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Is it my imagination, or are we seeing a rash of taller athletes, at least in men?
I’m not only referring to Usain Bolt who is 6 feet 5 inches (1.95m). There are plenty of track athletes over 6 feet 3 inches (1.90m) such as 800m specialist David Rudisha from Kenya, 800/1500 runner Andrew Wheating for USA, 400m specialists Martyn Rooney from UK and more recently Jermaine Gonzales from Jamaica.
I believe taller athletes are simply influenced to choose other sports like basketball, volleyball, or high jump. Over the past several decades, I’ve heard all the stories and myths like, “short sprinters are better out of the blocks and have better acceleration” or “taller sprinters can’t sprint” or even “keep your arms locked at 90 degrees”.
Back in the 60’s, people would say the same about Tommie Smith. His tall build suited him better for basketball. But he stuck to Track and sprinting, thanks to the encouragement of Bud Winter, head coach at SJSU. In effect, he held 11 world records concurrently (Mr. Bolt currently has 4… he missed the 5th WR in Ostrava’s 300 meters)
Today, Usain Bolt is the modern day Tommie Smith.
The IAAF New Studies in Athletics (NSA) is one of the top 2 coaching resources out there (TrackCoach from USATF is the other one).
Last year, there was a great interview from Glen Mills, better known as Usain Bolt’s coach. Here’s the section about tall sprinters having an advantage:
NSA: How do anthropometrics influence the technique?
MILLS: Every athlete has a natural pace, so you start with his natural pace and look at the deficiencies that exist.. For example, stride length. If an athlete has the necessary reach in terms of physical structure, say someone who is six feet (1.83m) tall but is taking strides that are shorter that he should, I try to analyze what are the areas that are contributing to the situation. It is usually the strength of the various muscles that carry out the movements and therefore we must work, especially in the off-season, to change the athlete:
- to develop the strength needed and
- to improve the stride pattern with specific exercises.
For example, we determine the athlete’s natural stride and then we use markers to set out stride length. In each exercise we lengthen the marker in a very moderate way, maybe by half inch to one inch. The athlete executes the run trying to extend the stride length to meet the markers. However, he must ensure that he is not over-striding to meet the marker, hence he has to get his knee to the required height, the heel recovery must be correct, etc. Once athletes start doing that correctly, they tend to open up more and execute a longer stride length. They will be able to maintain maximum velocity, without over striding. We have found that if we can extend the stride length and maintain the correct velocity it will improve the time significantly. We also try to develop the athlete both mentally and physically to be aware of maintaining their stride length even when fatigued, especially in the 200m. You can only carry top speed for maybe 50-60m, but how you maintain the stride length will determine your overall time.
NSA: Do you think that tall sprinters have an advantage? What would you recommend in order to adapt technique and race distribution to the given anthropometrics?
MILLS: They only have an advantage if they can master the technique and the different stages. With sprinters who are explosive, their advantage comes in the first half of the race; the taller sprinters tend to be at a disadvantage in the first half of the race. If a shorter sprinter is able to maximize his\her stride length in the second half it is difficult for them to be beaten. However, most of them tend to tighten up in the maximum velocity phase or once they feel the presence of a taller sprinter. This is why athletes who have good top-end speed win most 100m races. There is a balance between the tall and the short, but a lot of it is lost, especially for the short sprinters, in the psychological preparation that tends to affect them in the competition itself.
The distribution is also important because if the athlete achieves maximum velocity too early it increases the period of deceleration. The aim for the explosive sprinter is to distribute their early acceleration so that they reach maximum velocity later in the race, without sacrificing the advantage of being explosive at the start. Working with the athlete on a one on one basis, the coach with his experience and constant study of the athlete and his or her race pattern would determine the optimum point at which he would want the athlete to achieve maximum velocity. He then works to see how long that athlete can maintain that velocity. That would significantly help the athlete in terms of adjustment and adaptation to running the 100m or 200m, because if the curve is too steep then it is going to keep coming down on the deceleration phase.