Physicists Unravel Mystery of Usain Bolt's Speed

He uses astonishing power and energy to overcome drag

By John Johnson,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 4, 2013 8:59 AM CDT

(Newser) Usain Bolt is a big guy as far as sprinters go, and his 6-foot-5 frame doesn't exactly make him a model of aerodynamic perfection. But as his time of 9.58 seconds in a 100-meter race in 2009 proves, he is the fastest human on the planet. Even physicists who pored over every frame of that race are wowed after translating Bolt the runner into Bolt the mathematical model for a study in the European Journal of Physics. He uses an almost inhuman amount of energy to overcome air resistance, thanks in part to "extraordinary stride length" and "lots of fast twitch muscle fibers," a Cambridge physicist tells the BBC. Or just think of him as "truly a freak of nature," writes George Dvorsky at io9.com. Some of the eye-popping findings:

  • Only 8% of the energy Bolt expended in the race was used for motion; the rest was to overcome the aerodynamic drag of his large frame, explains InsideScience.
  • His maximum power output came less than a second into the race; figure about 3.5 horsepower, or enough to power a "large vacuum cleaner," reports PopSci.
  • His top speed came about 7 seconds into the race at around 27mph.
  • Even without the slight tailwind he had that day in 2009, he would have busted the record with a speed of 9.68 seconds, say the physicists.
All of which might beg the question, Is he doping? At Let'sRun.com, Robert Johnson makes a strong case for Bolt being clean. He's been busting records since he was a boy, and he may one of those rare athletes—think Babe Ruth in his day or LeBron James today—who is simply way better than his peers because of his rare physical attributes. In Bolt's case, he "is huge but has the coordination and quickness of sprinters who are normally much smaller." In short, "he's a tall freak." Click for more scientific examination of Bolt.

Usain Bolt runs in a 150-meter race in Brazil in March.
Usain Bolt runs in a 150-meter race in Brazil in March.   (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
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