Number of the month: 9.58 seconds

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five men running

A frantic chase lasting just a few seconds – and once again Usain Bolt was right at the front of the pack. This exceptional sprinter from Jamaica won gold in the 100 metres at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He is the first sprinter in history to win the Olympic gold medal three times in a row in this discipline. “It was brilliant. I didn’t go so fast but I’m so happy I won. I told you guys I was going to do it”, the Olympic champion said after the race.

Why is Usain Bolt so incredibly quick?

When Bolt says “I didn’t go so fast”, he presumably meant “I didn’t set a new record.” The fastest time ever recorded in a competition for this distance was run by Bolt in Berlin in 2009, when it took him just 9.58 seconds to cover the 100 metres. He managed a time of 9.81 seconds in Rio. That makes no great distance for amateur runners – most of us cannot even tie our shoelaces in under ten seconds. In world-class athletics, however, tenths – and sometimes even hundredths – of seconds can mean the difference between victory and defeat, or between a record and an average time. So what makes world-class athletes like Usain Bolt so incredibly quick? And why can some people run more quickly than others?

The difference lies in the muscle cell structure

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund investigated this question in a research project. They believe that the structure of the muscle cells is one key factor in determining how quickly a human being can run. The research team led by Professor Stefan Raunser studied muscle proteins – and ended up setting their own record in the process: according to the Max Planck Institute, muscle proteins have never before been analysed with such precision. This was achieved using a special kind of microscopy. Known as cryo-electron microscopy, it gave the researchers unique insights. “Using cryo-electron microscopy, we are able to observe natural changes in muscle proteins”, explains Raunser, director of the Department of Structural Biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology.

Top athletic performance is also down to the genes

One of the conclusions drawn by the researchers is that when the muscle proteins in exceptional athletes like Usain Bolt happen to be in a particularly favourable constellation, this can result in the athlete developing an optimal level of strength that other sprinters cannot attain. “Probably all top athletes have specific genes that enable them to achieve outstanding performance”, says Raunser. Furthermore, Bolt’s musculature may comprise a particularly efficient combination of fibres, as skeletal muscles contain quick low-endurance muscle fibres as well as slow but high-endurance fibres.

New drugs to combat muscular diseases

The findings of the research are not only of interest to high-level sport, but may also help us to understand the causes of muscular diseases. While muscle cells interact particularly well in exceptional athletes, they no longer work sufficiently together when a person is suffering from a muscular disease. “Our research is still in its very early phases, as the process of muscle contraction happens extremely quickly. That is why we have to divide the entire process up into many individual steps. Nonetheless, our findings may be used as the basis for researching new drugs”, says Raunser.


More information

Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology

An international team of cell biologists, structural biologists, physicists and chemists work at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. Their goal is to obtain an integrated picture of all processes which regulate the metabolism, growth and proliferation of living organisms.