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Analysis of Usain Bolt’s Running Technique

After Usain Bolt’s victories with World Records in the Olympic Games in Beijing, and then in the World Championship in Berlin, our desire to understand the reasons and the basis of his phenomenal running is quite natural. Even a quick look of a non-professional is enough to see an obvious difference in running of Usain Bolt and his rivals. Bolt’s running is light, playful, relaxed and at the same time, impressively powerful. Listing of these elements, however, does not help us understand the reasons of such an impact on our feelings.

What is hidden behind the outer, visible picture of running that defines the superiority of this talented sprinter? What does he do better than others, and what parameter of the environment is he using that others don’t?

Let’s do an analysis of Usain Bolt’s running technique. There’s no need to prove that this is not about any one factor, but the system of factors, best seen in my opinion, during the period of support.

Physically with his height of 6’5 Bolt is practically the tallest athlete in the World’s history of sprinting. To some extent, though not directly, from my point of view, it is reflected in the length of his running step. In the final heat on 100m in World Championship in Berlin Bolt made 41 steps with an average length of 2.44m. His closest competitor Tyson Gay (height 5’11’’) made 45.45 steps with the average length of 2.20.

But the influence of the height on the step length would be too simple an explanation for his superiority. Behind the seemingly light and relaxed movement there is a different running technique separating him from his rivals.

To explain this different technique of running, let’s take a look at it from the point of view of the theory of Pose Method, which is based on principally different concepts from those previously accepted ones, the latter based on priority of muscular efforts, directed to active movement of legs pushing the body forward.

In my understanding, the most important factor is that Bolt uses gravity, to be more exact, gravitational torque, as the leading factor that allows him to more effectively involve all other forces, working as a whole and highly effective system for horizontal repositioning of the athlete with high velocity.

Simply speaking, in his running he uses rotation of the body around the point of support under the action of gravitational torque, which in essence is a free falling of the body forward.

Certainly it is happening in a limited frame of space and time during the period of support from the vertical position to the end of support. In reality, indeed, it is about a relatively small angle in space where the falling is happening. By our theoretical calculations these angles range from 0 to 22.5 degrees (starting from the vertical) for running with a relatively even speed.

The key running Pose, favorable for performing falling forward and allowing us to integrate all participating forces into one system moving a runner forward, is the Running Pose at midstance or vertical position, when GCM (general center of mass) is over the point of support.

On frames 1, 10 and 19, with a varying degree of approximation, Bolt is in the running Pose, starting from the vertical and maintains it to the end of support, which can be seen on frames 3 and 11, and also between 19 and 20, where this moment is missing.

Preservation of the Pose during the rotation of the body around the point of support proves that the body is rotating (moving) as a whole system. On the one hand, it allows for better conservation of momentum of the body and, on the other, it allows for the use of gravitational torque for angular acceleration of the body after it passes the vertical position. Indirectly, another proof of the body rotation on support is provided by the knee of the support leg maintained in bent position. On frames 1-4, 10-12, 19-21 it could be seen very well. I.e., he is not “pushing off”, but is “waiting”, “allowing” to gravitational torque to provide the angular acceleration of the GCM.

Therefore, Bolt is more effective in falling forward. Using a special speed table (developed together with professor A. Pianzin), which takes into account individual anthropometrical data of the athlete, his step frequency (cadence), etc., I got an average data of angles of falling of Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay in the final 100m of World Championship in Berlin. Bolt’s calculated average angle in 100m with the time 9.58 seconds was 18.5 degrees with the average step frequency (cadence) 4.28 steps per second (257 steps per minute), and Gay’s, with the time 9.71 seconds – 18.4 degrees, and step frequency (cadence) 4.68 steps per second (281 steps per minute).

Running sequence of Usain Bolt, please disregard the degrees and markers. 

Image courtesy of Russian Track and Field Magazine. 

At the fastest 20m segment of the distance between 60-80m, where Bolt had the highest speed 12.42 m/s with the step frequency (cadence) 4.4 steps per second (264 steps per minute), his angle of falling was reaching 21.4 degrees, the same as Gay’s with the average speed 12.27 m/s and the step frequency 4.8 step per second (288 steps per minute).

All of this makes sense, i.e., speaking in the language of physics; Bolt just more effectively transforms the rotational (angular) velocity of the body into horizontal.

In a simple way this could be presented as a well-known equation of relations between linear and angular velocities in rotational movement of the body: v=ωr, where v- horizontal velocity of GCM, r – radius of rotation of GCM, ω – angular velocity of rotation of GCM. He uses his advantage in height (radius of rotation) and maintains his body in Pose favorable for the action of gravitational torque, relatively longer and better, than other sprinters. Therefore, Bolt’s run builds up on highly effective combined use of factors for moving body forward.

GCM, at the same time, having completed its rotational movement by the end of support, continues moving by oblique trajectory in the air, similarly to that of a stone released from a sling, until the next landing in Pose.

Comparing Bolt’s running with that of his rivals gives us an opportunity to see that his technique essentially differs in details of the Pose and its maintenance until the end of support (which I call a standard), giving him a possibility to use such an external factor as gravity and his natural gift – height to the maximum. On frames 3, 11 and 20 where support practically finishes (ends), the position of the swing foot is close to the knee of the support leg.

It is necessary to mention here, that visually these differences in technique are very small, almost invisible, but is it those differences that create the base for our impression of his movement as light, relaxed and fast.

At the end of the day, it is not important how: consciously or accidentally did Bolt come to this technique, the main thing is that he performs it very well due to his talent. This technique allows him to use his genetic potential, natural gifts to the fullest and to develop his psycho-emotional and mental abilities to the highest level.

Some prognosis about his possible progress. If he manages to increase his average step frequency of running to the level of his rivals, just to something around 4.5 steps per second (270 steps per minute) having the same average angle of falling, his result on 100m could be 9.11 seconds. Isn’t it impressive? But he, so far, is dreaming “only” about 9.4 seconds!

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About the Author

Dr. Nicholas Romanov is the developer of the Pose Method®. A passionate proponent of higher level of education in athletics, Dr. Romanov dedicated his entire career to sports education, scientific research and coaching. An Olympic Coach and a bestselling author, Dr. Romanov has taught on all continents and visited almost every country in the world.
[ Click here to learn more ]

Theory & Practice: Stride Frequency and Muscle-Tendon Elasticity Complex

Stride frequency is one of the most important parameters of running technique. Why is stride frequency so important? Why do we pay so much attention to it?

The frequency of our strides in running is really nothing more than the rate at which we change support from one foot to the next. When we change support, we start free falling and let the force of gravity accelerate us forward. Yes, gravity is a force that, here on Earth, is always directed downwards, but it is not correct to say that gravity acts downwards. It is better to say that on Earth gravity pulls objects towards the centre of the Earth. So no matter where you are on Earth all objects fall to the ground. However, in combination with objects and other forces, in running, gravity is the leading force in movement forward.

Acceleration due to gravity is a constant, but our ability to take full advantage of gravity’s pull is a function of our body’s free fall and our stride cadence. If you fall forward and don’t move your foot to create a new point of support, you will quickly find yourself face first on the ground. Lean very slightly and you can move your foot slowly to prevent hitting the ground. You’re still falling forward – you’re just not falling down. Increase the angle of your fall more and you have to move your feet faster to avoid hitting the ground with your face.

The less we do to counteract gravity, the less is the load we place on joints, ligaments and tendons, which in turn reduces our chance of injury.

The faster we change support, the less we do to interrupt the gravitational pull and the faster we run. Even better, the less we do to counteract gravity, the less is the load we place on joints, ligaments and tendons, which in turn reduces our chance of injury. It really is that simple.

The faster we run the higher is the stride frequency. The fastest 10K runners, for example Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele, in a final lap could run with up to 240 steps per minute, while fastest sprinters like Usain BoltTyson Gay and Wayde Van Niekerk are way in 250-280 range and above.

The magic number

So what is the minimum number or maximum number are we talking about? The answer for maximum is quite obvious – the higher the better. If you can go 200+ more power to you.

The lowest number recommended, however, is 180 and the idea behind it comes from research conducted back in the 60s. Such or higher level of frequency allows to use the elastic property of our muscles which doesn’t ‘activate’ until you reach it. It was shown by same scientific research that usage of elastic properties of muscles reduces oxygen consumption around 20% and increases efficiency up to 50%.

Interestingly, Jack Daniels, the respected American coach, noted in his book that there is data from his many years of practical observation that indicates elite runners tend to run with a stride frequency of not less than 180 strides per minute.

Additionally, a recently conducted research concluded “increases in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries.”

Learn and practice it

So the benefits are right there, but how do we learn it? First we need to understand and learn to perform stride frequency as a part of running and that it serves the process of falling forward. We couldn’t move forward if we were to just pull the foot from the ground, we need to lean forward first. So lean first, pull the foot from the ground second.

Then we need to learn to pull the feet from the ground, and concentrate the efforts on feet only, not the legs, just feet. And learn to use hamstrings.

You can find a whole list of exercise for that in the Pose Running book and the video series. You can use downhill running with slight inclination. Run with the partner’s slight push on your back with his/her hand or pull with the elastic bands.

It is very helpful to use a metronome-like device to help you maintain the appropriate pace. And as you progress you can move the speed up to continue your development process.

Strength training

This is the topic where the importance of strength training for runners becomes apparent again. While it is true that running itself does develop some of the strength necessary, to fully take advantage of what’s already on offer by nature, a bit of effort is required on our part to bring it all together. Specialized strength training doesn’t take much but will give plenty in return.

It is important to remember, however, that high stride frequency does not demand a huge muscular effort. On the contrary, you should avoid unnecessary effort and tension. Improved strength of your muscle systems will allow you to quicken your movements and reduce the amount of time you actually spend on support, the faster you pick your foot off the ground, the faster you will run.

Read about stride frequency in greater detail in “The Pose Method of Running”.

References:

  1. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Bryan C Heiderscheit, Elizabeth S Chumanov, Max P Michalski, Christa M Wille, Michael B Ryan; Medicine and science in sports and exercise 02/2011; 43(2):296-302
  2. Alexander, A.M., 1988, Springs as energy stores: running. Elastic mechanisms in animal movement. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-50.
  3. Cavagna, G.A., Saibene, F.P. and Margaria, R., 1964, Mechanical work in running, J. Appl. Physiol., 19:249-256
  4. Cavagna, G.A., 1977, Storage and utilization of elastic energy in skeletal muscle. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, 5, 89-129.
  5. Cavagna, P.R., La Fortune M.A., 1980, Ground reaction forces in distance running, J. Biomech, 13:397-406.

About the Author

Dr. Nicholas Romanov is the developer of the Pose Method®. A passionate proponent of higher level of education in athletics, Dr. Romanov dedicated his entire career to sports education, scientific research and coaching. An Olympic Coach and a bestselling author, Dr. Romanov has taught on all continents and visited almost every country in the world.
[ Click here to learn more ]

CONTINUING EDUCATION + LIVE SEMINARS + LOCAL CLASSES

Learning about balance and proper running technique is part of the Pose Method® Running Course. This seminar offers 16 contact hours towards continuing education for Certified CrossFit Trainers and Physical Therapists. Athletes and parents of school age children are encouraged to attend.

The Pose Method® system is a combination of online learning, live seminars and local classes making it the most effective solution available to health and fitness professionals as well as anyone who enjoys an active lifestyle.