Usain Bolt will never outrun me

Crystal Vincent
23 January 2012

Do you even wonder, "why is Usain Bolt so fast?" It could be genetic, maybe his parents are fast (nature) or maybe, he sprints for hours every day and has become fast (nurture). Many scientists believe that nature (genes) and nurture (everything else, like: food, environment, habits, etc.) are both important in determining what traits a particular person will have.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to tackle the question:

Will I ever run the 100m sprint faster than the current world record holder, Usain Bolt?

Usain Bolt (Wikipedia Commons image)

Fast Fact: In August 2009 Usain Bolt broke the world record (which he previously set) and ran the 100m sprint in 9.58s. At that speed you could run more than 37km/hour (cheetahs can reach speeds of up to 113km/hour)

Nature?

Most of us have heard of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ muscle fibres, but how do these relate to athletic performance? Fast muscles are what we use for short-lived explosive activities. Sports such as sprinting, football, and boxing, all require fast twitch muscles. These muscles can contract up to three times faster than their slow twitching counterparts.

Muscles need to contract (shorten and lengthen) in order for your body to move. Skeletal muscles, like those used for running, are ‘voluntary’ contractors; you have to actively think about making the muscles contract. ‘Involuntary’ muscles contract without any effort on your part (for example, the heart).

If you were born with more fast twitch than slow twitch muscles, you can probably run very fast but not for very long. The opposite is true if you have more slow twitch than fast twitch muscles. Most people are born with an equal number of fast and slow twitch muscles.

Nurture?

The main difference between fast twitch and slow twitch muscle is in how they use energy. Fast twitch muscles have high energy demands and can function in the absence of oxygen whereas slow twitch muscles require oxygen in order to function. Think about the difference between running to catch the bus (fast twitch) and walking with your friends (slow twitch).

Don’t forget, every cell in your body requires oxygen to live! Even though fast twitch muscles are anaerobic (can work without oxygen), eventually the cells will need oxygen. This is why fast twitch muscles can only work for a short period of time.

There are special fast twitch muscles that can switch between being fast and slow twitch. It is possible that with training, you can turn these muscles into either fast (lots of sprinting) or slow (lots of walking) muscle. This means that no matter how many fast/slow twitch muscles you were born with, you can train to build more of one type of muscle.

Olympic athletes train extremely hard, and Usain Bolt no doubt has developed more fast twitch muscles than the average person. That’s fine, I have come to the realization that even though he can run much faster than me, with all of those fast twitch muscles, he couldn’t possibly run for as long as me.

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Article first published on October 6, 2009.

Crystal Vincent

I am a PhD student at the University of Toronto. I am interested in insect parasites and have lived in the rainforests of Guatemala! I have pet walking sticks and I like food.


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