Researchers say that the skeletal structure of the foot and ankle varies considerably between human sprinters and non-sprinters.
According to Penn State researchers, the findings not only help explain why some people are faster runners than others, but also may be useful in helping people who have difficulty walking, such as older adults and children with cerebral palsy.
According to Stephen Piazza, associate professor of kinesiology, the research is the first to use magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that sprinters have significantly longer bones in their forefeet than non-sprinters and reduced leverage in their Achilles tendons than non-sprinters.
"We made the most direct measurement possible of leverage in the Achilles tendon and found that sprinters' tendons had shorter lever arms or reduced leverage for pushing their bodies off of the ground compared to non-sprinters," said Piazza.
Piazza explained that there may be a trade-off between leverage and tendon force when rapid muscle contraction is required.
According to Josh Baxter, graduate student, shorter Achilles tendon lever arms and longer toe bones permit sprinters to generate greater contact force between the foot and the ground and to maintain that force for a longer time, thus providing advantages to people with sprinter-like feet.
To conduct their research, the scientists studied two groups of eight males, for a total of 16 people. The first group was composed of sprinters who were involved in regular sprint training and competition. The second group consisted of height-matched individuals who never had trained or competed in sprinting.
To be included in the sprinter group, individuals were required to currently be engaged in competitive sprinting and have at least three years of continuous sprint training. Of the eight sprinters, six competed in the 100-meter dash, with personal-best times ranging from 10.5 to 11.1 seconds.
The other two men reported 200-meter personal best times of 21.4 and 24.1 seconds.
The researchers took MRI images of the right foot and ankle of each of the subjects. They then used specialized software to analyze the images. The scientists found that the Achilles tendon lever arms of sprinters were 12 percent shorter than those of non-sprinters.
They also found that the combined length of the bones in the big toes of sprinters was on average 6.2 percent longer than that of non-sprinters, while the length of another foot bone, the first metatarsal, was 4.3 percent longer for sprinters than for non-sprinters.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.