Born, not made? Sprinters have longer toes than other runners, study finds
By Sunny Dhillon (CP) – 9 hours ago
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Want to run faster? Grow your toes.
Researchers from British Columbia and the United States have found that longer toes, as well as unique ankle structure, may give sprinters a leg up on other runners.
In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and Pennsylvania State University examined the feet and ankles of 12 college sprinters, as well as 12 non-athletes of similar height.
“The Achilles tendon lever arm was much shorter in the sprinters,” Sabrina Lee, a post doctoral fellow in biomechanics at Simon Fraser University, said in an interview.
“We also found that the toes were much longer in the sprinters and the two together are actually beneficial for acceleration.”
The study found that the only way a sprinter can speed up at the beginning of a race is through contact with the ground.
Long toes provide sprinters with an added advantage, because they can maintain maximum contact with the ground just a little bit longer than other runners.
“Longer toes especially prolonged the time of contact, giving greater time for forward acceleration by propulsive ground reaction force,” says the study, co-authored by Stephen Piazza at Pennsylvania State.
Lee and Piazza found that, on average, the sprinting group had an edge of about a centimetre over the non-sprinters - 8.2 centimetres for the runners compared with 7.3 centimetres.
They also used ultrasound imaging to study ankle motion and found that the distance between the Achilles tendon and centre of rotation of the ankle is about 25 per cent shorter in sprinters.
Because the lever arms are shorter, the study found, the muscles compact slower, allowing sprinters to produce greater force.
Piazza said the findings might lend credence to the argument that great sprinters are born, not made.
“When I describe this study to people who have experience with track, and especially experience with sprinters, that tends to be the conclusion that they come to,” he said in an interview.
“They think that since we’re talking about things like the length of your toes and your ankle joint structure, that it seems like these are things that would be determined by your genetics.”
Marek Jedrzejek, track and field coach at the University of British Columbia, said he hasn’t yet seen the study, but its findings make sense.
“If you know Michael Phelps, the swimmer, or (Ian) Thorpe, the swimmer from Australia, their feet are quite big naturally,” he said.
“If we put that analogy to the track, that could have some advantage to that, too.”
Piazza said he hasn’t yet examined what effects the study’s findings might have on other sports.
While the research might lead some aspiring runners to go about trying to lengthen their own toes, Lee cautioned against that idea.
“It’s important to remember that what we found is just one of the many factors that affect sprint performance,” she said, adding that muscle fibre types and cardiovascular effects also play a role.
Lee said it’s also unclear what effect training can have on how foot bones are shaped.
Piazza said little has been published on foot shapes and sprinting when it comes to humans, but work involving the animal world suggests cheetahs, greyhounds and ostriches are built for fast running.
The study is titled, “Built for Speed: Musculoskeletal Structure and Sprinting Ability.”