Could anyone go faster than Usain Bolt? © Getty Images

Could anyone go faster than Usain Bolt?

Runners like Usain Bolt keep breaking records, but how fast can good old skin and bone ultimately carry us?

Usain Bolt’s 100m world record of 9.58 seconds gives him a top speed of nearly 45km/h. But research published earlier this year suggests our muscles have the power to propel us even more quickly – perhaps as fast as 65km/h.

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Physiologists at US universities asked athletes to do some odd things on a treadmill, including running backwards and hopping on one leg. And while it’s typically been assumed that the power in our muscles limits how fast we can run, the tests proved they are much more powerful than once thought. The limiting factor, it now seems, is how quickly the muscles can contract to produce the force. When we run, our foot is only in contact with the ground for a short period of time, so this speed is crucial.

Evolution

Regardless of this, the elite athlete’s build has evolved in recent decades. “In the 1960 Rome
 Olympics, the sprinter was of average build, perhaps with slightly thicker legs. This build was enough to run 10.0,” says Prof Ralph Beneke, director of the Human Performance Unit at the University of Essex. “Then, if you look at sprinters of the ’90s, they were hugely bulky, built up with anything to boost muscle mass. Currently, they’re getting leaner again, but not slower. They’re getting the best out of their physique by using training techniques that increase effectiveness.”

The right genes

And what about the genetic component of our athletic abilities? Alun Williams at Manchester Metropolitan University identified 23 gene-related characteristics, such as oxygen intake and muscle endurance, that influence athletic ability. He found that as world population rises, the chances of getting someone with the right genes for all 23 characteristics increases. “World and Olympic records should improve, even without further enhancement of environmental factors, as more ‘advantageous’ polygenic profiles emerge,” he recently wrote in the Journal of Physiology. The odds of one individual existing today with exactly the right set of genes are calculated at around 1 in 1212 trillion.

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