Short sprint – True Speed

In Being Fast, I talked about the vagaries of language and mentioned some of the speeds elite runners run at. I thought it would be useful to look at the speed and paces for all the major world records. It only becomes clear when you see these, how fast the best in world are running, and begin to realise how much the rest of us neglect speed.

MenPerf. Mi/hKm/h Per milePer km Athlete
Top speed  27.844.7 2min101min21 Usain Bolt
100 m9.58 23.437.6 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
200 m19.19 23.337.5 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
400 m43.03 20.833.5 2min531min48 Wayde van Niekerk
800 m1:40.9 17.728.5 3min222min06 David Rudisha
1000 m2:12.0 17.027.3 3min322min12 Noah Ngeny
1500 m3:26.0 16.326.2 3min412min17 Hicham El Guerrouj
Mile3:43.1 16.126.0 3min432min19 Hicham El Guerrouj
3000 m7:20.7 15.224.5 3min562min27 Daniel Komen
5000 m12:35 14.823.8 4min032min31 Joshua Cheptegei
10,000 m26:11 14.222.9 4min132min37 Joshua Cheptegei
Half marathon57:32 13.722.0 4min232min44 Kibiwott Kandie
Marathon1:59:40 13.121.2 4min342min50 Eliud Kipchoge
100 km6:09:14 10.116.2 5min573min42 Nao Kazami
Women   
100 m10.49 21.334.3 2min491min45 Florence Griffith Joyner
200 m21.34 21.033.7 2min521min47 Florence Griffith Joyner
400 m47.6 18.830.3 3min121min59 Marita Koch
800 m1:53.3 15.825.4 3min482min22 Jarmila Kratochvílová
1000 m2:29.0 15.024.2 4min002min29 Svetlana Masterkova
1500 m3:50.1 14.623.5 4min072min34 Genzebe Dibaba
Mile4:12.3 14.323.0 4min122min37 Sifan Hassan
3000 m8:06.1 13.822.2 4min212min42 Wang Junxia
5000 m14:06 13.221.3 4min332min49 Letesenbet Gidey
10,000 m29:17 12.720.5 4min432min56 Almaz Ayana
Half marathon1:04:31 12.219.6 4min553min03 Ababel Yeshaneh
Marathon2:14:04 11.718.9 5min073min11 Brigid Kosgei
100 km6:33:11 9.515.3 6min203min56 Tomoe Abe
World record times for the major distance events (correct at 26-Apr-2021)

When you compare the men’s and women’s records side by side you see there’s consistently a difference of around 11-12% between them. This is believed to be down to the physical differences between the sexes, that men’s higher levels of testosterone allow them to have bigger muscles which in turn propel them quicker.

EventMen WRWomen WR% diff.
100 m9.5810.499.5
200 m19.1921.3411.2
400 m43.0347.610.6
800 m01:40.901:53.312.3
1000 m02:12.002:29.012.9
1500 m03:26.003:50.111.7
Mile03:43.104:12.313.1
3000 m07:20.708:06.110.3
5000 m12:35.414:06.612.1
10,000 m26:11.029:17.411.9
Half marathon57:32.01:04:3112.1
Marathon1:59:402:14:0412.0
100 km06:09:1406:33:116.5

The two most notable anomalies are at the ends of the spectrum. Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100m world record was set in 1988 but the video evidence shows there was a strong wind that day, yet the wind gauge recorded 0.0m/s assistance. It’s thought to be a faulty gauge. If, however, you add 11% to Usain Bolt’s 9.58s then then the women’s time should be 9.63s which is close to the 10.61s FloJo recorded the next day and the 10.62s she recorded in winning Olympic gold two months later.

At the other end there is the 100km where the difference is 6.5%. At this distance, the best runners are genetically determined towards endurance and lack the fast-twitch muscle necessary for top speed. Their slow-twitch muscle is naturally resilient and the testosterone difference between the sexes is much less of a factor.

Some of the outliers between men’s and women’s records are down to lack of drug-testing or detectability when the records were set, how often the distances are raced and over the past year we’ve seen distance records being broken with championships cancelled due to Covid and runners taking advantage of energy-efficient shoes.


I’ll return to the point I was trying to make in the Being Fast article, most runners don’t have true speed and that’s because they often fail to train for it. It’s not the only requirement for being a distance runner but it is an important part of it.

My coached sessions are focused on getting you quicker while building the endurance to support it. Everybody’s welcome. In the meantime, enjoy the following video of runners trying to keep pace with Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2hr marathon pace.

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