On Top End Speed and Speed Endurance

On the eve before Usain Bolt’s 9.58 WR in Berlin 2009, the St. Kitts and Nevis newspaper The Labour Spokesman wrote about the showdown between Bolt and Tyson Gay.  It was written by Peter Adrian and can be found here.

Eventually, Tyson Gay did run 9.69, the exact same time Usain Bolt ran in Beijing while showboating, so I can see how the author thought Tyson had a chance.  What no one knew was how fast Bolt could really run if he was pressed all the way.

He referenced my 2008 Beijing 10 meter splits article without linking back to my site. I love how he calls me an endurance testing expert. Here is that snippet:

The conventional wisdom is that the outcome of the two-man sprint could be endurance. Usain Bolt won the 100 meters because of his speed endurance. Jimson Lee (2008), an endurance testing expert noted, “Unless you are running a 40 yard dash or 50 meter sprint, sprinting the 100, 200, or 400 meters is all about speed endurance… reach your top speed, and maintain it. The winner of two athletes with the same top end speed will be the one who decelerates the least. Most world class 100 meter men reach their top speed within 50-60 meters. Women reach their top end speed a bit earlier, so more of their race is speed endurance. I have collected 10 meter segment splits for the last 20 years. And yes, I am including Ben Johnson and Tim Montgomery because they still ran those times, supplementation included. I am looking for relative comparisons.”

With respect to Bolt’ endurance, Lee noted, “Until Bolt came along, 0.83 was the fastest top end speed recorded. 0.83 seconds per 10 meters translates to 12 meters per second (m/s) or almost 27 miles per hour (mph) or 43 kilometers per hour (kph). Ben Johnson’s time of 9.79 could be extrapolated at 9.72 if he didn’t slow down and celebrate, assuming 0.85 seconds rate for the last 20 meters (0.2 + 0.5) If you extrapolate Usain Bolt’s last 10 meter segment, without the chest thumping, it would be fair to say he would have ran 0.84 or 0.85 seconds, making his 100m World Record 9.63 or 9.64.”

At the time, I wrote Bolt won the race because of his speed endurance or the ability to maintain his top end speed.  Obviously on the chart, Bolt had the fastest top end speed ever recorded based on 10 meter splits (which was highlighted, and pretty obvious).  So I should have wrote, “Usain Bolt won the 100 meters because of his fastest top end speed and speed endurance”

And then in the article, he mentions this response from an anonymous professional athlete:

However, one professional athlete disagreed with Lee that the 100m is about speed and endurance. He wrote, “During my life of training I have found out that the top speed you reach is what makes you win or lose. The top speed split. It’s no use to reach 0.90 and hold it for four consecutive splits. But it is much better to reach 0.83 and drop 0.03 each split after. You would be faster than the 0.90 guy who has busted his ass trying to hold his speed. I have found that the only sessions that helped me improve my top speed splits were the endurance ones. But that I don’t understand. When I do 80-150 distances in training, my top speed becomes better and better in no time and you always get the extra speed endurance you need.”

That being said. I wonder who was the anonymous professional athlete?  Any guesses?

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at SpeedEndurance.com
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • I would make one relevant observation regarding the “speed endurance” theory. Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt are the only top sprinters I know of who have the terminal velocity to “run down” other competitors–even after horrificly slow starts. So, I would not discount the benefits of good starting technique. Bolt has poor starting technique. Tyson Gay has even worse technique and he has no excuse (he is of average height); at least Bolt has some mitigation (his tall stature and lengthy gait). Further, good starting technique is something which can and should be practiced. A rapid, smooth start allows for higher top-end speed and seamless transition to the later phases of the respective sprint races.

  • New York 2008 and Berlin 2009, the two world record clashes between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, are identical. Top and end speed were almost the same, irrelevant. The real difference between Bolt and Gay was in the acceleration phase.

  • There is no greater component to the “acceleration phase” than the start and the transition from a crouched position to the upright posture. To the above referenced races, as poor as Bolt’s starts were, he achieved better starts than Gay did and was able to transition from the start to his acceleration.

  • I figure that Bolt usually has a “poor start” in his 100 meter races for several reasons. First, he usually has a very poor reaction time, often near .2 seconds. Powell routinely has a reaction time near .13 seconds. So, in a given race, Bolt is automatically giving up .07 seconds to fast-starters like Powell. Second, Bolt himself admits to flawed starting technique. This is evident in his most recent races where he described his last few starts as “terrible” first halves of the race. Third, he rarely is at the forefront of his 100 meter dashes in the initial phase. Bolt is usually mired in the pack lumbering along until the 40 meter mark, where he starts to distance himself. Fourth, however remarkable his times are, they would be even faster with better reaction times and a faster transition from the crouched position to the upright position.

  • How do you figure Usain Bolt has terrible start technique? If you watch the 2008 Olympic final and the 2009 World Championship final, you can see that he has changed his technique to come out at a less severe body angle, which cleaned up his strides in the first 10 to 15 metres. If you watch the video side by side, his 2009 technique is much cleaner and more consistent.

    He is not the starter that Asafa Powell is (certainly the best big man to ever start a 100m race, and the model for tall sprinters such as Bolt) but he has the fastest 60m split in history, and if you’re moving like that at the 60m mark, you’re in a good position regardless.

  • Well Andy, if you look at the splits from his two most important races, Beijing 2008 amd Berlin 2009, his reaction times were .165 (average) and .146 (pretty good!). With regard to his reaction time in less important races, I don’t think they can be taken as seriously. He is so fast, and the one false start rule is such a severe punishment, that he doesn’t need a great start, so I don’t think these regular meet start splits are that important. The reward for starting quick is nonexistent (unless Powell or Gay are in the race), and the risk is huge (instant disqualification).

    Second, I would agree that the acceleration phase, or transition from start to upright is very important, but it can be important for different reasons. If you are a tall athlete, you may start ugly if you have too much forward body lean (which I think the Bolt did in Beijing compared to Berlin). It seems that Mills reduced Bolt’s forward lean by Berlin 2009, which may have resulted in a slightly slower 20m split, but he is way more controlled coming out of the blocks, which sets him up better for the rest of his race.

    I’m 6’3 and with even a bit too much forward lean, I’m pitching and yawing all over my lane. Bolt is a freakish 6’5 (and after seeing him in person, I think this may be a slight understatement!) and he is not superman- he cannot overcome his own physiology. His body in not made for starting, it’s made for top speed. I think Mills feels a slightly more conservative start suits Bolt’s strengths, and I would tend to agree.

  • I did not say that Bolt never attains relatively good starts, On the occasions he does, he sets world records. I said that as a whole, his starts leave much to be desired. Bolt agrees with that statement, he has lamented on his starting technique. In the races you cited, he achieved comparable reaction times to his competitors. That is not the norm. In fact, he was not in the lead in his world record 9.58 second run until the 30-40 meter juncture.

    Regardless of how fast one is, spotting a competitor .07 seconds or more is not desirable. I believe that Bolt would have difficulty running Gay down if Gay achieved the starts Powell does. As one commentator observed, their top speeds are virtually identical.

    I wholeheartedly concede that Bolt’s stature and lengthy gait are mitigating factors for a less effective and efficient start technique. For such a big man, he is remarkably nimble. But, again, starting technique and reaction times are things which can be practiced and honed. A 100 meter dash lasts less than 10 seconds. That does not leave much time for transitioning to the racing posture at one’s leisure.

  • I have one question for Sr Jimson Lee.
    Yesterday in the race in Montecarlo 200m Tyson Gay made good time 19.72 although with very bad tecnique and running in general with a lot of errors(but with big potence of course).
    I think that Gay made about 10.2 in 100m seeing the video and Yohan Blake about 10.4
    So the last 100 m of Gay would be about 9.5 and Blake perhaps about 9.4 or few less.
    I would like know if Sr lee has these times exactly and i would like know what time IN THEORY would make Blake in a better line running like yesterday. Blake ran in horrible line 8(perhaps 0.1-0.2 better??).

  • Sr Jimson Lee of course line 8 is the curve is wider but is horrible but reference with other runners, so line 4-6 usually i think that is better, so for you with reference to Gay in a better line, probably Blake would make better that 9.78 true?

    • for some runners, the psychological advantage of seeing runners to cue from outweighs the advantage of the centripetal/centrifugal forces negotiating the curve.

  • Ok Mr Lee, i understand that you tell, although i imagine that soon Yohan Blake will run in lane 4-6 and i wait that he does not have psychological problems with it hehe.
    Really this guy has have big potencial i think.

  • A few months ago I read an article by Loren Segraves. In his article he talked about how athletes are holding top end speed or max speed beyound 50-60 meters. I also have a well reliable training manule that trains max speed or top end speed unto to 80 meters.With proper training, weight training and legal supplements along with a fast surface, athletes are well able to maintain their max or top end speed for a longer period of time.