Scientists say they've figured out why elite sprinters are so much faster than the rest of us mere mortals, and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the donuts we ate for breakfast. The world's fastest runners have a significantly different gait pattern than other athletes, according to a new study from Southern Methodist University—and it's one that we can train our own bodies to emulate.
When researchers studied the running patterns of competitive 100- and 200-meter dash athletes versus competitive soccer, lacrosse, and football players, they found that the sprinters run with a more upright posture, and lift their knees higher before driving their foot down. Their feet and ankles remain stiff upon making contact with the ground too—"like a hammer striking a nail," says study co-author Ken Clark, "which caused them to have short ground contact times, large vertical forces, and elite top speeds."
Most athletes, on the other hand, act more like a spring when they run, says Clark: "Their foot strikes aren't as aggressive, and their landings are a little more soft and loose," causing much of their potential power to be absorbed rather than expended. This "normal" technique is effective for endurance running, when runners need to conserve their energy (and go easier on their joints) over longer time periods. But for short distances, says Clark, moving more like an elite sprinter may help even normal runners pick up explosive speed.
Want to add a fast finish to your next 5K? Focus on keeping your posture upright, driving your knees high, and landing squarely on the ball of your foot, keeping contact with the ground as brief as possible, says Clark. (Incidentally, all of the athletes tested in this study were fore-front and mid-front strikers. The jury's still out as to how efficient heel striking is for endurance runners, but it's been shown to be much less effective at faster speeds.)
Of course, don't attempt this technique for the first time in an all-out race scenario. Try it out in drills or a practice situation first to avoid injury. Then on race day, kick it into sprinting gear about 30 seconds from the finish line.