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Scientists Aren’t Sure How Usain Bolt Can Run 23 Miles Per Hour

The Jamaican track star runs a lot faster than his physiology would suggest.

by Madison Margolin
Aug 2 2016, 7:44pm

This year's Olympic Games means another dose of track superstar, Usain Bolt.

Bolt, an Olympic multi-medalist, is the fastest man ever recorded. The Jamaican sprinter was best known for his performance in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he sprinted 100 meters in a 9.58 seconds. That's about 23 miles per hour.

Some scientists are not just impressed, they're baffled by his speed given his physiology. The 6-feet-5 inch sprinter towers over his competitors, and his long legs give him a longer stride. While other professional runners average 44 steps per 100 meters, Bolt averages 41.

But because he's so big, Bolt also requires extra strength to carry his body that fast.

"Usain Bolt is unique in that somehow he is able to both get the top acceleration and maintain the top speed," said Dr. Anette Hosoi, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a video from NBC.

Hosoi and Samuel Hamner, a mechanical engineer at Stanford University, have both been studying the physical structure of Bolt's body to understand how he's able to run so fast. They hope their respective findings will help people with movement disorders, and help optimize athletic performance.

"If we can understand what the functional roles of these muscles are, it might help Usain Bolt change his training or better understand how he can become faster," Hamner said.

The high school track runner in me is jealous. I could hardly get down to a six minute mile, and I knew shaving off those minutes and seconds from my sprint times was partly contingent on my physique.

But there are many forces at work during the different phases of the running process.

"There's actually kind of very precise actuation of each of the muscles when you're running," Hamner said. "If you are off by a few milliseconds when you're generating these forces, you'll fall over or you'll injure yourself. So, it takes precise timing of the electrical signal that comes from your brain to your muscle to create that force."

So here's hoping that scientists figure out how to beat our own physiology. Even if it's just for the Turkey Trot.