Human running speeds of 35 to 40 mph may be biologically possible, concludes a new study.
Such a feat would leave in the dust the world’s fastest runner, Usain Bolt, who has clocked nearly 28 mph in the 100-meter sprint. Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the study offers intriguing insights into the biology and perhaps even the future of human running speed. The newly published evidence identifies the critical variable imposing the biological limit to running speed.
The new paper, “The biological limits to running speed are imposed from the ground up,” was authored by Peter Weyand of Southern Methodist University, Rosalind Sandell and Danille Prime, both formerly of Rice University; and Matthew Bundle of the University of Wyoming. “The prevailing view that speed is limited by the force with which the limbs can strike the running surface is an eminently reasonable one,” said Weyand, associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at SMU in Dallas.
“If one considers that elite sprinters can apply peak forces of 800 to 1,000 pounds with a single limb during each sprinting step, it’s easy to believe that runners are probably operating at or near the force limits of their muscles and limbs,” he said. “However, our new data clearly show that this is not the case. Despite how large the running forces can be, we found that the limbs are capable of applying much greater ground forces than those present during top-speed forward running,” he added.
In contrast to a force limit, what the researchers found was that the critical biological limit is imposed by time – specifically, the very brief periods of time available to apply force to the ground while sprinting. In elite sprinters, foot-ground contact times are less than one-tenth of one second, and peak ground forces occur within less than one-twentieth of one second of the first instant of foot-ground contact.
The researchers took advantage of several experimental tools to arrive at the new conclusions. They used a high-speed treadmill capable of attaining speeds greater than 40 miles per hour and of acquiring precise measurements of the forces applied to the surface with each footfall. They also had subjects’ perform at high speeds in different gaits.