Are Usain Bolt’s Sprinting Mechanics in Need of an Overhaul?

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet. He’s demonstrated this in two straight Olympic games. Track coaches, sprint aficionados, strength coaches, and biomechanists have much fun speculating as to whether or not Usain could get faster and how he should go about improving his speed.

In the video below (see the 5:38 mark), former Olympic gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson and his colleague Lance Walker mention that Usain Bolt could be faster if he improved his mechanics.

What’s My Take on Usain’s Sprint Performance?

1. Bolt has Superior Horizontal Impulse Production Compared to his Colleagues

During maximum speed running, THIS paper here showed that Bolt’s vertical ground reaction force was surprisingly similar to that of Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell (I discussed this study at length in THIS podcast). However, it has been shown in several studies that horizontal measures of sprinting mechanical output are more critical to speed than vertical measures (force, power, and impulse). Since Bolt stays on the ground longer, is less stiff and more compliant, has similar vertical force outputs, takes less strides, and still runs faster than his competitors, some variable has to be greater, and I’d imagine that the variable that stands out most would be horizontal impulse (see HERE for biomechanical definitions). This superior horizontal impulse production is likely attributable to a handful of factors, some of which undoubtedly include Bolt’s stature (long legs) and glute/hamstring power (type II muscle fibers), among other variables.

It is perfectly fine for experts to speculate and hypothesize in regards to Usain’s sprint training and mechanics. However, sprint experts should be cautious in assuming that changing one variable “for the better” would not impact another variable “for the worse” and would automatically improve performance and increase speed. I’ll elaborate on this below.

Usain-Lightning-Bolt-HD-Wallpaper

2. Sprinters Need to Initially “Learn the Rules” of Sprint Mechanics

Think about weight training. Initially, everyone needs to learn the rules. Lifters need to learn how to reach proper squat depth, hinge at the hips in a deadlift, keep proper scapulohumeral position in a bench, develop single leg and rotary stability, activate their glutes properly, and gain coordination in virtually every exercise.

The same applies to sprinting. Sprinters need to learn how to remain more stable with less head-bobble, sway, and shifting. They also need to learn proper front-side mechanics, which has been stressed by EliteTrack.com founder Mike Young on many occasions (read HERE for more info on frontside mechanics). On a side note, I don’t think sprinters need to purposely “minimize” backside mechanics, as this happens naturally in gait when the hip joint runs out of flexibility (see THIS article for more info on that), but they shouldn’t be overly concerned with the “pawback” as this can lead to overstriding which can diminish speed via reductions in stride rate.

3. Over Time, Athletes’ Natural Deviations Will Emerge

Again, think about weight training. Does every powerlifter keep “perfect form” in order to maximize their performance? Nope. Is there such thing as “perfect form” for everyone? Methinks not – it’s dependent on the lifter’s anatomy, physiology, and personal goals.

Some guys purposely allow for a “valgus twitch” in the squat (ex. Dan Green and most Olympic lifters – click HERE and HERE to learn more about this), some round their upper backs heavily in a deadlift (ex. Konstantin Konstantinovs – click HERE to see how world class powerlifters deadlift), and some lean forward more in a squat (ex. Layne Norton). If they could get stronger using more strict form, they would. But they’ve figured out how to maximize their performance given their physical characteristics.

The same can be said for sprinters. Some will get their speed increases more from greater stride lengths and better direction of force application, whereas other sprinters will get their speed increases more from greater stride rates and better rate of force development. Some will get more out of a particular form or cue, whereas others will not benefit at all from a certain intervention.

4. There is no Universal “Perfect Sprint Form” for Everyone as There Will be Subtle Differences Based on the Individual’s Anatomy & Physiology

Great sprinters indeed share many of the same running characteristics, however, there will always be some subtle differences. Some sprinters will shift side to side or bobble a bit more than others, some will have their leg cross over the center-line during acceleration, and some will achieve a higher knee lift (hip flexion) than others. Sprinters should certainly strive to get all they can out of improving their mechanics. However, there is likely a “sweet spot” between too much “aberrant” movement and robotic linear movement that maximizes performance. Moreover, good sprinters and their coaches will likely come to a point where they accept the sprinter’s uniqueness and quit trying to drive square pegs into round holes. Just as in the case of powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and strongman, where lifters learn to maximize their performance by tinkering with their form, sprinters should too, and this form doesn’t always jive with the status quo.

That said, there are definitely various general rules in sprinting that need to be respected. But when working with sprinters to improve their mechanics, one cannot assume that changing one element of sprinting would not affect other elements of sprinting and actually diminish sprinting speed.

Glen Mills and Usain Bolt

Glen Mills and Usain Bolt

For example, let’s say Usain’s coach Glen Mills “fixed” Usain’s lateral shifting during acceleration. Perhaps it would render him slower:

  • Maybe the heads of Usain’s femur best articulate with the hip socket with a little bit of internal rotation.
  • Maybe Usain’s hip flexors have a line of pull that’s most efficient with some slight hip internal rotation.
  • Maybe Usain’s glutes receive a slight stretch reflex when the leg crosses over the midline and therefore render more power production during ground contact.
  • Maybe Usain’s gluteus maximus is oriented in a particular manner that causes him to create a large hip external rotation torque along with end-range hip extension torque at ground contact, and the lateral motion counteracts this powerful glute contraction and keeps him balanced.

Let’s say we stationed Usain in a world class biomechanics and physiology laboratory and measured Usain’s anthropometry and precise anatomical relationships for all segments, his muscle moment arms, muscle physiological cross sectional areas, fascicle lengths, fiber type percentages, force plate data, EMG data, motion capture data, and joint torque data during sprinting. Only then could we begin to build a model to allow us to intelligently speculate as to how Usain could improve his performance.

But even then, these would just be theories. You’d then need to implement training interventions to test the hypotheses and see if they panned out in the real world. Some of these interventions would require adequate time for proper coordination and motor control mastery to set in. It’s very likely that these hypotheses would fail. As Richard Feynman says, if theory doesn’t match experiments, then it’s wrong!

The best track and field coaches have an eye for this sort of thing. Guys like Dan Pfaff and Vern Gambetta can pick out immediate flaws in technique, even in elite sprinters. But they also know when to “let something slide” if it looks right for a particular sprinter. Speaking of experts, I asked two of my colleagues to chime in on this topic.

What do Other Top Sprint Experts Have to Say About this Topic?

Though I have a ton of expertise in reading sprint literature and studying biomechanics, I am very limited in my knowledge of working with sprinters. Therefore, I reached out to two colleagues whom I highly trust in terms of their expertise. The first is Jimson Lee of SpeedEndurance.com, and the second is Mike Young of EliteTrack.com. These gentlemen have considerably more experience working with sprinters than I do. Here’s what I asked them:

  1. Should Usain Bolt be Trying to Tinker with His Form as Suggested by Johnson and his Colleague? 
  2. Is There One “Universal” Type of “Perfect” Form that All Sprinters Should Try to Achieve, or Will There be Deviations Depending on the Athlete? 
Track & Field Experts Jimson Lee & Mike Young

Track & Field Experts Jimson Lee & Mike Young

Jimson Lee’s Answer

Q1) The only “form changes” one should attempt is to satisfy one of the two goals (a) greater force on ground contact and (b) getting the limbs (legs) in the proper position to allow for a great force upon contact, but not too long of a ground contact. That being said, let’s say he suggests a higher knee lift. Well, that would cause the hips to drop, which would decrease the amount of force applied to the ground.

This brings up the toe-drag in the 2nd step coming out of the blocks. It allows the leg to hit the ground faster, because it’s a shorter line. But what effect does it have on specific force application for that next step? Is the toe-drag good for all sprinters?

Q2) I think there is a universal technique, just look at a 100m final at OG or WC. They all look the same and have the same style with minor variations. (Go to a high school or middle school meet and you’ll see 8 different running styles!)

I think sports biomechanists have “agreed” on a proper starting technique, and top speed technique with minor variations, depending on body type, height, strength levels, etc. And athletes are the best compensators, reaching out to different muscle groups to compensate for what they want to do.

Another simple drill is the dorsiflexion drill. Why? because it puts the foot the proper position before it strikes the ground. You can watch all the videos on YouTube in Slo-mo and you’ll be hard pressed to find elite sprinters with their toes pointing down before footstrike.

But there is a case where you can and should run biomechanically differently in a race, and that is the 400m. One of the secrets to running a good 400m is buried in my Blog articles… In the 400m – you run the 1st 300m different as compared to the last 100 during (massive) deceleration. You know you will slow down, and ground contact times will double, so you should change your running mechanics accordingly (first 300, last 100), whether its shortening the stride, using your arms more, but most people lengthen the stride or have legs like long grandfather clock pendulum actions, relying on stride length rather than stride frequency, instead of trying to optimize the two for the fastest time to cover ground.

Mike Young’s Answer

If I were working with Usain, I’d be very careful with any adjustments in his technique. He’s obviously achieved a tremendous level of success and run faster than any other human being that ever lived and I’m a firm believer in not messing with something that’s working. That said, in working with other elite track & field athletes, I do find that even with my most technically proficient athletes there are always times when cueing and slight adjustments are needed. As for making the changes that Johnson suggests….I agree with some but not all. I think some ipsilateral shoulder-hip axis rotation is actually a beneficial thing. I do view Usain’s lateral trunk flexion during acceleration as inefficient and his internal femur rotation to be a bit excessive. If I had Usain at 18 to 20 years old I definitely would have tried to make those adjustments. Given his success and more advanced age I’d be a little more reluctant to change things at this point in his career.

I don’t think there’s a “1 size fits all” technical model that will work exactly for all athletes but I definitely think there is a generalized technical model based on principles of physics and neuromechanics of the human body that can be applied to every athlete to help improve their sprinting efficiency. There are some kinematic characteristics that need to happen to maximize performance. There’s quite a bit of research on optimization modelling of sporting performances ranging from gymnastics skills to throwing that supports the idea that there are kinematic characteristics associated with elite performance and many of these have a causal relationship with performance. Dr. Ralph Mann’s research highlights many of these in sprinting. The key in coaching is determining how to apply those general principles to an individual with unique physical characteristics to achieve the best results. In my experience, many track and field coaches attempt to make too many changes at one time without the requisite understanding of physics and neuromechanics or an understanding of the cause-effect relationships between the kinematic variables in elite sprinting. As a result, a lot of the ‘technical training’ I’ve seen is at best, a motor learning nightmare and at worst, actually making technique and performance worse.

Conclusion

As you can see, this is an interesting topic! Thanks to Mike and Jimson for their excellent input. At the end of the day, Usain’s neuromuscular power that acts upon his particular skeletal frame is able to generate the fastest overground sprint running speeds on Earth. Whether Usain can be faster is always fodder for good conversation, but coaches need to appreciate that Usain works with arguably the best track & field coach in history. We don’t see anything that Glen Mills doesn’t see, and we should trust that Glen knows what’s best for Usain’s speed development. That surely won’t stop us from speculating though! In case you’re wondering how Usain Bolt strength trains, click HERE to see how he goes about his training.

Scientific Research on Usain Bolt

For those really interested in learning about the important literature on sprint running, consider buying THIS eBook which summarizes the best sprint research. For science geeks like me, below is a list of journal articles that are written on Usain Bolt – I was able to find 8 articles in total.

A Kinematics Analysis Of Three Best 100 M Performances Ever

Spring mass characteristics of the fastest men on Earth

What gives Bolt the edge-A.V. Hill knew it already!

On the performance of Usain Bolt in the 100 m sprint

How fast could Usain Bolt have run? A dynamical study

The force, power, and energy of the 100 meter sprint

On the Speed Barrier of Human Beings——Firstly Uncover the Recipe of Jamaican Athlete Usain Bolt,the Creator of Sprint World′s Record

Velocity dispersions in a cluster of stars: How fast could Usain Bolt have run?

Usain

27 thoughts on “Are Usain Bolt’s Sprinting Mechanics in Need of an Overhaul?

  1. Travis Pollen

    Very thought-provoking piece, Bret. I particularly like the possible reasons you give for why Usain’s “sloppy” form during acceleration might actually be faster for him. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that Michael Johnson could be right, too — that cleaning up the lateral motion could make him faster. What a joy it would be to bring Usain into the biomechanics lab for testing!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Great point Travis, cleaning up lateral motion could very well make him faster! And I concur, it would be a dream-come-true for a sprint biomechanics geek like me to get to study Usain in a world class laboratory. That’s what I’d do if I won the lottery haha – I’d make that happen ;)

      Reply
      1. Andy

        Just an off the cuff suggestion but maybe some sponsorship help (from some leading sporting bodies) would help in getting Usain in the Lab, Bret. That is if you don’t win the lottery

        PS. always thinking nothing is impossible

        Reply
    2. Carl

      Nice ideas on paper but the reality is that “problem” is not new and so let’s look at history first before we make conjectures of what is happening with youtube videos. Is this visual compensation or adjustment Usain is making unique to just him and what did coaches and athletes do about earlier problems that were similar? This topic is not new (lateral sway) and Ben Johnson did it.

      Reply
  2. Jim

    Hey Bret i noticed that you have a passion for sprint/speedt training. Have you seen Joe Defrancos speed training manual ? Do you think its worth purchasing ?

    Reply
      1. Jim

        Thanks bret ! I appreciate your opinion and love the website. Also i really enjoyed your strength and condition research review on sprinting.

        Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Yep. Charlie Francis told a story about how they “fixed” a sprinter’s erector imbalance; rendering the guy permanently slower.

      Reply
  3. Peter

    Which studies show that horizontal measures of sprinting mechanical output are more critical to speed than vertical ones?

    Reply
      1. Carl

        Bret,

        The Morin studies were basically torn apart by TCSM at elitetrack.com and two of the links above talk about acceleration only, not about top speed. The acceleration in 100m dash is two factors here. One the fact the race is 60% acceleration so all horizontal forces (lateral early) as well as front and back matter. The Treadmill study had athletes in a slight acceleration posture and the studies show that acceleration forces front and back are increased with leaning. This is not to say horizontal forces don’t matter and vertical forces do, I would love to see a poor vertical force producer with hip trusting power going 9.5 like bolt. Not going to see it.

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          Carl, the topic on this post is whether Usain Bolt would benefit from trying to change his technique.

          Who is TCSM?

          Is he a published author?

          Do you have a link to the EliteTrack forum where this gentleman allegedly “tore apart” the research?

          How many studies do you have in your possession that indicate vertical superiority versus horizontal superiority?

          You and your colleagues need to examine the entire body of evidence and then form your conclusions.

          Since Morin’s studies jive with overground studies then they’re much more credible.

          And I could be wrong, but I suspect that Bolt’s vetical force production is on par with National level sprinters, but his horizontal force (more precisely his horizontal impulse) is probably the best in the world.

          I agree that both are important and that they feed off of each other, but force needs to be directed optimally for maximum speed.

          This blogpost isn’t about hip thrusts, and whether hip thrusts do a great job of increasing horizontal force production during sprinting remains to be shown in the literature and is just speculation at this point. My take is that it does, and I can make a good biomechanical argument as to why this occurs. But as my favorite Physicist Richard Feynman says, “If experiments don’t match theory, then they’re wrong.”

          Reply
  4. Dave

    Nice article.

    I would suggest that you are perfect to present your observations. Opinions outside of those working directly in the event area avoid a “when all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail” effect of too much time analyzing the same athletes in the same pursuit.

    Reply
  5. Alain McGhie

    Great, article Bret. I would like to see you post more articles similar to this one. My question to you is. Does is make sense to make adjustments to Bolt’s sprinting mechanics at his current age? Shouldn’t the focus be on how to effectively maximize the current sprint technique that he is using?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      I’m with Dr. Mike Young on this one – would have been ideal to tinker with earlier in Usain’s career, but not now. Too late IMO and not worth the risks of rendering him slower.

      Reply
  6. Patrick O'Flaherty

    Bret,

    With horizontal impulse forces more important than vertical impulse forces in sprinting, does it make more sense in the selection of both strength and plyometric exercises to include more horizontal exercises than vertical ones in some areas (excluding foundational exercises like squats, hip thrusts and deadlifts)?

    Examples:

    Lunges instead of Step Ups

    Standing Broad Jumps instead of Box Jumps

    Backward Sled Drags (tow strap around ankles) instead of Standing Cord or Cable Unilateral Hip Flexion

    Thanks,

    Patrick

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Great question Patrick. There’s one study that looked at this with soccer players over a 5-wk period: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23579053

      I’d have predicted better transfer to sprinting with the combined group but they actually found better transfer to jumping when combining horizontal.

      Personally, I like vertical plyos more for improving RFD and stiffness, and I like resistance training (blend of squats, RDLs, hip thrusts, and back extensions) for improving horizontal force/power/impulse (and especially sprints!).

      Reply
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  8. Rich

    Bret,

    Enjoyed reading this post and it was a good idea to get both Jimson and Mike to comment. Mike’s comment about a “generalized technical model” hits the nail on the head. The frontside / backside debate that some coaches seem to stir up leaves me scratching my head. They still put forth that backside mechanics are the keys to faster sprints. Focus on frontside and let the backside be, unless it falls out of the generalized technical model that Mike speaks of, sounds sensible to me.

    Related to all this, it might be interesting (unless you already have?) to investigate how all of this may tie into the 40 yard dash, particularly the set-up position and technique over the first 10 that is encouraged by many coaches.

    Reply
  9. Jan Melen

    Interesting questions and answers. I myself am convinced
    to sprint improvements in recent years, mainly depends to the horizontal
    strength production. I have experimented for years with what I call a power sprint, that can develop both optimal vertical force as a extremly huge horizontal force, fully operating with a technique as a perfect sprint model.

    Glad if you to visit my website. Many years have passed with great curiosity from around the world and many have probably copied this simple but effective method. Hoping for nice sprint results in next few years by the few that currently use this method. Of course, first in my home town here in Sweden.

    http://www.powersprint.space2u.com/Engelsk.html

    Reply
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  11. Chandler Wilson

    Usain Bolt’s biomechanics are almost perfect. He does not need to change anything. He has GREAT internal rotation at the hips and shoulders. That “lateral motion” is internal rotation, which allows him to get good extension at the hips, allowing him to create a lot of torque and stay on his toes(he also has scoliosis). It looks akward how the hip turns inward, but it is not a bad thing .If you watch the elite sprinters (Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin) running sub 10 they do the same thing.

    Reply
  12. BruceLeeFan

    You Internet people are strange. Most of the published stuff is wrong and garbage. You take PubMed far too seriously….. There is no such thing as “The Scientific Method.”

    The Jamaican coaches know what they are doing. They are among the best in the world. It does not mean ANYTHING what a “study” says IF it does NOT WORK for Bolt HIMSELF. This was Bruce Lee’s point. He did not care how long a martial art was around or WHO it worked for- Masters or not. He ONLY cared what worked for HIM personally and tried his best to find what WORKED INDIVIDUALLY for each student.

    Reply

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