Comment »Posted on Saturday 29 November 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A while ago I wrote about the record breaking 100 metre dash of Usain Bolt at this year’s Olympic games. Video analysis by a group of Norwegian scientists suggested that Bolt’s 9.69 seconds record could possibly be brought down to 9.55 seconds. Now, Mark Denny of Stanford University (a keen marathon runner) has revealed that 9.48 seconds might be with in future athletes’ grasp.

In a paper published yesterday in the The Journal of Experimental Biology, Denny analyses the locomotion of three species: dogs, horses and humans. Using historical data from races dating back to the 1920s for greyhounds and the 19th century for racehorses and human athletes, he was able to construct a statistical model of each species’ performance.

The results suggest that the speed of dogs and horses is no longer increasing. Horses reached their peak sometime in the early 1970s, whilst man’s best friend hit top speed slightly earlier in the late 60s. Predictions for an absolute maximum speed only show around a 1% increase on the current speed for both species.

When it comes to humans however, it seems that there are still gains to be made – at least, for men. Denny’s findings show that women may have already very nearly reached their limit, but they could potentially reach a time of 10.19 seconds for the 100 metre dash one day. Male athletes have slightly better news – an increase of 0.23 m/s over Bolt’s speed would allow a 9.48 seconds record.

Turning now to marathon runners, between 2min7s and 4min23s could be cut off the current world record held by Haile Gebrselassie, who two months ago to they day beat his own record with a time of 2h3m59s. For women, Paula Radcliffe’s record of 2h15min25s is very close to Denny’s prediction of 2h12min41s. He believes that female marathon runners may be the first to approach his theoretical limit, and looks forward to putting his models to the test.

For all his calculations however, Denny says we still don’t know what physiological factors limit the speed of a runner. Hopefully, further work will find out exactly what the limits of human locomotion are. The paper also raises important questions about the future of racing, and whether artificial improvements such as drugs or genetic modification could (and indeed should) be used to push performance even further.

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