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"Sprint Condition" -- The Discovery Files

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Longer toes and a unique ankle structure provide some sprinters with the burst of acceleration that separates them from other runners, according to biomechanists at Penn State University.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(SOUND EFFECT: crowd cheers) Winning By A Toe.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Getting a leg up in the sprinting world may have a lot to do with a certain kind of physiology of the foot. Specifically, a runner having longer toes and a unique ankle structure may have an edge.

New research out of Penn State compared the feet of sprinters with non-sprinters, and found some significant structural differences. They measured the distance between the heel and the end of the toes, and used ultrasound images to reveal the leverage of the Achilles tendon within the foot. The long and the short of it is that the runners had longer toes, and a shorter 'lever arm' or distance between the tendon and the center rotation of the ankle.

(SOUND EFFECT: running sounds) Those long toes let sprinters maintain contact with the ground just a little bit longer than other runners, giving them an extra boost of acceleration. (SOUND EFFECT: cartoon zip!)

To take the research into the next heat, the team used the stats they collected to design a computer model of the foot in various configurations. The greatest acceleration was achieved with the longest toes, and the shortest lever arm.

Built for speed? The jury is still out as to whether a runner can develop a more favorable foot structure through training or whether it's purely genetics.

On your mark -- get set -- toe! Sorry, it's a running gag.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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