The Fastest Man in the World

I’ve just started reading “The Perfection Point,” by John Brenkus — host of ESPN’s Sport Science. The first chapter calculates the maximum speed for the 100-meter sprint. Using the actual performance of Beijing Olympic championship runner Usian Bolt of Jamaica as a starting point, Brenkus arrives at a theoretical maximum fastest time of 8.99 minutes. Of course, this won’t happen for generations and depends upon the human species remaining pretty much as we know it today.

I was especially interested in his discussion of drag, or air friction, on the forward progress of athletes. Brenkus uses a pitch clocked at 100 mph as it leaves the pitcher’s hand to illustrate, calculating that the ball will be traveling at 97 mph when it reaches the plate because it loses roughly one mph for every 7 feet it travels. The entire slowing effect is the result of the friction created by the air flowing over the ball and stitches.

He mentions that John Howard, a two-time Olympic cyclist, “wondered what would happen if you could eliminate it [air resistance] entirely. He mounted a wind-breaking shield on the back of a race car and rode his bicycle behind it, so that he was effectively riding in zero wind.” Not only did it make a difference. It made such a profound difference that Howard needed a bicycle with enormous gears that allowed him to pedal fast enough. The result? He reached a speed of 152 mph with no other source of power than his legs.

Brenkus writes that higher altitudes also have less air resistance. This is because the air is thinner at these altitudes. As a result, there is less air resistance, resulting in better athletic performance in sports where air resistance is a key factor. Likewise, even a small tailwind can make a crucial difference since it reduces the effect of the headwind created as the athlete moves forward.

I found this all very interesting because it ties nicely with my current work on applied fluid dynamics. It brings the theory into practice. I hope you check it out and post your comments.

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