The success of 6-foot-5-inch Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt seems to indicate that height is an advantage in running. Bolt has dominated the sport since 2002, rising through the junior and senior ranks to become a world record holder in both the 100-meter and 200-meter dash. Tall people generally have a longer stride, meaning that it takes them fewer steps to cross a particular distance. All other factors being equal, this should mean that taller people are able to run faster. Yet science shows that Bolt may be a bit of an anomaly. The relative advantages of height are frequently offset by other factors.
Despite Usain Bolt’s legendary sprinting ability, sprints are actually the form of running that is usually the toughest for very tall people. In a March 2012 article in the Huffington Post, British mathematician John Barrow calculated Bolt’s reaction times to the starting gun and found that they are much slower than the typical sprinter’s. This seems logical, as taller people tend to weigh more. It simply takes more force to get a bigger object moving. However, sprinters must be big enough to generate the explosive force required for a great takeoff. Therefore, sprinters tend to be somewhat taller and heavier than distance runners.
In medium-distance running, height may become an advantage. A medium-distance run allows the taller person enough time to overcome a relatively slow start and accelerate to maximum speed. This, in turn, allows the taller runner to take full advantage of the longer stride. A 1985 study at the University of Wales, reported in the "British Journal of Sports Medicine," showed that female Olympic finalists in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter events were taller than those in the 100-meter event. Extremely tall runners, however, may still be at a disadvantage due to weight. In general, taller people tend to weigh more than shorter people. Repetitively lifting a higher body weight makes it more difficult to sustain maximum speed.
It would appear at first glance that taller marathon runners would have an advantage. With plenty of time and distance to overcome a slow start, a marathoner could take full advantage of a longer stride. However, the advantages of stride are overcome by the disadvantages of weight. Distance running requires endurance, the ability to sustain speed over time. The University of Wales study showed that female Olympic finalists in the 3,000-meter and marathon events were significantly shorter and lighter than the 100-meter sprinters. In distance running, smaller runners tend to have the advantage.
Although logic would seem to dictate that taller people run faster, scientific data does not support this conclusion. Among elite runners, height might actually be a slight disadvantage, although runners like Usain Bolt demonstrate that the disadvantage can be overcome. Outside of the elite ranks, height seems to make very little difference at all. A 1985 study at the University of Southampton, reported in the "British Journal of Sports Medicine," showed absolutely no correlation between height and running speed among competitors in a University half-marathon. Excellence in any sport is dependent on a long list of factors from determination to luck, and body type plays a relatively small role. Whether you are tall or short, body type is never a reason to give up on your passion.
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. She spent 15 years working for Central Florida theme parks and frequently travels with her disabled father. Fritscher's work can be found in both print and online mediums, including VisualTravelTours.com. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Florida.