How Fast Can Humans Run?

The Physics and Limits of Human Sprinting

Florence Joyner Griffith at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea
Florence Joyner Griffith leads the pack in her race to a new record in the 100 meter dash at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Focus On Sport / Contributor / Getty Images

How fast can humans run? The fastest person clocked on our planet today is the Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt, who ran the 100 meter sprint at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in a world record of 9.58 seconds, which works out to be about 37.6 kilometers per hour or 23.4 miles per hour. For a brief period during that sprint, Bolt reached an astounding 12.3 meters per second (27.51 mph or 44.28 kph).nd (27.51 mph or 44.28 kph).

As a physical activity, running is qualitatively different from walking. In running, a person's legs flex and the muscles are forcibly stretched and then contracted during acceleration. The potential gravitational energy and the kinetic energy available in a person's body changes as the center of mass in the body changes. That is thought to be because of the alternating release and absorption of energy in the muscles.

What Makes an Elite Runner?

Scholars believe that the fastest runners, the elite sprinters, are those who run economically, meaning that they use a low amount of energy per unit of distance run. The ability to do that is influenced by muscle fiber distribution, age, sex, and other anthropometric factors—the fastest of the elite runners are young men.

The possible velocity of a runner is also influenced by bio-mechanical variables, somewhat controversially attributed to the cycle of the runner's gait.

Factors thought to influence a person's velocity are shorter ground contact times, lower stride frequencies, longer swing times, greater stride angles, and longer strides.

In particular, sprint runners maximize their acceleration and maximum sprinting velocities by applying greater mass-specific ground forces, specifically horizontal ankle velocity, contact time, and step rate.

What About Long Distance Runners?

When considering velocity, sports researchers also look at long distance runners, those who race distances between 5–42 km (3–26 mi). The fastest of these runners use considerable plantar pressure—the amount of pressure the foot puts on the ground—as well as changes in bio-mechanical parameters, movement of the legs as measured over time and space.

The fastest group in marathon running (like that of sprinters) is men aged between 25–29. Those men have an average velocity between 170–176 meters per minute, based on marathons run in Chicago and New York between 2012–2016.

Because the New York City marathon runs in waves—that is to say, there are four groups of runners who begin the race at about 30-minute intervals—statistics are available for runner velocities at 5 km segments throughout the race. Lin and colleagues used that data to provide support to the notion one factor of speed is competition—runners increase speed and change positions more frequently at the end of the race.

What are the Upper Limits?

So how fast could humans run? In comparison to other animals, humans are very slow—the fastest animal on record is the cheetah at 70 mph (112 kph); even Usain Bolt can only attain a fraction of that.

Recent research on the most elite runners have led sports medicine specialists Peter Weyand and colleagues to suggest in press reports that the upper limit might reach 35–40 mph: but no scholar has been willing to put a number on that in a peer-reviewed publication to date.

Statistics

According to Rankings.com, the fastest three male and three female sprinters in the world today are:

  • Usain Bolt (Jamaica), 9.58 seconds, set at the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing, 10.44 meters per second
  • Tyson Gay (United States) 9.69, during the 2008 Olympic Trials, 10.32 m/s
  • Asafa Powell (Jamaica) 9.72, heats at the 2007 IAAF Rieti Grand Prix 10.29 m/s
  • Florence Joyner Griffith (US) 10.49, 1988 Olympics in Seoul, 9.53 m/s
  • Carmelita Jeter (US) 10.64, Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, 2009, 9.40 m/s
  • Marion Jones (US), 10.65, IAFF World Cup, 1998, 9.39 m/s

    The three fastest marathon runners, male and female, are, according to Runners World:

    • Dennis Kimetto (Kenya), 2:02:57, Berlin Marathon 2014
    • Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia), 2:03:03, Berlin 2016
    • Elud Kipchoge (Kenya), 2:03:05, London 2016
    • Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain), 2:15:25, London, 2003
    • Mary Keitany (Kenya) 2:17:01, London, 2017
    • Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) 2:17:56, London, 2017

    Fastest Humans on Earth: Rates From Races

    RunnerMi Per HourKm Per Hour
    Usain Bolt23.35037.578
    Tyson Gay23.08537.152
    Asafa Powell 23.01437.037
    Florence Joyner Griffith21.32434.318
    Carmelita Jeter21.02433.835
    Marion Jones21.00433.803
    Dennis Kimetto12.79520.591
    Kenenisa Bekele12.78420.575
    Elud Kipchoge12.78120.569
    Paula Radcliffe11.61718.696
    Mary Keitany11.48118.477
    Tirunesh Dibaba11.40518.355

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    Hirst, K. Kris. "How Fast Can Humans Run?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-fast-can-humans-run-4152138. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, October 9). How Fast Can Humans Run? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-fast-can-humans-run-4152138 Hirst, K. Kris. "How Fast Can Humans Run?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-fast-can-humans-run-4152138 (accessed April 22, 2018).