Back at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, Usain Bolt ran the 100-meter in 9.58 seconds. It was the best race of his career and a world record that stands to this day. About halfway through the race, though, Bolt set another, less-heralded record. He touched 27.5-mph, which is the fastest recorded speed in human history.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times revisited that feat and discussed what it would take for a human being to run as fast, or faster, in the coming years. According to Peter G. Weyand, a biomechanics researcher and physiologist at Southern Methodist University, the biggest obstacle to Homo sapiens improving on Usain Bolt’s record is simply our “bipedal stride.”
Even the world’s fastest humans only exert force on the ground through 40% of their stride time. Fleet-footed quadrupeds, meanwhile (cheetahs, horses, dogs, antelopes) exert force for over 60% of their stride time. So, barring an institutional redesign of human beings (which is still in the far, far future — genetic superbabies aren’t arriving anytime soon), Bolt, or someone like Bolt, might be the pinnacle of human speed.
And finding someone similar to Bolt, let alone creating a human being with four legs, could take some time. Bolt’s long legs (he’s 6’5″) gave him an unusual advantage in the sprinting world, allowing him to spend more time on the ground and generate more force. His success was and anomaly, and based on traditional world record progressions … decades too early. According to research from biology professor Mark Denny, the fastest 100-meter time a human could possibly run is 9.48 seconds — which would probably include a top speed slightly above Bolt’s mark.
One element that could throw all the debates and prognostications for a loop is wearable technology. The long-distance running world was rocked this year by controversy over carbon-plated shoes, which allegedly return 4% more energy to runners, and save whole minutes over the course of a marathon. The world of sprinting will undoubtedly welcome (or eschew) similar technologies over the coming years.
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