolific and internationally renowned author of books and journal articles. Having previously competed seriously in track athletics, Dr. Barrow has a strong interest in the insights from maths into sports performance.

About the Journal:
Significance is a bi-monthly magazine for anyone interested in statistics and the analysis and interpretation of data. Its aim is to communicate and demonstrate in an entertaining, thought-provoking and non-technical way the practical use of statistics in all walks of life, and to show informatively and authoritatively how statistics benefit society. It is published on behalf of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.

About the Royal Statistical Society:
The Royal Statistical Society is the UK's only professional and learned society devoted to the interests of statistics and statisticians. It is also one of the most influential and prestigious statistical societies in the world. The Society has an international membership, and is active in a wide range of areas both directly and indirectly pertaining to the study and application of statistics. For more information please visit http://www.rss.org.uk.

About the American Statistical Association:
The American Statistical Association is the world’s largest community of statisticians. The ASA supports excellence in the development, application, and dissemination of statistical science through meetings, publications, membership services, education, accreditation, and advocacy. Our members serve in industry, government, and academia in more than 90 countries, advancing research and promoting sound statistical practice to inform public policy and improve human welfare. For more information, please visit www.amstat.org.

About Wiley-Blackwell:
Wiley-Blackwell is the international scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, with strengths in every major academic and professional field and partnerships with many of the world’s leading societies. Wiley-Blackwell publishes nearly 1,500 peer-reviewed journals and 1,500+ new books annually in print and online, as well as databases, major reference works and laboratory protocols. For more information, please visit www.wileyblackwell.com or our online platform, Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com), one of the world’s most extensive multidisciplinary collections of online resources, covering life, health, social and physical sciences, and humanities.