The newly published evidence identifies the critical variable imposing the biological limit to running speed, and offers an enticing view of how the biological limits might be pushed back beyond the nearly 28 miles per hour speeds achieved by Bolt to speeds of perhaps 35 or even 40 miles per hour.
Usain Bolt ran at just over 22 mph over 100 meters. (peak speed of 28 mph)
Ostriches can run 45 mph.
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. In addition to completing traditional top-speed forward running tests, subjects hopped on one leg and ran backward to their fastest possible speeds on the treadmill.
The unconventional tests were strategically selected to test the prevailing beliefs about mechanical factors that limit human running speeds –- specifically, the idea that the speed limit is imposed by how forcefully a runner’s limbs can strike the ground.
However, the researchers found that the ground forces applied while hopping on one leg at top speed exceeded those applied during top-speed forward running by 30 percent or more, and that the forces generated by the active muscles within the limb were roughly 1.5 to 2 times greater in the one-legged hopping gait.
The time limit conclusion was supported by the agreement of the minimum foot-ground contact times observed during top-speed backward and forward running. Although top backward vs. forward speeds were substantially slower, as expected, the minimum periods of foot-ground contact at top backward and forward speeds were essentially identical.
According to Matthew Bundle, an assistant professor of biomechanics at the University of Wyoming, “The very close agreement in the briefest periods of foot-ground contact at top speed in these two very different gaits points to a biological limit on how quickly the active muscle fibers can generate the forces necessary to get the runner back up off the ground during each step.”
The researchers said the new work shows that running speed limits are set by the contractile speed limits of the muscle fibers themselves, with fiber contractile speeds setting the limit on how quickly the runner’s limb can apply force to the running surface.
“Our simple projections indicate that muscle contractile speeds that would allow for maximal or near-maximal forces would permit running speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour and conceivably faster,” Bundle said.
Running speed is limited by a mechanical interaction between the stance and swing phases of the stride. Here, we tested whether stance phase limitations are imposed by ground force maximums or foot-ground contact time minimums. We selected one-legged hopping and backward running as experimental contrasts to forward running, and had seven athletic subjects complete progressive discontinuous treadmill tests to failure to determine their top speeds in each of the three gaits. Vertical ground reaction forces (in body weights; Wb) and periods of ground force application (Tc; s) were measured using a custom, high-speed force treadmill. At top speed, we found that both the stance-averaged (Favg) and peak (Fpeak) vertical forces applied to the treadmill surface during one-legged hopping exceeded those applied during forward running by more than one-half of the body’s weight [Favg = 2.71 ± 0.15 vs. 2.08 ± 0.07 Wb; Fpeak = 4.20 ± 0.24 vs. 3.62 ± 0.24 Wb±sem] and that hopping periods of force application were significantly longer [Tc = 0.160 ± 0.006 vs. 0.108 ± 0.004 s]. Next, we found that the periods of ground force application at top backward and forward running speeds were nearly identical, agreeing to within an average of 0.006 s [Tc = 0.116 ± 0.004 s vs. 0.110 ± 0.005 s]. We conclude that the stance phase limit to running speed is imposed, not by the maximum forces that the limbs can apply to the ground, but rather by the minimum time needed to apply the large, mass-specific forces necessary.