Sydney: Usain Bolt is one of the greatest athletes of all time. He is the fastest man in the world, holding the 100 metre sprint record of 9.58 seconds, which he achieved at the final of the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. Bolt's growing collection of world records and Olympic medals gives the impression that no one can stop him. But he might not only be a stellar athlete, endowed with longer strides than his competitors and more powerful muscles. He might also have a clever trick up his sleeve. Our recent study with Associate Professor Michael J. Richardson published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance suggests that Bolt might actually gain a benefit from running in step with his competitors.
study surprisingly found that the steps of Usain Bolt in the 2009 final
in Berlin were synchronised with the steps of second-placed Tyson Gay,
running just to his right.
Using a frame-by-frame video analysis,
the study shows that almost 30% of Bolt's and Gay's steps were
synchronised, pounding the track at the same time. This is particularly
surprising because Bolt naturally runs with longer strides, and thus a
slower tempo due to his height.
Overall, Bolt took 41 steps
whereas Gay took 45 to 46 steps during the final, so such a high
percentage of synchronised steps was unexpected. However, the study
suggests that this synchrony was no accident, nor was it
It was a greater level of the synchrony than
occurred during the semi-finals, where the two sprinters ran separately.
And greater than one would expect by chance alone. Instead, it seems
that there was an active process of synchronisation between Bolt and Gay
during the final, perhaps coupled by visual and/or auditory
information, which led to more coordinated strides.
A universal phenomenon
the last few decades, researchers in various fields have paid a lot of
attention to the process of synchronisation. It underlies the emergence
and stability of coordinated behaviours in a variety of complex systems
on Earth and in the universe at large.
The components of many
systems tend to "entrain" to each other, and tend to process as a unit.
This can take place in anything from neurons in the brain through to
fireflies lighting up at night. Interestingly, human movement systems
also appear to follow a similar process.
The movements of two or
more people interacting together tend to spontaneously entrain to each
other. Without specific intention or instructions, their movements can
become perfectly synchronised simply due to the exchange of visual and
The steps of two family members can entrain
to each other when walking side-by-side. The rhythmic applause of a
crowd in a concert hall can become spontaneously synchronised after a
Although this phenomenon is relatively well
documented, the synchronised strides of Bolt during the 100m final raise
the question of whether interpersonal synchronisation has beneficial
Previous research has shown that interpersonal
synchronisation can facilitate successful social interactions.
Synchronisation can enhance feelings such as affiliation or
connectedness of people interacting and the occurrence of pro-social
behaviours, even the efficiency of their communication.
beneficial effects do not explain why Bolt's strides were synchronised
during the final. Could being in sync with his competitors benefit his
Enhanced individual motor performance
takes larger but slower strides. So, to run faster, he can either
perform even larger strides or increase his tempo. Our study suggests
that the synchronisation of his strides with Gay might have facilitated
Paced by Gay's faster tempo, Bolt might have increased
his own tempo while keeping his long strides, thus moving faster. If
this is true, it would not be the first evidence of enhanced running
performances via entrainment to external pacing signals.
recent research has shown that running performances can be enhanced when
listening to auditory rhythms such as the beats of simple metronomes (opens in new window) or music (opens in new window). Music with a prominent and consistent beat can also help to maintain optimal movement tempo and facilitate running efficiency.
studies have found positive effects of external pacing for
rehabilitation of abnormal locomotion patterns occurring with ageing or
Although further research would be necessary before
concluding that running in sync with other people is the way to be
faster, these findings clearly open new perspectives for understanding
and using spontaneous synchronisation with other people to enhance
individual motor performances.
It is likely Bolt didn't even know
he was synchronising his steps with Gay. But his doing so may have
contributed to his world-record performance. One might wonder: how fast
Bolt would have run had Gay not been there – or if Gay had run at an
even higher tempo?