With the track and field events of the Olympic Games well underway, I went down to Loughborough University’s School of Sports and Sciences (Team GB’s preparation base) to learn more about the biomechanics behind Olympic success.
Unlike when the Ancient Greeks first began to compete on Mount Olympus, modern athletes have trainers, dieticians and physios to help them maximise their potential. In 2012, technology and science now also play an important role in assisting athletes to go harder, faster and stronger. Dr Sam Allen is part of a team responsible for analysing the technique of triple jumpers using specially created computer software. By analysing the triple jump process in split-second detail, Dr Allen and his team have been able to show athletes exactly where distance is being won or lost.
Maximising speed is key to many track and field events, including running, long and triple jump, javelin, pole vault and more. Elite sprinters regularly reach speeds of 40 km/h, with Usain Bolt – the fastest human being ever to have walked (or run) the Earth – able to achieve such a high velocity, he would almost break the 30mph speed limit for built up British roads.
In sprinting, where 100m races start and finish in less than ten seconds, every possible advantage, however small, becomes critical. As Dr Allen explains, the tiniest details really do make a big difference.
“It’s been shown that in sprinting, sprinters have a shorter distance in their feet from the Achilles tendon to the ankle joint compared to non-sprinters,” he explains.
“This, in effect, is a kind of gear ratio, which allows sprinters to produce more force in their legs at high velocities.
“Sprinters also tend to have longer toes than non-sprinters, which just gives them that tiny extra period of contact so they can push off for longer. Distance runners are the opposite and tend to have shorter toes than sprinters.”
While an event such as the triple jump would not usually be considered to be one reliant on strength, the science shows that, in reality, incredible leg power is a must for all Olympic jumpers.
“The highest force in the triple jump process happens at the end of the ‘hop’ phase, going into the ‘step’. It’s been measured that 22 bodyweights of peak force go into the leg for that brief moment – so for a 77kg triple jumper, that’s almost 1.7 metric tonnes of force (around the weight of a typical sportscar) for that one moment.
“It’s actually the highest measured force to go through any human limb during any voluntary activity – so it’s quite extreme. For this reason it’s been found that triple jumpers have stronger bones than the average person, which probably comes down to training as it’s been found that bone density increases with repeated impact.”
Power and speed are nothing without control. For the triple jump, perfecting technique can make the difference between a gold medal and a face full of sand.
Simulations have shown that there is no single ‘ultimate’ technique for athletes to try and emulate – each individual athlete has to work hard to perfect their own technique to maximise their own performance. And as Dr. Allen explains, when it comes to triple jump, there are a number of different approaches that can be taken.
“For elite performers, about 30% of the final distance is determined by the ‘step’. The other portions of the jump are made up of balance technique (33%). Hop-dominant techniques are when the ‘hop’ phase makes up 37% of the process, while jump-dominant techniques are where the final ‘jump’ phase is worth 37%.
“Our initial findings seem to suggest you can achieve a similar outcome with a shorter hop and a longer jump, or vice versa. Not necessarily exactly the same outcome – and there may in fact be an optimum – but it doesn’t seem to affect performance too much.”
As the Games go by, world records continue to be broken as athletes get ever faster, stronger and fitter. But will we ever see an athlete set the bar so high, it will never be broken?
“It’s been predicted so many times that athletes are going to hit a plateau in human performance, but it never seems to happen. Athletes keep confounding every prediction of this,” Dr Allen says.
“Theoretically, it makes sense if we are not evolving through natural selection anymore – selecting mates based purely on the characteristics of strength, speed and power that would improve athletic performance – but it would take a brave man to predict that somebody will one day set a world record that will never be beaten. Humans continually find a way to improve.
Usain Bolt is a case in point – he has hammered a world record that no one thought would be touched and then suddenly you get his training partner running almost as quickly over 200m last season. It’s almost like as soon as one person makes a breakthrough, seemingly everyone seems to follow – it’s a weird thing.”