To understand how fast a human can ultimately run, we need to go beyond the record books and understand how Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s legs work.
In 2008, at the Beijing Olympic Games, Usain Bolt ran the 100 m in just 9.69 seconds, setting a new world record. A year later, Usain Bolt surpassed his own feat with an astonishing 9.58-second run at the 2009 Berlin World Championships. With the 2012 Olympic Games set to begin in London, the sporting world hopes Usain Bolt will overcome his recent hamstring problems and lead yet another victorious attack on the sprinting record. He is arguably the fastest man in history, but just how fast could be possibly go?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and ploughing through the record books is of little help.
“People have played with the statistical data so much and made so many predictions. I don’t think people who work on mechanics take them very seriously,” says John Hutchinson, who studies how animals move at the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK.
The problem is that the progression of sprinting records is characterized by tortoise-like lulls and hare-like… well… sprints. People are getting faster, but in an unpredictable way. From 1991 to 2007, eight athletes chipped 0.16 seconds off the record. Bolt did the same in just over one year. Before 2008, mathematician Reza Noubary calculated that “the ultimate time for [the] 100 meter dash is 9.44 seconds.” Following Usain Bolt’s Beijing performance, he told Wired that the prediction “would probably go down a little bit”.
John Barrow from the University of Cambridge – another mathematician – has identified three ways in which Usain Bolt could improve his speed: being quicker off the mark; running with a stronger tailwind; and running at higher altitudes where thinner air would exert less drag upon him. These tricks may work, but they’re also somewhat unsatisfying. We really want to know whether flexing muscles and bending joints could send a sprinter over the finish line in 9 seconds, without relying on environmental providence.
To understand how fast a human can ultimately run, we need to go beyond the record books and understand how Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's legs work
To answer that, we have to look at the physics of a sprinting leg. And that means running headfirst into a wall of ignorance.
“It’s tougher to get a handle on sprinting mechanics than on feats of strength or endurance,” says Peter Weyand from Southern Methodist University, who has been studying the science of running for decades.
By comparison, Peter Weyand says that we can tweak a cyclist’s weight, position and aerodynamic shape, and predict how that will affect their performance in the Tour de France.
“We know down to 1%, or maybe even smaller, what sort of performance bumps you’ll get,” he says.
“In sprinting, it’s a black hole. You don’t have those sorts of predictive relationships.”
Our ignorance is understandable. By their nature, sprints are very short, so scientists can only make measurements in a limited window of time. On top of that, the factors that govern running speed are anything but intuitive.
Peter Weyand divides each cycle of a runner’s leg into what happens when their foot is in the air, and what happens when it’s on the ground. The former is surprisingly irrelevant. Back in 2000, Peter Weyand showed that, at top speed, every runner takes around a third of a second to pick their foot up and put it down again.
“It’s the same from Usain Bolt to Grandma,” he says.
“She can’t run as fast as him but at her top speed, she’s repositioning her foot at the same speed.”
That third of a second in the air – the swing time – is probably close to a biological limit. Peter Weyand thinks that there is very little that people can do to improve on it, with a notable exception. Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee, runs on artificial carbon-fibre legs that each weigh less than half of what a normal fleshy limb would do. With this lighter load, he can swing his legs around 20% faster than a runner with intact limbs, moving at the same speed.
For most runners though, speed is largely determined by how much force they can apply when their foot is on the ground. They have two simple options for running faster: hit the ground harder, or exert the same force over a longer period.
The second option partly explains why greyhounds and cheetahs are so fast. They maximize their time on the ground using their bendy backbones. As their front feet land, their spines bend and collapse, so their back halves spend more time in the air before they have to come down. Then, their spines decompress, giving their front halves more time in the air and their back legs more time on the ground.
Such tricks aren’t available to us two-legged humans, but technology provides alternatives. In the 1990s, speed skaters started using a new breed of “clap skates” where the blade is hinged to the front of the boot, rather than firmly fixed. As the skaters pushed back, the new design kept their blades in longer contact with the ice, allowing them to exert the same force over more time. Speed records suddenly fell.
People have tried to duplicate the same effect with running shoes, but with little success. That’s because a running leg behaves a bit like a pogo stick. As it hits the ground, it compresses. As it steps off, it gets a bit of elastic rebound. Technologies that try to alter a runner’s gait tend to interfere with this rebound, and diminish the leg’s overall performance.
“It’s hard to intervene in a similar manner to the clap-skates without buggering up the other mechanics of the limb,” says Peter Weyand. (Again, Oscar Pistorius bucks the trend because his artificial legs are springier than natural ones, and give him around 10% longer on the ground than other runners.)
For those with intact limbs, one option remains: exert more force on the ground. Put simply, fast people hit the ground more forcefully than slow people, relative to their body weight. But we know very little about what contributes to that force, and we are terrible at predicting it based on a runner’s physique or movements.
We know that champion male sprinters can hit the ground with a force that’s around 2.5 times their body weight (most people manage around two times). When Usain Bolt’s foot lands, it applies around 900 pounds (400 kg) of force for a few milliseconds, and continues pushing for around 90 more.
Peter Weyand likes to imagine a weightlifter trying to apply the same force in a one-legged squat – they would come nowhere close.
“What we know about force under static conditions under-predicts how hard sprinters hit by a factor of two,” he says.
“We just don’t have the ability to go from the movements of the body to the force on the ground.”
Even if a sprinter’s muscles were eventually boosted by gene doping techniques, we have no way of calculating how much faster their owners would run.
Studies are underway to fill in those gaps, and Peter Weyand is hoping that we’ll be able to make better predictions in five or 10 years. Just a few months ago, Marcus Pandy from the University of Melbourne used computer simulations of sprinters to show that the calf muscles, more than any others, determine the amount of force that runners apply to the ground. At top speeds, the hip muscles become increasingly important too. “Maybe if you train a sprinter, you could potentially train them to have really strong calves,” says Hutchinson.
For the moment, however, any predictions about the ceilings of human speed are still ill-informed ones. The only way to work out if Usain Bolt or some other sprinter will smash the existing record is to watch them.
First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in London this morning and she has already showed off two very patriotic wardrobe choices as she helps motivate Team USA.
Leaving President Barack Obama at home in Washington, the First Lady is in the UK to lead the US Presidential Delegation to the Olympic Games.
After a breakfast with Team USA at their training facility in the University of East London, where she wore a bold red and white striped jacket and black tailored trousers, her whirlwind schedule took her to an event to help promote her Let’s Move campaign.
At Michelle Obama’s breakfast stop, she greeted athletes with a rousing speech as her bold wardrobe choice also spoke volumes.
The red and white pattern on the jacket was a surprise choice for the normally impeccably dressed 48-year old, as she started to blend in with the America flags behind her.
At the following event, held at Winfield House in Regent’s Park where U.S. Ambassador Louis Susman now resides, mingled with David Beckham among other sporting stars.
Wearing another patriotic ensemble, Michelle Obama wore a sporty blue T-shirt, paired with white pants and a smart white and blue blazer that featured navy piping.
The event attracted around 1,000 American Military children as well as American and British students who couldn’t get enough of the event’s visiting host.
Michelle Obama jogged to a stage to the sound of a marching band that played the University of Florida flight song.
She told the crowd: “I’m so excited. I am thrilled to be here on London for the 2012 Olympic games. I am proud to be leading the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony.”
Olympic gold-medal sprinter Carl Lewis signed autographs at the event while ex-NBA star Dikembe Mutombo offered basketball tips to the awed group of children.
David Beckham stood behind Michelle Obama, watching on as she addressed the crowd.
But soon, it was time for the games to begin and the blazer was shrugged off to allow the First Lady to show off THOSE famous arms as she played football and other sports with children on the lawn.
There was no doubting her passion for her country and team as she was seen getting active with her adoring fans.
First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in London this morning and she has already showed off two very patriotic wardrobe choices as she helps motivate Team USA
Michelle Obama proved an equally-inspiring presence earlier this morning at the breakfast event.
There, she had chosen an on trend pillar box red peplum shell top to wear underneath the nipped in jacket, which also featured cut-away collar detail and optical illusion panels.
During her address Michelle Obama urged America’s athletes to “have fun, breathe a bit, but also win”.
She said: “Wow, I’m going to be saying that a lot over the next few days. Wow, wow!
“I can’t believe I am here, I am beyond proud.
“I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is for me to be leading the delegation.”
Michelle Obama spoke of her fond memories of the Olympics.
“Some of my fantastic memories growing up, and even as an adult, involved watching the Olympics on TV.
“I was just in awe of these athletes and my family, we would sit together for hours watching these men and women perform feats of endurance, speed and grace that would have us cheering at the top of our lungs.”
The First Lady said she and her brother hoped that they would one day achieve something “just as great” for themselves.
Michelle Obama also told the athletes the Olympics were particularly special to her family because of her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis, she said: “My father contracted MS in the prime of his life, but he retained the love of sports, and the Olympics was a special time for him.”
Talking about her drive to get America fit, Michelle Obama urged the athletes to think about the children that will be watching them across the Atlantic.
She said: “You just never know who you are going to inspire, you just never know.
“You are certainly inspiring me every day. I still have those same feelings of pride, excitement and wonder, so being here is other-worldly for me.
“I am still so inspired by all of you.
“This summer, people across America are going to be supporting Team USA and not just by cheering you on from our living rooms, but by striving to live up to the example that you have set.”
Michelle Obama is a passionate advocate of healthy living and later on this morning will be hosting a Let’s Move event for British and American school children alongside David Beckham.
And her day of events will conclude with a reception at Buckingham Palace for heads of state and then a visit to East London and the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
The style conscious First Lady is a walking advertisement for good eating and exercise and takes every opportunity to showcase her gym honed arms in demure but sleeveless outfits.
And fashion fans are hoping she will take this opportunity to showcases some of her signature preppy looks.
On a recent promotional jaunt for her gardening book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, Michelle Obama changed outfit three times in one afternoon.
Speaking of her visit to the Olympics and her continuing ant-obesity campaigning Michelle Obama has said: “Olympians and Paralympians are true American heroes and role models for all of us, especially our young people.
“And I know that this delegation will help inspire a generation of young people to get into the Olympic spirit by getting active and healthy so they can reach their fullest potential and reach their dreams.”
A new study published in Lancet suggests that a lack of exercise is now causing as many deaths as smoking across the world.
The report, which is published in the Lancet to coincide with the build-up to the Olympics, estimates that about a third of adults are not doing enough physical activity, causing 5.3 million deaths a year.
That equates to about one in 10 deaths from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and breast and colon cancer.
Researchers said the problem was now so bad it should be treated as a pandemic.
And they said tackling it required a new way of thinking, suggesting the public needed to be warned about the dangers of inactivity rather than just reminded of the benefits of it.
About a third of adults are not doing enough physical activity, causing 5.3 million deaths a year
The team of 33 researchers drawn from centres across the world also said governments needed to look at ways to make physical activity more convenient, affordable and safer.
It is recommended that adults do 150 minutes of moderate exercise , such as brisk walking, cycling or gardening, each week.
The Lancet study found people in higher income countries were the least active with those in the UK among the worst as nearly two thirds of adults were judged not to be doing enough.
Although the researchers admitted comparisons between countries were difficult because the way activity was estimated may have differed from place to place.
Nonetheless, they said they remained confident that their overall conclusion was valid.
Pedro Hallal, one of the lead researchers, said: “With the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games, sport and physical activity will attract tremendous worldwide attention.
“Although the world will be watching elite athletes from many countries compete in sporting events… most spectators will be quite inactive.
“The global challenge is clear – make physical activity a public health priority throughout the world to improve health and reduce the burden of disease.”
Prof. Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, agreed:
“We need to do all we can to make it easy for people to look after their health and get active as part of their daily lives.
“Our environment has a significant part to play. For example, people who feel unsafe in their local park will be less likely to use it.”
But others questioned equating smoking with inactivity.
While smoking and inactivity kill a similar number of people, smoking rates are much lower than the number of inactive people, making smoking more risky to the individual.
Dr. Claire Knight, of Cancer Research UK, said: “When it comes to preventing cancer, stopping smoking is by far the most important thing you can do.”
This summer millions of people will visit London and the UK for the 2012 Olympic Games which promise to be an unforgettable experience. London is a vibrant and exciting city but this summer there will be lots more to enjoy including many free fun and interesting events being held because the Olympics is taking place in and around the city.
World-class sporting action will be taking place not only in London but also in other venues across the UK as part of both the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Visitors will be able to enjoy the sporting action not only t the venues but in some streets and roads in and around the capital where trials in some events will be taking place such as cycling.
The Olympic Games start on 27 July and run until 12 August 2012.
The Paralympic Games begin on 29 August 20012 and close on 9 September 2012.
During the London 2012 Olympic Games top sportsmen and women from across the world will be competing in 26 sports which break down into 39 disciplines. There are 20 sports in the Paralympic schedule in the London 2012 Games. An Olympic Park has been created on 2.5sq km of land in east London from former industrial land that has been rapidly transformed over the last few years in preparation for the Games.
The new parkland contains thousands of trees and plants and is where the main Olympic Stadium has been built. The stadium which has a capacity of 80,000 for the Games is located in the south of the Olympic Park on an ‘island’ site surrounded by waterways on three sides. Spectators reach the venue via five bridges that link the site to the surrounding area.
Sports taking place in the Olympic Park include Athletics, Basketball, Cycling and Hockey. Other sports such as gymnastics, football and beach volleyball will take place in venues around the capital. Some of the venues in London are located near some of the capital’s most famous tourist attractions such as on the Mall opposite Buckingham Palace and on Horse Guards Parade.
Some trials will take place on the roads of stunning landmarks. For example the cycling trials will take place on the roads around the stunning Hampton Court Palace, formerly home to many famous monarchs. There will also be other sports such as football taking place at venues elsewhere in the UK.
There is a wide range of services and facilities in the Park, around the Olympic Stadium including plenty of cafes, food and drink stands, toilets and baby-changing facilities.
Aerial shoot: Olympic Park
It is very unlikely that you can get a ticket for the Olympics on arrival in the City as they will all have been sold prior to the big even but there may be a kiosk set up outside the stadium for ticket re-sales although that has not been confirmed at the moment. And beware of scams and unauthorized websites fraudulently pretending to sell official tickets
There will be huge screens set up in several major parks in the city such as Hyde Park where visitors will be able to watch the Olympics live, for free. The trials for some events will be taking place on the capitals roads so you are likely to be able to action some of the world class action just from being in the right place at the right time.
Traveling to the venues
If you are one of the lucky ticket holders make sure you plan your travel well in advance of the event you are going to watch. Often the organizers are asking people to arrive up to two and a half hours before their session starts especially if it’s at the Olympic stadium so that they will have plenty of time to get through security which will be similar to that at airports. At other venues such as at Horse Guards Parade, 90 minutes in advance.
One soft-sided bag is allowed per person – for example, a medium-sized handbag or small backpack (maximum 25 liters). The bag should be small enough to fit under your seat or on your lap. There is no place to store your luggage.
Like any other major city, London has a vast range of accommodation to cater all budgets, from luxury hotels to budget rooms. For some visitors their accommodation is secondary to the place and the purpose of their visit for others they love home furnishings and home accessories, but it is important to book your accommodation sooner rather than later because hundreds of thousands of people will be visiting the capital during the Games.
There will also be what’s called the London Festival held throughout the summer for ever visitor to enjoy, ticket holders and those who just want to soak up the atmosphere. The Festival will be packed with entertaining events, from theater performances, comedy and music both pop and classical to kids and family events as well as carnivals to get you into the party spirit