High speed sports

In my previous article I examined how quickly Usain Bolt completes his 100 m race, and the difference between his maximum and average running speed. We found that Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the 100 metres, but how fast is he compared to other athletes in other running events or even other athletic sports?

This begs the question, which sport is the fastest? – A question posed to us from Hazel, aged 6. If we expand on this question, we can ask: what is the highest speed that an athlete can travel under their own power?

Starting off with running, let’s examine the average speed for the men’s world record at different distances. The average speed, is calculated by dividing the total distance of the race by the time it takes to complete. Here we have the world record average speed for different running events from 100 metres all the way up to 100 km.

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By looking at average speed, the 100 metres is the fastest running event with the record held by Usain Bolt at 10.43 ms-1 (23.47 mph). The graph also shows an interesting trend in that the longer the race distance the slower the average speed. The trend appears to follow what we call ‘exponential decay’ speed decreases very quickly at first but then becomes more and more shallow. Therefore we may be able to calculate a limit, there may be a running speed that an athlete can sustain indefinitely.

Now let’s look at another athletic event, long course freestyle swimming. The trend is very similar to running and follows a similar exponential decay. The long course 50 m freestyle event is the fastest swimming event at an average speed of 2.39 ms-1 (5.38 mph), with the record currently held by César Cielo of Brazil.

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Up until now it appears that the shorter the race distance the higher the average speed. Now let’s look at track cycling events, starting from a standing start.

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The shortest event from standing start is the 250 m time trial, but this is not the fastest track cycling event when looking at average speed. This is all down to the acceleration phase of the race; it takes a relatively long time for a track cyclist to get up their maximum speed and means they spend much of the race accelerating. When looking at average speed, the 1000 m time trial is the fastest standing start track cycling event.

Now let’s compare some other athletic sports to the average walking speed of 1.39 ms-1 (3.12 mph).

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Swimming is by the far the slowest event, closely followed by rowing. This is all down the medium which the athletes compete on or in. Water is denser than air, the drag force acting on the athlete is much larger which means they travel much slower.

The fastest event of them all is the track cycling 200 m flying start, otherwise known as the individual sprint event. This race is a tactical race with two riders jockeying for position before sprinting around the last lap. Only the last 200 m of this race is timed and by that point the rider is at their fastest speed. The whole distance of the event is usually about 3 laps of the track, but the average speed calculation is only for the last 200 metres and therefore a lot higher.

So looking at the graph it appears the long course speed skating at the Winter Olympics and track cycling at the Summer Olympics are on average the fastest athletic events. The reason for this is straight forward; human locomotion in these events is aided by an item of technology, the clap skate or the track bicycle. In the London 2012 Olympic Games the fastest individual athletic event we are going to see is the sprint track cycling event in which we have Jason Kenny and Victoria Pendleton competing for Great Britain. An example of this event is shown in the following video where Chris Hoy won one of his three gold medals at the last Olympic Games in Beijing.

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4 Responses

  1. Danny C

    Rather than using the world records, what speeds do athletes actually reach, given that the distances for racing are somewhat arbitrary and reached by historical convention and tradition? For instance, Usain Bolt’s maximum speed is not the same as his average speed for a 100m, and so the comparison to a flying time trial in cycling is not a precise comparison.

    And what about platform diving as a fast sport? The athlete is using gravity as an assist but they reach some high speeds on entering the water, although I do recognise that it is not a timed event and so is not the aim of the event.

  2. KP

    Thank you for your article. You mentioned a follow up article on different sports including BMX. Please consider an article on absolute speed per athlete. Such as negating the effects of the bike for track sprinters or BMXers and taking leg speed (you may have to guesstimate gearing and crank length) compared with say Bolt’s leg speed in the 100. Obviously, the effects of resistance and gravity would have to be noted, but it would be interesting to see which athletes legs actually move the fastest. Thanks for considering.

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