Math and Physics Are the Stars of Track and Field

You've got to move horizontally and vertically at the same time.

Aug 15 2016, 8:37pm

Image: Wikimedia

Talent and physique can only take you so far when you're racing in the Olympics track and field events. When every millisecond counts, the way runners take off affects how they can generate and maintain speed throughout the race.

In this video by the University of Southern California, Jill McNitt-Gray, professor biological sciences and biomedical engineering, explains how athletes use speed. McNitt-Gray works with athletes and coaches to study how horizontal jumpers and sprinters generate speed and which techniques either work either for or against them.

Scientists use force plates, or instruments that measure ground reactions to the force of bodies moving on or across them, in order to measure horizontal force time curves—how high and how far the athlete gets on the initial jump. This is dependent in part on the athlete's foot contact with the starting blocks.

The starting blocks—those metal contraptions athletes use in the kneeling position at the beginning of a race—help generate force in horizontal direction, McNitt-Gray said in the video. By studying the mathematical relationship between force and time, scientists can understand how effective the athlete's foot contact was with the starting block. How fast an athlete can generate speed impulse from the beginning is important to the rest of the race.

It's also important for the athlete to generate a bit of vertical speed, in addition to horizontal speed. Vertical velocity at take off gives the athlete some air time to "fly" as far as possible, said McNitt-Gray.

She added that long jump starts in particular make use of that vertical velocity take off. Athletes in the long jump need to have a "long, low trajectory" to get them as far and fast as possible.

Whether or not athletes are thinking about the math and physics of their sport as they're racing at nearly 30 miles per hour, their coaches and scientists definitely are. And measuring their every movement can help them improve next time around.