Discover the Average Human Athlete Running Speed

Usain Bolt reached a speed of 27.8 mph at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. But, what’s the average human athlete running speed?

To investigate this question, let’s first focus on the fastest man alive. Usain Bolt’s top speed was faster than some average car speeds. The following are car speeds in several California cities using Google Maps’ data:

  • Sacramento average driving speed: 31.5 mph
  • San Diego average driving speed: 31 mph
  • San Jose average driving speed: 28 mph
  • Los Angeles average driving speed: 26.8 mph
  • San Francisco average driving speed: 18 mph

The average car speeds calculate out to 27.06 mph in these 5 cities. Usain tops this speed by a hair. Even more, below is Usain’s average speed over each 10-meter segment in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. At these games, Usain broke the 100-meter world record with a time of 9.69 seconds. All the while, he ran 27 mph for a good portion of the race.

Race Segments (meters)Speed (mph)
0 to 1012.09
10 to 2021.93
20 to 3024.58
30 to 4025.71
40 to 5026.32
50 to 6027.28
60 to 7027.28
70 to 8027.28
80 to 9026.95
90 to 10024.85
Average Speed24.43

Usain stands 6’5” tall and is blistering fast. So not surprisingly, we can’t compare Usain to average human athletes. We need to focus on a self-defined group of athletes.

Usain Bolt in the 200 meter in olympics

Defining who to classify as an average athlete

To help define an average human athlete, I’ve created an imaginary scenario. Imagine standing alone in a big city. Then someone snatches something from your hand as they run by you. Can you then chase them down in less than 100 meters?

Next, consider this happens 10 times, and each time it’s a different robber. Some of the robbers run fast and some run slow. Think of the people who you see daily in a supermarket. Any of these people could be one of the robbers in our case study.

Now, from the 10 people who rob you, can you at least chase 9 of them down? Pretend you have on your running gear too, when you get robbed. In my analysis, all the classified “average athletes” I’m assuming can catch at least 9 of the 10 robbers.

How to gather data for calculating the average human athlete running speed

Now, with our runner classification defined, let’s figure out where to pull our data from. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do we use all Olympic athletes?
  • Should we use the entire population, even people who’ve never trained to run?
  • Do we exclude people over the age of 50?

To address these questions, we need to answer 4 prelim questions.

  1. What age range of people should we use?
  2. What human fitness levels should we consider?
  3. Which body types should we consider?
  4. Which distance should we assume a human needs to run?

I’ll answer each of these 4 questions with my own best reasoning. Then, using my response, I’ll gather data for my calculation.

1. What age range of people should be used?

My age range begins in the late teen years when both males and females hit puberty. Also, it’s when athletic performance begins to take off. Around age 16, some kids already play pro sports with full-grown men and women.

Next, I’ll cap the age range at 80. If you continue to train I believe you can maintain a decent top speed up until this age. You can see this in data from the World Masters Athletics in the below graph. The data is from a 2009 outdoor competition of top 100 meter sprinters in different age groups.

average human running speed 100 meter men women runners

After the age of 80, your speed drops though. You begin to have all types of aches and pains, especially if you’ve been training all your life.

So data after age 80 are extreme values, also called outliers. For an accurate analysis, I either need to use median values or remove the outlier values. I decided to remove the outlier values to not obscure my data.

2. What human fitness levels should be considered?

Only people who’ve made fitness a part of their lifestyle. They go to the gym a couple of times a week and watch their diets. These are people who are exceptional performers in their given age range.

Similarly, imagine if I wanted to know how many hours on average people play video games. I wouldn’t collect data from non-gamers. I’d collect data from a 15-year-old teenager and a 60-year-old man if they both play.

3. Which body types should be considered?

I’m not going to limit our data to certain body types. Whether tall, short, low body fat, short torso, and so on. I just want to collect data from top runners from various age groups.

At the Olympic level, the top runners almost all have low body fat. But, at the high school level, athletes may have higher than normal body fat.

To point out, the Olympics includes a small filtered pool of athletes. Whereas high school includes a much larger and diverse pool of athletes. Because the higher you climb in a sport, a specific body type will perform best. It all comes down to plain physics.

Exceptions do exist though. Before Usain Bolt, shorter sprinters had the edge in running fast. Sprinters stood around 5’10” tall, while Usain stands 6’5″.

all 100 meter runs under 10 seconds

Now, why is height so important in calculating human speed? To understand, let’s go over how you calculate human speed.

It’s stride length multiplied by stride rate. The greater the number of strides you take in less time, the more you can take advantage of each of your steps. Where each step produces a force propelling you forward.

Intuitively, shorter athletes will almost always perform better in sprints. Because taller athletes take longer strides leading to fewer steps. So taller athletes have less opportunity to generate force with each step.

But there’s more to the story, which we’ll go over when we discuss Usain.

Usain Bolt height 6 feet 5 inches

4. Which distance should be assumed a human needs to run?

A 100-meter distance, because it best shows peak human athletic performance. A 100-meter sprint would also match the speed you’d run with a bear chasing you in the wild.

Sure, in the wild you won’t have perfect conditions as you would running on a track. But, like running from a bear, running for a gold medal would push you to your limits. And you can only capture this extreme human output in short bursts.

Also, let’s go back to who I defined as a runner. If someone snatches something from your hand, you need to be able to catch up to them in 100 meters.

Collected data on the average human athlete running speed

Let’s go over the gathered data from the various groups of runners. I’ve chosen 14 groups of runners who vary in speed yet run at top speeds in their demographic group. At the same time, they meet all of our criteria.

Group #1: High school male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 10.23 seconds
  • Data from Athletic.net. 2019 national average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #2: High school female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 11.28 seconds
  • Data from Athletic.net. 2019 national average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #3: College male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 9.99 seconds
  • Data from Athletic.net. 2019 national average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #4: College female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 11.02 seconds
  • Data from Athletic.net. 2019 national average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #5: Olympic male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 9.76 seconds
  • Data from Wikipedia. All-time average of top 10 outdoor runs in the world.

Group #6: Olympic female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 10.70 seconds
  • Data from Wikipedia. All-time average of top 10 outdoor runs in the world.

Group #7: 40 to 49 male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 11.26 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #8: 40 to 49 female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 12.77 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #9: 50 to 59 male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 11.88 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor runs.

Group #10: 50 to 59 female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 13.44 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor final runs.

Group #11: 60 to 69 male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 12.76 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor final runs.

Group #12: 60 to 69 female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 14.70 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor final runs.

Group #13: 70 to 79 male sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 14.34
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor final runs.

Group #14: 70 to 79 female sprinters

  • 100-meter time: 17.61 seconds
  • Data from XXIII 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga. Average of top 10 outdoor final runs.

Average human athlete running speed calculated

Now, our calculated average human athlete running speed is 18.23 mph. Then breaking down the data, we get the following:

  • Average male running speed: 19.52 mph
  • Average female running speed: 17.12 mph

Compared to Usain Bolt’s speed of 27.8 mph, the average running speed pales in comparison. But, even Usain Bolts’ speed doesn’t compare to many land animals in the wild.

Wild animal speeds compared to the average human athlete running speed

I find human physical limits fascinating. By looking at our history, we can connect the dots on how our top speed evolved. In the wild, we had to run fast to chase animals to hunt and avoid predators. It was life and death.

In today’s modern world though, running fast almost only matters in athletics. Because the human brain rapidly evolved. Still, though, modern humans used their legs before the advent of cities. Imagine running after a wounded animal you had hit with an invented spear. You’d need to chase it down to finish the kill.

Let’s now compare the top running speed of some land animals to humans to see how we stack up.

Animal Animal's top speedUsain Bolt's top speedUsain Bolt's top relative to animal's top speed
Cheetah70 mph27.8 mph39.71%
Pronghorn Antelope61 mph27.8 mph45.57%
Lion50 mph27.8 mph55.60%
Wildebeest50 mph27.8 mph55.60%
Kangaroo44 mph27.8 mph63.18%
Coyote43 mph27.8 mph64.65%
Zebra40 mph27.8 mph69.50%
Hyena38 mph27.8 mph73.16%
Giraffe37 mph27.8 mph75.14%
Rhinoceros34 mph27.8 mph81.76%
African Elephant15.5 mph27.8 mph179.35%

Clearly, humans can’t compete with most large land animals in speed. But moving into the future, we may become the fastest and smartest species.

The science behind improving human running speed

If human brains hadn’t evolved as much, would humans run faster today? Maybe…

Without our smarts, we’d need to outrun predators more often to survive. A 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology did a fascinating study on human speed. The premise was, humans could reach a top speed of 40 mph by applying greater force with each sprinting step. Physiologist Peter Weyand stated:

 “Despite how large the running forces can be, we found that the limbs are capable of applying much greater ground forces than those present during top-speed forward running.”

Analysis on human speed generation

As we learned, the formula for speed is the product of stride length and stride rate. This is how hard and fast a runner pushes off the ground with each sprinting step. For example, an Olympic sprinter can push off one foot creating a total peak force of 1000 pounds. While an average person generates 500 to 600 pounds of total peak force.

Just as important, an average person’s foot remains on the ground for 0.12 seconds when sprinting. While an Olympic sprinter’s foot remains on the ground for only 0.08 seconds. So, the Olympic sprinter will create the 1000 pounds of total peak force at more rapid intervals. This then propels the sprinter forward much faster than an average runner.

This greater generated force is even more important when a sprinter starts a race. Because a sprinter needs to go from standstill to full speed as quickly as possible.

generated force in sprint to reach full speed

How to make an Olympic sprinter even faster?

You need to increase the amount of force a sprinter pushes off the ground. This entails increasing the ground contact time of each step. In short sprints though, this becomes a challenge. Because we need to keep ground contact time to a minimum. So, there’s a conundrum. You need to output the most force with each step in the least amount of time.

The obvious answer is to improve how fast muscle fibers contract and relax. You can magnify the forward running force without increasing ground contact time. For example, you’d decrease the 0.08 seconds each foot remains on the ground. At the same time, a quicker contraction leads to a greater generated force.

As a result, the total outputted force increases in a 100-meter run. In other words, runners can generate their peak force in more instances in a 100-meter run. And this is why physiologist Peter Weyand believes humans can reach a speed of 40 mph. He stated the following:

“If you just find a way to rev up those contractile fibers for the muscle, then everything else from human biology and gait would allow us to be that fast…”

Usain’s large body mass versus peak force 

Usain’s large mass requires him to do more work than a shorter sprinter to reach top speed. But his ability to exert more force with each step, allows him to outrun shorter sprinters. Because sprinting comes down to who can generate the most force in the shortest time.

To illustrate, below are 10-meter segment splits from one of Usain’s top races. He ran the 100-meter race in a blistering 9.69 seconds at the Beijing Olympics.

Race Segments (meters)Time (seconds)
0 to 101.85
10 to 201.02
20 to 300.91
30 to 400.87
40 to 500.85
50 to 600.82
60 to 700.82
70 to 800.82
80 to 900.83
90 to 1000.9
Total Time9.69

What’s fascinating is, from 50 to 90 meters, Usain maintains his top speed. This showcases his speed endurance. Even more, the 0.9 seconds in the 90 to 100-meter segment, was when Usain thumped his chest. So he could’ve maintained his top speed in this last stretch of the race too. Before this race, the fastest 10-meter segment in a 100-meter race was 0.83 seconds.

Only a year later though, Usain topped himself with the new world record time of 9.58 seconds. Usain Bolt ran the 100 meters in 9.58 seconds taking 41 steps, while his competition averaged 45 steps. So, Usain had fewer steps to generate peak force because of his long strides. But since Usain generates greater force with each step, he beat out his competition.

We can conclude, Usain probably has more fast-twitch muscle fibers than his competition. This also explains how he beat all the shorter sprinters while standing 6’5″ tall. The combination of his stride length and fast-twitch muscle fibers gave him the edge.

Will evolution play a role in the running speed of future humans?

Whether good or bad, human gene editing will soon create the perfect athlete. No longer will we need to wait tens of thousands of years to see small changes in the human body. Human evolution will take a back seat.

In the future, we can select the following attributes for a human from inside of a lab:

  • Faster contracting muscle fibers to increase the forward running force
  • Stronger bones and tendons to handle the increased running force
  • A reconstructed hip for more ideal positioned strides
  • Ability to better process oxygen
  • Better muscle density to improve the body’s power to weight ratio

Human speed would certainly improve with these upgrades. But, we’d still get smoked by a cheetah. Because we’re bipedal and we run using two legs. While the fastest land animals run using four legs.

cheetah running full speed in Africa

The future of evolution and technology

With advancements in biotech, we may even one day outrun a cheetah. Outside of gene editing, we may upgrade our bodies through electromechanical parts. One great example is Oscar Pistorius, with his prosthetic legs. He was the South African sprinter from the London Olympic Games. He reached a speed of 25 mph using his prosthetic legs.

Not surprisingly, prosthetic leg tech will only improve over time. Even more, new tech will merge with humans in a way we can’t even imagine today. We may be able to choose our top speed straight out of a lab.

Will 100-meter world records even matter in the future?

Today, human bodies have physical limits. So, speed records in return have limits too without advancements in technology. In the future though, bionic bodies may only come down to money and ethics. And then, will world records even hold any meaning?…

We’d be as powerful as the Terminator without all the doomsday killing. So, I can see the day where a human races a cheetah and wins. That’d be a sight to see!

100 meter world record future outlook

Humans becoming the fastest and smartest species on Earth

We calculated an 18.23 mph average human athlete running speed. This may seem slow, but given we no longer need physical speed to survive, I say it’s impressive. Plus, we have the advantage of long-distance running over most animals.

As hunter-gatherers, humans had to cover a lot of ground to stay alive to hunt and forage. So, we built up great endurance thanks to evolution. In the future though, we may combine superb endurance with incredible short-distance speeds. We’ll have transformed from flesh and blood to bionic super-humans.

When that day comes, fast speed will only become another thrill pursuit. Like bungee jumping or skydiving. We’re living in exciting times, with an even more exciting future awaiting us.

Do you think the average human athlete running speed compares well to other animals? How much faster do you think humans can run through advanced technology?

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4 thoughts on “Discover the Average Human Athlete Running Speed”

  1. https://www.luxmyfurniture.com.au/forum/b5b05a-average-human-running-speed
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    Reply
    • I appreciate the heads-up.

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      Reply
  2. This is average top human athlete running speed. Not average human running speed. You would need a random sample of 100 or so people sprinting to get average top human running speed. Your defined group isn’t equally represented here because you used only athletics data. That in itself is a significant filter since only athletically inclined people compete and athletes train ahead of competitions. If anything using highschool data only would be the closest to actual averages since there is less of a filter of who can compete… though still a significant one. The (future) college/olympic level athletes are (in theory) included in high school data but with less training and high school has less of the slower athletes filtered out.

    Reply

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