The year is 2010.
Justin Gatlin, six years removed from winning the Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter Dash, is a shell of his former self. He’s fresh off a four-year ban from track and field which he incurred after testing positive for a banned substance. His speed and mechanics have decayed. His body is no longer a chiseled figure built for high performance, as his weight has ballooned to 210 pounds and his body fat percentage has soared to 25 percent.
In Gatlin’s absence, Usain Bolt has become the benchmark for greatness. The Jamaican sprinter, who’s four years Gatlin’s junior, had clocked a world record 9.58 100 just a year prior. The fastest time Gatlin had ever recorded was a 9.77, but he now hardly resembled the sprinter who accomplished that. All things considered, it appears any shot Gatlin had at recapturing the title of world’s fastest man has forever vanished.
Fast forward to 2017, and the 35-year-old Gatlin is the ageless wonder of the track world. In August, he won the 100-meter Dash at the 2017 World Championships. The event was Bolt’s last race before retirement, and it seemed almost a foregone conclusion he would dust the competition before sprinting off into the sunset. Yet Gatlin shockingly relegated Bolt to third place. He also triumphed over 21-year-old American phenom Christian Coleman, who won Silver.
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How is this even possible? How did a down-and-out sprinter who was seemingly years beyond his prime recapture the claim of world’s fastest man? In short, biomechanics. Shortly after returning to competitive track and field, Gatlin begin working with Dr. Ralph Mann, who won a silver medal in the 400-meter Hurdles at the 1972 Olympics before turning his focus toward a career in biomechanics. Just as USA Track and Field hired Mann to provide regular analysis to their top sprinters, Gatlin’s ban was expiring. The two soon formed a close working relationship, as Gatlin wisely understood he needed to employ every edge he could find if he wanted to reclaim a place on top of the podium.
Mann’s analysis, which largely relies on high-speed cameras and a “performance model” that he has been obsessively tuning for decades, quickly found several inefficiencies in Gatlin’s sprinting form. The largest among them was that Gatlin was simply too heavy to employ anything resembling ideal biomechanics. Gatlin totally overhauled his diet as he slowly began regaining his speed.
“(I used to eat anything) I wanted. Hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs. Anything fried. It wasn’t until probably 2010 that I got the nickname ‘Fatlin.’ One of my assistant coaches would call me Fatlin because I gained too much weight. So I had to learn how to make my diet more of a lifestyle,” Gatlin told STACK at the 2017 USATF Black Tie and Sneaker Gala. “(I had to) take in more veggies, more fruits. I had to know when carbs were a necessity, know when protein was a necessity. Over the years, I’ve become my own nutritionist, in a way.”
Gatlin frequently uses the word “lifestyle” to describe the changes he’s made over the past several years. He came to terms with the fact he could no longer pick and choose when to do the right things, a luxury afforded to many supremely talented athletes in their mid-20s. He knew if he wanted to return to the pinnacle of his sport, he’d have to sleep right, eat right, recover right and train right 24/7, 365.
Gatlin eventually worked his way down to 175 pounds with a lean 6 percent body fat. His improved body composition allowed him to more easily adjust his biomechanics. According to a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, one of Gatlin’s major biomechanical breakdowns was that his strides were simply too long. Not only was that negatively impacting his top speed, but it was killing his starts. Mann’s model showed that shorter, quicker strides would be more efficient for Gatlin’s body type. To help him get used to this significant form alteration, Gatlin’s coaches began utilizing more resisted-sprints and resisted-starts in his routine. From Popular Mechanics:
He’d practice his start and his strides tethered to bungee cords or sleds weighted down with 50 pounds. The resistance slowed the motion of the start, allowing Gatlin to exert the same explosive force while making it possible for (his coach) to tweak Gatlin’s biomechanics and for Gatlin to connect the new concepts of the mind to the feelings in his body.
Gatlin says his running form is now “way different” than it was 10 years ago. He’s continually streamlined his sprinting mechanics, whittling away any wasted movement that might cost him precious milliseconds. He’s had no qualms about sacrificing his own idiosyncrasies in favor of science’s ideal sprinting form.
“You might have an arm that flings out, but (some) people say, ‘That’s just character. That’s just character for an athlete to run that way.’ But wasted movement can really be something that prevents you from breaking a world record, or an American record, or even winning races by thousands of a second. So I tried to learn how to be biomechanically superior to my competition. Even if our speed or our strength is equal, (that’s my edge),” Gatlin says.
During Gatlin’s win at the 2017 World Championships, his superior biomechanics made the difference. His split from 0 to 10 meters (1.74 seconds) was tied for the fastest among the eight competitors, indicative of a supersonic start.
The young Coleman then proceeded to run the next 40 meters at a significantly faster clip than Gatlin, covering them in 3.65 seconds to Gatlin’s 3.71 seconds.
Sprinters in the 100-meter Dash typically hit their top speed around the 50- to 60-meter mark. Bolt hit a faster top speed during the race than both Gatlin and Coleman, and he clocked the fastest split of any competitor between the 50- and 90-meter mark.
Through 90 meters, Gatlin, Coleman and Bolt were nearly neck and neck. Gatlin had covered the first 90 meters in 9.05 seconds, Coleman had covered them in 9.02 seconds and Bolt had covered them in 9.06 seconds. The final 10 meters decided the race. As both Bolt and Coleman lost speed during this crucial finishing stretch, Gatlin’s picture-perfect biomechanics allowed him to maintain speed all the way through the finish line. Gatlin took the gold with a 9.92, Coleman took the silver with a 9.94 and Bolt took the bronze with a 9.95.[youtube video=”WijCDAdIwNk”]
Want to improve your sprinting biomechanics? Start with this tip from Gatlin.
Photo Credit: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images