How fast will man eventually run? Will he ever run the 100 meters in five seconds flat?
"Not impossible," says one of the world's best known authorities on physiology and
biomechanics. Professor Peter Weyand, of Southern Methodist University, known for his
expertise in terrestrial locomotion and human and animal performance. Weyand said that
humans would soon have the ''ability to modify and greatly enhance
muscle fibre strength.'' This is would actually reduce the difference
between the muscle properties of humans and the world's fastest animal,
the cheetah, to almost zero.
Usain Bolt has now brought up the question — will man get faster and faster?
And based on what Weyand says, will he one day outrun the cheetah?
"Probably not," said Weyand. "The same laws of physics apply to all runners.
However, biologically speaking, speed is conferred by an ability of the limbs to
hit the ground forcefully in relation to the body's weight, an attribute
conferred largely by the properties of the muscles of the runner. The fast four-legged
runners or quadrupeds do seem to be advantaged versus bipeds in terms of the
mechanics allowed by their anatomy. These mechanics help quadrupeds to get the
most out of the muscles that they have in a way that bipedal runners probably
Scientists believe man can’t run faster than 30 mph, with the best at about
27mph. A cheetah, on the other hand, reaches speeds triple that. Weyand said he
expected speed to continue to improve and faster runners to emerge.
Reza Noubary, a mathematician at Bloomsburg University of
Pennsylvania and author of a textbook on statistics and sports, had
previously calculated an "ultimate record" of 9.44 seconds for the 100
Mathematicians don't use the body's physiology to assess human
physical limits. They were merely working with data that suggested that
human speed increases were decelerating and would eventually stop
completely. Indeed, in some events, like the long jump, the pace of
record-setting has slowed nearly to a stop. That record has only been
broken twice since 1968.
Despite the success of Mureika's model, Weyand, said that
mathematical models could never predict how fast humans might
"Predicting it is fine for the sake of kicks, but it's not a
scientifically valid approach," Weyand said. "You have to assume that
everything that has happened in the past will continue in the future."
He suggested that it's impossible for mathematicians to predict the
magnitude of the "freakiness of athletic talent at the extreme margins
of humanity. Bolt, it turns out, is a perfect example."
Weyand, who has conducted research on the body types of the top 45
100-meter sprinters in the last 15 years, said that almost all elite
runners conform to the body norms for their race length, except for the
most-recent Olympic champion.
"Bolt is an outlier. He's enormous," Weyand said. "Typically when you get someone that big, they can't start."
That's because muscle speed in animals is generally tied to their
size. For example, rodents, being much smaller than elephants, can move
their muscles much faster. The same holds true for human beings.
Sprinters are short and have more fast-twitch muscle fibers, allowing
them to accelerate quickly, but compromising their ability to run
longer distances. Four hundred-meter runners, almost always taller,
have the reverse composition of muscle fibers.
Bolt, though, combines the mechanical advantages of taller men's bodies with the fast-twitch fibers of smaller men.
"We don't really know what the best form is and maybe Bolt is
redefining that and showing us we missed something," said
biomechanicist John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College at the
University of London, who studies how animals move.
Hutchinson also agreed with Weyand that the human speed limit will remain impossible to predict with any confidence.
For him, it's the International Olympic Committee and other
regulatory authorities that will determine how fast athletes will be
able to run by limiting the amount of advanced biotechnologies
sprinters can use.
"The limits will be largely set by the rules of the IOC," Hutchinson
said. "It's kind of an arms race with the regulators of the sport and
the people trying to push the technology to the limits. At some point
here there must be a détente where technology can't push us any further
and the rules will restrict it."
With techniques for gene therapy likely to become available at some
point in the not-too-distant future, Weyand said that its use by
athletes was "inevitable."
"You could see really freakish things and we probably will," he warned.
Posted by Casey Kazan.