Just how fast can man run?

A slight deviation from the usual article today as I felt it was rather timely. But first, some background as I whisk you back to the summer of 2008 in Beijing, China when a young sprinter named Usain Bolt really made a name for himself. He had pretty much came out of no where at a Grand Prix event in May earlier that year, held on Long Island. He broke Asafa Powell’s world 100m sprint record by running a 9.72. Not only was this amazing, it was even more impressive considering that Bolt was originally a 200 and 400 meter runner. He was twenty-one years young.

Fast-forward to August and he qualified easily for the 100m final of the Olympic Games (and the 200m, lest us not forget). The final is now something of legend as Bolt broke his own world record by running a time of 9.69 seconds with no favourable wind conditions and seeming to slow down to celebrate before even passing the finishing line. He also won the 200m gold, and was part of the gold medal-winning Jamaican 4x100m relay team. The irony of this is in 2005 that both his manager and coach both tried to get Bolt to focus on the 400m in time for 2007/08 but he was adamant that he wanted to try the shorter 100m distance. The reason for their reluctance is that tall men are not generally known to be great sprinters. In fact, long legs are thought to be quite the hindrance, and at six foot five inches tall, Bolt has some very long legs! Successful sprinters are usually smaller and compact with a low center of gravity. With his ability to generate huge force off the floor and take long galloping strides, Bolt blew this concept out of the water.

Fast-forward again, pretty much a year to the day in fact, to August 2009 at the Track and Field World Championships held in Berlin, Germany. Bolt once again made the final with ease, and in the final itself? Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words…bolt_958

Now the question being raised is just how fast can a man (we’ll assume Usain Bolt until the next phenomenon comes along) run?

Funny you should ask, because a paper was released in July by two econometrists (people who look into stats, basically) from Tilberg University in Holland. They analysed all the personal bests of over one-thousand athletes (men and women in a ratio of approx 60:40) between January 1st 1991 and June 19th 2008. The reason for this is that the writers wanted to exclude as many doping times as possible, and they deemed drug-control up until 1990 to be inadequate.  To these statistics gathered, they applied something known as Extreme Value Theory (EVT), which looks into extreme deviations of probability. If you want to know more about EVT you can look it up in your own time because just finding out what it meant bored me silly. Thankfully the application of it to the 100m distance makes for a much more interesting read.

The table below shows the stats collected:


Sample Size



100m Men




100m Women




To these they applied a lot (read: a LOT) of different equations, which if you really want to read you can find the full text at this link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1433242. At the end of this, they conclude that the potential best 100m times are 9.51 seconds for men and 10.33 seconds for women.

Which brings us back to last night and Usain Bolt’s insane 9.58 second sprint. In July when the paper was released the world record was 9.69 set in Beijing which is 0.18 seconds off their prediction. After last night, Bolt has it down to 0.08 seconds, and we have to remember that not only is the guy still competing in the 200m (and smashed the World record for that also during the championships), thus not putting all his resources into focusing 100% on the 100m, but he is also quite a clown and has a tendency to do just enough to eclipse his last outing rather than really go and destroy it. And let’s not forget that in May of this year he set a new 150m record in Manchester, England. The highlight of this was that he did the last 100m in 8.72 seconds.

And maybe the key point here is that he turned twenty-three on August 21st so is no where near maturity yet. Maybe they’ll have to rethink their formula if Bolt continues in this vein?

As a final word I just want to say that I don’t want to be sexist (or ignorant) by excluding that any time set by a man can be smashed by a woman, but history dictates that this is very unlikely. Because of this, I settled on the title of the article to what it is and focused on the performances of a man. We can only assume that the fastest 100m time will always be held by a male.

Source: John H.J. Einmahl, Sander G.W.R. Smeets. Ultimate 100m world records through extreme-value theory. July 2009. ISSN 0924-7815.

About the Author

Matt Cahill has worked extensively in the nutritional supplement field, and is the former CEO of Designer Supplements. During his time in the field has researched and developed prohormones, testosterone boosters, and other related compounds, both for his own company and others.