Something strange in Usain Bolt’s stride
Among those questions: Does evenness of stride matter for speed? Did Bolt optimize this irregularity to become the fastest human? Or, with a more balanced stride during his prime, could he have run even faster than 9.58 seconds at 100 meters and 19.19 seconds at 200 meters?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Peter Weyand, director of the SMU lab
The SMU study of Bolt, led by Andrew Udofa, a doctoral researcher, is not yet complete. And the effect of asymmetrical strides on speed is still not well understood. But rather than being detrimental for Bolt, the consequences of an uneven stride may actually be beneficial, Weyand said.
It could be that Bolt has naturally settled into his stride to accommodate the effects of scoliosis. The condition curved his spine to the right and made his right leg half an inch shorter than his left, according to his autobiography.
Initial findings from the study were presented last month at an international conference on biomechanics in Cologne, Germany. Most elite sprinters have relatively even strides, but not all. The extent of Bolt’s variability appears to be unusual, Weyand said.
“Our working idea is that he’s probably optimized his speed, and that asymmetry reflects that,” Weyand said. “In other words, correcting his asymmetry would not speed him up and might even slow him down. If he were to run symmetrically, it could be an unnatural gait for him.”
It was once widely assumed that the swiftest runners achieved top speed by swinging their legs more rapidly than slow runners while repositioning their limbs between takeoff and landing.
In a 2000 study, Weyand, then working with a team at Harvard, determined that elite sprinters did not swing their legs appreciably quicker through the air. Instead, they gained maximum speed by striking the ground with a greater force than others in relation to their body weight, and for a shorter period of time.
For Olympic-caliber sprinters, that peak force can equal five times their body weight, providing lift and propulsion to begin the next stride. In Bolt’s case, his peak force can surpass 1,000 pounds.
Peak impact force is delivered within 0.03 seconds of striking the track. It is one of the most critical moments of sprinting. Less force put into the ground means less pop back into the air. Laurence Ryan, a physicist in the SMU lab, calls that period “30 milliseconds to glory.”
In other words, Weyand said, “You win your medal or you’re out of the running based on that short duration.”
Sprinters like Bolt land just behind the ball of the foot, which strikes the ground at an angle of about 6 degrees. His lower leg decelerates abruptly, absorbing 16 Gs of force. His heel drops for only 0.02 seconds — the equivalent of an inch — before rising again. The total time spent on the ground with each stride is about 0.09 seconds.
In effect, there is one biomechanical way for worldclass sprinters to run extremely fast.
“They’re machine-like,” Weyand said. “It’s incredible the extent to which they do the same thing.”
The SMU researchers did not know that one of Bolt’s legs was longer than the other when they began their study six months ago. They were testing a new motionbased technique, called the two-mass model, which allows them to determine ground forces by using highspeed video of races instead of specially equipped treadmills in the lab.
Udofa, the lead researcher, examined 20 steps apiece taken by Bolt and three other elite 100-meter sprinters, using video from a race in Monaco in 2011.
On average, Bolt struck the ground with 1,080 pounds of peak force on his right leg and 955 pounds on his left leg. Because his right leg is shorter, it has a slightly longer drop to the track, contributing to a higher velocity for that step.
“The logical thing to think is, well, you want both legs to deliver as much force as possible and if one is not delivering as much force, if it delivered more force, he’d go faster,” Weyand said. “But that superficial logic doesn’t really flesh out.”
A natural adaptation for Bolt has been to keep his left leg on the ground for slightly more time with each step — 0.97 seconds, compared with 0.85 seconds for the right leg. This gives him slightly more time to generate force with the left leg, Weyand said, providing greater lift off the ground.
Ralph Mann, a pioneering biomechanics researcher in the United States, said he could detect a kind of gallop in Bolt’s uneven stride. But a variability of 13 or 14 percent was surprising, Mann said, given that his consulting work with USA Track and Field generally found an asymmetry between zero and 7 percent among elite sprinters.
“That’s a huge number; when you see that you’re going to find a physical abnormality,” said Mann, who won a silver medal in the 400meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But by strengthening the so-called weaker leg, he added, “I can think of no reason why that’s not going to improve performance.”
There is one person who apparently does not find the SMU research particularly interesting. That is Bolt himself, according to his agent, Ricky Simms, who said in an email, “He isn’t the kind of person who studies this type of thing.”