Can a human EVER run 100 metres in under nine seconds? As the Commonwealth Games heats kick off, scientists reveal how ‘modest’ increases in step length and frequency could allow an athlete to break Usain Bolt’s record

  • The heats of the 100 metres at the Commonwealth Games have kicked off in Birmingham today
  • Usain Bolt holds the record for the event, having completed the race in 9.58 seconds in 2009
  • While several other athletes have also completed the race in under 10s, no one is yet to break the 9s barrier
  • MailOnline spoke to scientists to understand whether or not humans will ever run 100m in less than 9s 

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It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated events at any athletics competition, and now the heats of the 100 metres have finally kicked off at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The men’s race will see Wales’ Jeremiah Azu take on Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala and Jamaica’s Ackeem Blake, while Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce remains the favourite in the women’s race.

The current record holder for the event is Usain Bolt, who clocked an astonishing 9.58 seconds at the 2009 IAAF World Championships.

And while several other athletes have also completed the race in under 10 seconds, no one is yet to break the nine-second barrier.

So, the question remains: can a human ever run 100 metres in under nine seconds?

With the first round of the event at the Commonwealth Games kicking off today, MailOnline spoke to scientists to help answer the question – with varying opinions.

The current record holder for the event is Usain Bolt, who clocked an astonishing 9.58 seconds at the 2009 IAAF World Championships

Jersey's Zachary Saunders competes in the Men's 100m round 1 at Alexander Stadium on day five of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

Jersey’s Zachary Saunders competes in the Men’s 100m round 1 at Alexander Stadium on day five of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

The fastest athletes in the 100 metres 

Usain Bolt (August 2009) – 9.58 seconds

Tyson Gay (September 2009) – 9.69 seconds

Yohan Blake (August 2012) – 9.69 seconds

Asafa Powell (September 2008) – 9.72 seconds

Justin Gatlin (May 2015) – 9.74 seconds

Christian Coleman (September 2019) – 9.76 seconds

Trayvon Bromell (September 2021) – 9.76 seconds

Fred Kerley (June 2022) – 9.76 seconds

Ferdinand Omanyala (September 2021) – 9.77 seconds

Nesta Carter August 2010) – 9.78 seconds

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Before 1968, the 10-second mark was widely considered a barrier for the 100 metres race.

But Jim Hines shocked viewers around the world when he clocked 9.95 seconds at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Since then, the world record has come on leaps and bounds, with many of the top male sprinters now having a sub-10 second race under their belt.

But a leap from Bolt’s 2009 record of 9.58 seconds to sub-nine seconds is no mean feat.

According to Polly McGuigan and Aki Salo, lecturers in Sport Biomechanics at the University of Bath, the main issue in achieving a sub-nine second race is how much power humans can produce, and what the requirements are to achieve this.

To produce long steps at a high frequency, athletes must produce a huge amount of force in a very short period of time – approximately 4.5 times their body weight in around 0.1 seconds.

To do this, athletes must maintain a very stiff leg and accelerate it into the ground at foot contact, explained Dr McGuigan and Professor Salo in an article for The Conversation.

‘Recent research has shown that it is this difference in the forces generated in the early part of the stance phase (just after foot contact) that distinguishes very fast sprinters from the less fast ones,’ they said.

‘The ability to maintain a stiff limb is determined by how muscle force can be generated in the muscles of the leg.

England's Ali Smith competes in the Women's T37/38 100m Round 1 at Alexander Stadium on day five of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

England’s Ali Smith competes in the Women’s T37/38 100m Round 1 at Alexander Stadium on day five of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

Could ‘super-spike’ shoes be the answer to breaking the 9 second barrier? 

A study by the University of Massachusetts explored new innovations in athletics, including lightweight, resilient, and compliant midsole foam, altered geometry, and increased longitudinal bending stiffness in shoes.

They wanted to find a way to quantify the benefit of the new technology, but found too many confounding factors had to be considered.

The team suggested it would be necessary to wait for multiple companies to offer the technology and for it to be so widely used you can track results in competition.

‘In the end, we might just need to rely on an unbiased comparison of track performances pre- and post- the introduction of super spikes, or, at the individual level, changes in an athlete’s training or race times,’ authors wrote.

‘In several years, we can expect performance analyses into the historical development of annual top 20 and top 50 performances, similar to those currently being published for marathon super shoes. 

‘It is tempting to attribute any new world record to footwear innovation, but the long-term performance trajectories of, for example, Sydney McLaughlin and Karsten Warholm, cannot be ignored,’ the authors said.

The findings have been published in the SportRxiv preprint

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‘This in turn is a function of muscle size, the types of fibres which make up the muscles and the co-ordinated activation of the muscles of the leg to optimise the use of elastic mechanisms and amplify the power from the muscles.

‘A muscle with a high proportion of large, fast twitch muscle fibres will be able to generate larger amounts of force more quickly than a muscle with a lower proportion.’

According to the researchers, a combination of factors would be needed to reach the point at which enough force can be generated quickly enough to produce the required step lengths and frequencies for a sub-nine second race.

‘A combination of genetics and training would need to produce bum, thigh and calf muscles which are a little bit stronger and faster than the current best sprinters,’ they explained.

The University of Bath experts suggest that the record will start to plateau at some point, and it will get harder and harder to outrun the previous record holder.

However, they remain optimistic about breaking the nine second barrier.

‘It’s safe to say that someone will break the nine second barrier – not necessarily in our lifetime, but it will happen one day,’ they concluded.

However, not everyone is so positive.

Speaking to MailOnline, Dr Sam Allen, a Senior Lecturer in Biomechanics at Loughborough University, said he doubts the 100 metres will ever be completed in under nine seconds.

‘Based on the current rates of progression I would say no,’ he said.

‘However obviously anything could and likely will happen in the fullness of time, there is no accounting for currently unknown factors completely shifting the goalposts.’

Dr Allen believes that technological advancements could help boost the chances of breaking the nine-second barrier. 

‘Undoubtedly shoes and track surfaces could improve sprint times but by how much will depend on how much the governing bodies limit innovation in this area,’ he said.

‘They have seemingly already banned prototype sprint spikes because it seemed they improved performance by too much.’

Jim Hines shocked viewers around the world when he clocked 9.95 seconds at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Since then, the world record has come on leaps and bounds, with many male sprinters now having a sub-10 second race under their belt. But a leap from Bolt's 2009 record of 9.58 seconds to sub-nine seconds is no mean feat

Jim Hines shocked viewers around the world when he clocked 9.95 seconds at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Since then, the world record has come on leaps and bounds, with many male sprinters now having a sub-10 second race under their belt. But a leap from Bolt’s 2009 record of 9.58 seconds to sub-nine seconds is no mean feat

During the Tokyo Olympics, a ‘super-shoe’ allowed athletes to smash world records thanks to their carbon-fibre plates and air pod ‘mattresses’.

But sports chiefs faced huge pressure to ban the high-tech footwear before the delayed games even began.

The controversial issue – which has been brewing for years – was thrust into the limelight in Tokyo, with all eyes on Nike’s Air Zoom Maxfly.

Norway’s 400m hurdles gold medal winner Karsten Warholm launched a rant against Nike’s ‘bull****’ spike technology after winning one of the ‘greatest Olympic races of all time’.

He obliterated his own world record to claim gold while wearing the £170 ($236) Puma EvoSpeed Future Faster+ spikes, designed with the Mercedes F1 team.

But Rai Benjamin from the US, wearing the £165 ($229) Nike Maxfly spikes, came in a very close second, and also beat the previous world record of 46.70 seconds set by Warholm in Oslo last year.

A study published by the University of Massachusetts explored new innovations in athletics, including lightweight, resilient, and compliant mid-sole foam, altered geometry, and increased longitudinal bending stiffness in shoes.

During the Tokyo Olympics, a 'super-shoe' allowed athletes to smash world records thanks to their carbon-fibre plates and air pod 'mattresses'

During the Tokyo Olympics, a ‘super-shoe’ allowed athletes to smash world records thanks to their carbon-fibre plates and air pod ‘mattresses’

They wanted to find a way to quantify the benefit of the new technology, but found too many confounding factors had to be considered.

The team suggested it would be necessary to wait for multiple companies to offer the technology and for it to be so widely used you can track results in competition.

‘In the end, we might just need to rely on an unbiased comparison of track performances pre- and post- the introduction of super spikes, or, at the individual level, changes in an athlete’s training or race times,’ the authors wrote.

‘In several years, we can expect performance analyses into the historical development of annual top 20 and top 50 performances, similar to those currently being published for marathon super shoes. 

‘It is tempting to attribute any new world record to footwear innovation, but the long-term performance trajectories of, for example, Sydney McLaughlin and Karsten Warholm, cannot be ignored,’ the authors said.

Bigger bums help athletes run faster: Large gluteus maximus can boost performance by up to 44 per cent, study shows 

Experts from Loughborough University found that sprinters (pictured) with a large gluteus maximus — the muscle that forms the bottom — can run up to 44 per cent faster

Experts from Loughborough University found that sprinters (pictured) with a large gluteus maximus — the muscle that forms the bottom — can run up to 44 per cent faster

Unsure who to place a bet on in the men’s 100 meters at the Commonwealth Games? Well, scientists may have a useful mantra for you: ‘I like big butts and I can not lie.’

Experts from Loughborough University found that sprinters with a large gluteus maximus — the muscle that forms the bottom — can run up to 44 per cent faster.

The team discovered this ‘booty boost’ factor after comparing the lower body muscles of of men who were either elite sprinters, sub-elite athletes or untrained.

Elite sprinters — those with a personal best of under 9.99 seconds in the 100 metres — were found to be not only more muscular generally, but also in a very specific way.

While their calf muscles were similar in size to those of their sub-elite counterparts, others — including the gluteus maximus and hip extensors — were far bigger.

The findings have the potential to revolutionise the physical training and performance of many athletes, the researchers claimed.

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