Does it seem like everyone is ahead of you?

It might result in stress, self-doubt, and performance anxiety — especially for competitive personalities. But does it really matter who’s leading the race at this very moment?

The concept of trying to stay ahead at all times might be highly overrated. And I came to this conclusion when researching how to become a better sprinter.

My sprint experiment in Greenwich Park

Some years ago, I was living in Greenwich, outside London.

Broke and restless, exercising in Greenwich Park, home of the GMT date line, became a daily routine of mine. Back in high school, I was a decent sprinter, so I focused mainly on recording my times on 100-meter dashes.

I quickly learned that I wasn’t even close to any of my high school records. As disappointing as this was, I added some interval training to my regimen and tried again, and again, but with no real results. Whatever speed I had as a teenager, now it seemed to be completely gone.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I decided that it wouldn’t help just to keep trying and trying, so I turned to research instead.

If we assume that the friction between our feet and the ground is a constant and that running on two feet is a given1, then a theoretical superhuman would be able to run 100 meters in between 4,5 to 5 seconds. Going any faster than that is physically impossible as long as we don’t alter basic physics of ground-contact friction — or genetically alter our physique.

But here’s the interesting part:

The sprinter’s speed during a 100-meter dash varies quite a lot (see example graph below).

The physics of acceleration.
The physics of acceleration.

I realised I had been intuitively wrong. Here’s what I learned:

  • It’s almost impossible to maintain a top speed while leaning forward.
  • Once you’re in an upright position, it’s almost impossible to accelerate further.
  • Once you’re in an upright position, it’s almost impossible to accelerate further.
  • Once you’re in an upright position, you will eventually have to decelerate.

When I was sprinting, I tried my best to accelerate (leaning forward, pushing with my legs) to reach top speed (running upright with as little contact with the ground as possible) as fast as I could.

I did a few sprint tests again. I reached my top speed after about 25 meters, and I managed to keep my speed fairly well in an upright position for the last 75 meters. But the best sprinters in the world can’t even maintain their top speeds for more than 20-25 meters!

What’s up with that?

Well, my strategy of running at ‘top speed’ for as much of the dash as possible wasn’t working.

Reaching maximum velocity early in the race resulted in a lower top speed, simple as that. When I looked at breakdowns for famous 100-meter sprinters over the last 40 years, their average top speeds hadn’t increased all that much, which suggests that Usain Bolt is close to the maximum speed for humans with his 12,2 meters per second.

To run faster, I would have to accelerate (leaning forward, pushing with my legs) for a longer part of the race to reach a higher maximum speed — even though I wouldn’t be able to sustain that speed for long.

Maurice Green vs. all the other top athletes

acceleration theory

Kevin Prendergast’s paper A Mathematical Model of the 100M and What It Means outlines a formula for describing what happens during a 100-meter dash. He tests his proof on the eight results from the 1999 World Championships where eight sprinters’ data were analyzed. Seven of these sprinters were then grouped and compared to the winner, Maurice Greene.

Data points from the other seven sprinters in that race showed:

  • Reaction time 0.14sec
  • Speed limit 11.68 m/s
  • Initial acceleration 10.05 m/s²
  • Acceleration constant 0.8609
  • Duration of acceleration 6.44sec
  • Duration of deceleration 3.38sec
  • Point of max speed 59.79m
  • Max speed 11.50m/s
  • Total time 9.96sec

And the same data points for Maurice Greene showed:

  • Reaction time 0.13sec
  • Speed limit 11.77m/s
  • Initial acceleration 10.12m/s²
  • Acceleration constant 0.8600
  • Duration of acceleration 8.68sec
  • Duration of deceleration 0.99sec
  • Point of max speed 86.84m
  • Max speed 11.73m/s
  • Total time 9.80sec

Oh, boy. The seven finalists reached their points of max speeds at an average of 59.79 meters into the race, at which point Maurice Green was still accelerating, reaching his point of max speed at 86.84 meters! It shows in the duration of acceleration, which for Greene was 8,68 seconds (almost the entire race!) and 6,44 seconds for the rest.

Greene’s max speed wasn’t all that much higher than the others, but the others decelerated for 3.38 seconds while Greene was only slowing down for 0.99 seconds. Prendergast concludes:

“The practical lesson from this model for sprinters and coaches would seem to be the benefit of extending the time of acceleration. It is this, rather than raw power out of the blocks, that will result in faster times. It is probably a matter of control. […] It is possible to derive a mathematical model that models a 100m performance very well. It provides valuable information on the makeup of the performance, regarding acceleration, velocity, and distance at any stage in the race. It enables us to see the vital ingredients of success in 100m running, and that the most vital is to accelerate as long as possible.”

Back to Greenwich Park

I went back to Greenwich Park and marked ’60 meters’ along the 100-meter track and did a few test sprints. I felt like an elephant, working hard to keep accelerating up until that 60-meter mark. After a few practice runs, I managed to prolong my acceleration to the 40 meter mark. It felt awful, and it was impossible to maintain that top speed over the finish line. I could feel myself decelerating already at the 80 meter mark.

Reaching the finishing line felt like an eternity and without proper starting blocks, it was challenging to come out leaning forward at the right angle for acceleration. Also, I felt a lot more drag, almost as if someone had attached a parachute to my waist, slowing me down even further.

Discouraged, I asked my friend with the stopwatch about my time, and she told me:

“Congratulations Jerry, that was your fastest 100-meter dash ever.”

The acceleration theory

I remember watching 100-meter dash in the Olympics when I was a kid. I was always mesmerized of how some sprinters, in the last part of the race, could come up from behind and totally crush their opponents. I wondered:

“If you’re leading the race at 80 meters and someone is overtaking you from behind, why aren’t you putting up more of a fight with only 20 meters left to go?”

Now, I know. So far into the race, it simply wasn’t possible for the leader to work him- or herself down to a forward-leaning angle and get back to accelerating again. Even with 20 meters left, the sprint was already lost.

What if these principles of acceleration would apply to life in general?

If I’m going to live until I’m 85, the ’60 meter mark’ of my life would occur at 51. So up until 51, it’s all about leaning forward and working hard to gain momentum and then, get into an upright position to cruise at maximum speed.

If I’m to look at my professional life, starting in school at the age of seven, and ending at a retirement age of 65, that means that I should start going at full speed already at 35. If I retire at 70, it will push the optimal point of max speed to 38 (which I like better, since I’m 36 now). Now, does this mean that you should be working hard up until the ’60 meter mark’ and then just cruise?

Here are the rules I set up:

Focus before the ‘60%’ mark: Accelerate continuously

Focus after the ‘60%’ mark: Eliminate friction

I think the “geek approach” (see model below) to eliminate friction shows how novelty investments pay off long-term:

The geek approach to running scripts for repetitive tasks.

Applying the acceleration theory in real life

Based on my realizations on sprinting, I think these observations works well in not only marketing — but in life as well. Here’s how to sum it up five straightforward takeaways:

1. Know exactly how long the race is.

2. Be disciplined and pace yourself.

3. Plan and run your own race.

4. Focus on building your momentum.

5. Ignore non-accelerating competitors.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.


  1. Yes, many of our four-legged friends are better built for higher speeds.