A Tribute to the Great Sprinter: The Science behind the Marvel

Usain Bolt, arguably the greatest sprinter in the universe, recently rode off into the sunset.

When Usain was on the track, there was always a feeling that he would scatter the record. The feeling that Usain would somehow challenge human biological and physiological limits was simply electrifying.

9.58 seconds in 100 meters, 19.19 seconds in 200 meters. These are the world records Usain left behind. While waiting for the record’s challenger to arrive, one would wonder.


How did he run so fast?



Spot the Differences: Usain Bolt (Top) – Olympics Gold Medalist in 100m and 200m; Mo Farah (Bottom) – Olympics Gold Medalist in 5,000m and 10,000m. Image credit: MSN New (top), telegraph.co.uk (bottom), getfitforfigures (edit)

There are two kinds of muscle fibres in the human body


The slow twitch muscle fibres are used mainly for high endurance activities such as marathon. They use oxygen to make energy, thus require lots of blood vessel to deliver oxygen, making them red.


The fast twitch muscle fibres are activated for explosive events such as sprinting. They get tired rapidly as they consume lots of energy. They do not require much blood vessel to deliver oxygen as they undergo anaerobic respiration, making the lighter in colour.


An extraordinary sprinter like Bolt has a way higher amount of fast twitch muscle than the general public. Which might be due to his ancestry. In his book, Jon Entine points out that people with West African ancestry generally have larger proportions of fast twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes than the other populations. Almost all Jamaicans are West African descent. These factors allow Bolt to reach his maximal instantaneous running speed faster than his competitors.




Being a 6’5” behemoth, Bolt was able to cover 100 m in a staggering 41 steps. Bolt maximised his performance by combining this size advantage with his rare explosiveness.



Yummy: Bolt’s Diet. Image credit:  Florence Fu

A person certainly can’t eat 20 double cheese hamburgers daily and be an elite athlete.


Bolt has a strict diet plan that keeps him healthy and ready for the next training or competition.



The hard work for greatness. Image credit: James Gold

It is important for us the acknowledge the monumental effort to create astonishing achievement.


Jamaica, as a medium-sized country, has produced many elite athletes, such as Powell and Blake. This can be attributed to the nation’s great focus on sprint event. Systematic training since young contributes largely to their dominance in sprint events.


Perhaps they were born with a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, but they do train extraordinary hard to exploit it.


Novel training techniques can train specific body parts. Plyometrics,for example, are used to improve the sprinting explosiveness. The correct running form can maximize the sprinter’s speed.



Bolt and his golden shoe. Image credit: Ron Shillingford

Living in the 21st century, we certainly have technology the Olympians in Ancient Greek could only dream of.


Customised jersey help reduce the aerodynamic drag of the body. Customised sprinting shoes make the sprinter more comfortable. Findings, for instance, the hardness of the plate increased the sprint performance also elevates the sprinter’s performance.


Additionally, the tracks and starting blocks contribute to an athlete’s performance. The modern day’s running tracks are grippier, thus less energy is wasted; the starting blocks prevent sprinter from slipping as they erupt at the sound of the gun.


Nonetheless, it’s notable to point out that many records of the long distance races are not broken since the 1990s.


What’s next?


Human will never sprint 100 meters under 5 seconds unless being prosthetically merged into a cyborg or genetically modified into a cheetah-human hybrid. Stanford University specialist in animal locomotion, Mark Denny predicts the best human can run is about 9.48 seconds.


Who’s going to reach it? How long do we need to wait?


It might take a decade or more before we find out.



Until then, let’s sit back and cherish the astonishments brought by ‘Lightning Bolt.’



8 Responses to “A Tribute to the Great Sprinter: The Science behind the Marvel”

  1. Marie says:

    He is a legend! Thanks for this great article.

  2. lohj3 says:

    Thank you =-)

  3. lohj3 says:

    That’s a tough question.
    From my understanding, I would say no, as the sprinter’s performance is decided by many more factors.
    You are probably right, genes involved in lung capacity might affect the sprinter’s performance as well.
    In addition to genetic factors and environmental factors listed in the article, we also need to acknowledge the complex interaction between environment and genetic.
    Imagine gene as a ‘switch’, and some factors can switch it on, while some factors turn it off.

  4. lohj3 says:

    From my understanding, the human body has a minimal proportion of muscle, if not we would not be able to walk or talk.
    We just need some exercises to increase its proportion to be fit.

  5. Heather Smillie says:

    Is it possible to have no-twitch muscles?
    Or am I just unfit?

    Really interesting article. Great to acknowledge all of the hard work on top of the genetic advantages.

  6. Matilda Stevenson says:

    A great article on a great sprinter! It’s interesting to think about if there’s one reason in particular why Jamaica produces so many excellent sprinters, but it’s probably a combination of all the things you mention.

  7. HS says:

    Informational read. Would we be able to assume if a person is Jamaican, 6’5, eats and trains like Bolt, he would be able to run as fast as Bolt? And if not, does that imply that there are other genetic factors contributing to Bolt’s gift in sprinting?

  8. Dominic Thorn says:

    What a shame he’s retired. I would say he’s unarguably the greatest sprinter in the universe