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Improve your sprint with science

by Ross Edgley
Tuesday 24th April 2012

Ross Edgley takes an entertaining look at how research could (theoretically) help to improve sprint times quite drastically

Researchers at Cambridge University have uncovered various methods by which a sprinter can improve their 100m running time by amazingly making no changes to their training regime at all. Sports Scientist John D. Barrow addresses the effects reaction times, wind conditions and air density have on a sprinters performance whilst we also look at supplements such as creatine that can enhance the body’s phoshpagen system (the body’s primary energy system involved in all short, quick, powerful movements.)

Taking Usain Bolt as a working example, John D. Barrow illustrates how, based on concrete mathematical evidence, Bolt can cut his world record from 9.58 seconds to 9.45. Firstly Bolt’s reaction time is very poor in comparison to the other leading sprinters in the world. It seems he either reacts too slow losing valuable hundredths of a second or he reacts too quickly and gets disqualified. At the moment a false start, according to the International Amateur Athletic Federation's guidelines, is when a runner reacts to the starting gun in less than one-tenth of a second since research has found that a reaction time faster than one-tenth of a second is impossible for a human, and the runner is therefore deemed to have anticipated the gun.

Perhaps the best example of this was at the IAAF Athletic World Championships in Daegu. John D. Barrow concludes, if Bolt could respond 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.

Next Barrow is quick to point out how advantageous wind conditions can help athletes improve their times. At the world championships in Berlin for example when Bolt set the record of 9.58 he was assisted by a slight 0.9m/s tailwind. Again it could be theorised the if he was 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 Barrow points out the effect air density and running at altitude can have on sprint performance, since running at altitude reduces the air density in the wind drag calculation. This was perhaps best seen at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (2240m above sea level), where significant improvements over short distances were displayed (running times for longer distances however were considerably worse in comparison since various studies show running at altitude is far harder for the body’s cardiorespiratory system.) 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.

Lastly, whilst Usain Bolt’s diet and supplement routine isn’t exactly known (other than his famous chicken nugget breakfast which made the headlines as he stormed to victory in Beijing) a lot of research and sound scientific evidence shows an athlete’s speed and strength can be enhanced considerably by supplementing the diet with Creatine. It does this by boosting the body’s production of a substance called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP.) ATP is the source of energy that ensures your muscles are able to contract effectively. It does this by undergoing a series of chemical reactions that break down Adenosine Triphosphate into Adenosine Diphosphate and it’s during this process that energy is released for exercise.

However your body only has a limited supply of ATP so you can only work at your maximum intensity for 5-7 seconds (whether sprinting or during a lift.) However when you supplement your diet with creatine, creatine enters the bloodstream and travels to our muscles to be stored as a substance called creatine phosphate, this is then used to replenish ATP stores and turn ADP back into ATP for it to be used to fuel intense bursts of activity therefore enabling you to work at a high intensity for 10-12 seconds. All of this in turn enables sprinter to reach a higher maximum speed and maintain it. Most famously during the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games, 100m sprinter Linford Christie and 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell both used creatine supplements as they won Gold. Following their success one researcher at Pennsylvania State University estimated that 80% of the athletes at the following Olympics (1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta) were supplementing their diet with creatine.

(250g of Creatine Monohydrate is available from Myprotein.com for £3.99 http://www.myprotein.com/uk/products/creatine_monohydrate)

So in conclusion, if Usain Bolt was to improve his starting reaction time, run at an event close (but under) 1000m above sea level with a permissible tailwind of 2m/s, whilst supplementing his diet with 5g of creatine a day; he could potentially run 9.40-9.45 seconds for the 100m and all without altering his training or trying even harder in the gym.


Denny, M. W (2008) ‘Limits to running speed in dogs, horses and humans.’ Journal of Experimental Biology, 28 November 2008; 211, 3836-3849
John D. Barrow (2012) ‘How Usain Bolt can run faster - effortlessly.’ Significance, 2012; 9 (2): 9 DOI: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2012.00552.x

About The Author

Ross Edgley

Sports Scientist with a BSc Degree in Sports Science from Loughborough University Ross Edgley was a Strength and Conditioning Coach at The English Institute of Sport working alongside Britain’s Olympic Physicians, Nutritionists and S&C coaches and is currently fitness and nutrition advisor to a range of celebrities, athletes and what is considered the UK’s most innovative sports nutrition company http://www.theproteinworks.com


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