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Answer by Alex Suchman, runner for 12-plus years:
You want to run like Usain Bolt, you say? Here’s what you need to do. Let me warn you, though: It’s impossible for almost all of us, and for the rest, it still isn’t easy.
Step 1: Be a genetic freak.
Natural ability is more important in sprinting than any other sport I know. Many sports, like soccer, require athletes to spend years learning complex skills. Less physically gifted players can gain an edge with better technique. Sprinting is on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone knows how to run, and although you can improve your technique to a degree, that’s mostly determined by your natural biomechanics. Conditioning is important, but that’s just the icing on the cake.
As a rough estimate, your genetic talent probably needs to be in the top 0.0001 percent of people.* It’s exceedingly rare that someone comes along with the innate gifts to become a world-class sprinter.
Step 2: Have a physically active youth.
Now that you’ve won the genetic sweepstakes, the rest is comparatively easy (or, at least, more probable). You don’t want to wait until you’re 20 to start building strong muscles, tendons, bones, and joints. It’s important to be reasonably active in your youth. This doesn’t mean you need to do specific training, but a healthy amount of running around and playing sports is good. Fortunately, kids usually like doing things they’re good at, so an athletically gifted child will probably be active.
Step 3: Have adequate nutrition in your youth.
Sadly, undernutrition as a child can have lasting effects on a person’s development. In order to reach your full athletic potential (which you’ll need to do if you want to be a world-class sprinter), you should have access to adequate food. This doesn’t mean you need to eat a perfect diet, but you should have enough to allow your body to grow big and strong. Obviously, this step isn’t something a child has a whole lot of control over.
Step 4: Find a great coach who can provide the training and resources to become an elite sprinter.
Now that you’ve successfully followed the first three steps, you’re a teenager and you’re faster than anyone you know—even kids a couple years older. Now things get serious. At some point, you need to find a coach who can help you become the athlete you dream of.
The difficulty of this will vary greatly depending on where you live. If you’re in the United States, you can probably join your school’s track team and compete in local meets. From there, your outstanding times will get you discovered by top coaches who you can provide excellent training. You also have easy access to the best college track programs in the world.
On the other hand, if you’re in a country with no sprinting tradition, it’ll be a lot harder to find good coaching. Ideally, you find a way to compete in a national or international junior competition where you might get discovered. Hopefully you’ll find an opportunity to run college track in the U.S., where you’ll have access to the resources you need. (I don’t mean to make it sound like U.S. is the only place with good coaching. Plenty of other nations, especially in Europe and the Caribbean, have shown that they can develop their own athletes. But if you need to leave your home country, the U.S. has more elite coaches and programs than anywhere else.)
Step 5: Work really hard for several years.
Sprinters typically peak in their mid-20s. More broadly, the best sprinters have professional careers that run about 10 years, from 20 to 30, but most don’t make it that long. So from the time you find a top-flight coach, you have years of hard work ahead of you if you want to make it as a sprinter. It’s really hard to make the leap from young talent to world-class athlete. In sprinting, the difference between 10.05 seconds and 10.25 seconds is an eternity.
There’s also the issue of money. If you’re really good, you’ll be able to live on your endorsement earnings and race winnings. But until then, you’ll have to find another way to support yourself. That’s not an easy life to lead.
Step 6: Hope that your body responds to your training and that you avoid major injury.
- The ability to respond well to training
- The ability to handle a large volume of training without injury
The first relates to how much you improve after a certain amount of training, and it varies quite a bit between people. Some people have bodies that don’t adapt quickly to stimuli, no matter how hard they work. Other people don’t have to put in that much work to get huge responses. Still others will get a big response at first and then plateau. Most people respond differently to different types of training. Hopefully, you’re a so-called super-responder and you find a training regimen that suits you.
The second talent is one that can unfortunately derail otherwise bright careers. When you’re sprinting at high speeds, every stride puts a huge burden on the muscles, tendons, and joints involved. Some people have bodies that injure easily under that stress, no matter how much supplementary work they do to strengthen themselves. Other people are incredibly sturdy and can take on huge training loads without much risk. Hopefully you fall on the durable end of the spectrum. Even then, injuries can be somewhat random, so you need some luck in that regard.
Step 7: Put it all together.
You’re almost there. You have immense genetic gifts, a childhood that allowed you to become a talented youth athlete, and further training that refined you into an elite sprinter. You’ve turned yourself into a machine capable of pushing the limits of the human body. Well done.
But you’re not there yet! You still have to turn all of that into a world-class performance. The annals of track history are littered with sprinters who showed flashes of elite talent but never had the breakthrough performance that cemented their status as world-class athletes.
There’s a lot of timing and luck that goes into this. Sprinters typically peak for a relatively short part of the season—it’s not like they can run a sub-10-second 100-meter dash on a whim. Additionally, wind and track surface conditions can play a significant role in the time a runner achieves. If a tailwind is too fast, the time won’t be accepted by the track and field governing body. On the other hand, if there’s a headwind or the track isn’t in prime condition (for instance, rain), you’re not going to run your best time. Other factors like temperature and humidity can affect how your muscles behave. Ideally, you’ll find a warm, dry day with a weak tailwind on a blazing-fast track just as you’re hitting your peak. Of course, that rarely happens.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: Let’s say you have two big meets in the period in which you’re peaking for a season. (You’ll race in other meets before, but those are just tune-ups.) During the first one, it’s rainy and there’s a headwind. You feel good, but you can’t hit the time you want because of the conditions. You’re not concerned, though, because you felt fast and you’re confident about the next meet. But then you feel a twinge in your hamstring while training the next week. It’s not bad, but you still feel a little sore going into your final meet. Even though you feel tight, you run a decent time, but you know you could have done better if your hamstring hadn’t been holding you back. That could have been a new personal best! Just like that, a year of preparation has failed to earn the results you felt you deserved.
Even world-beating studs have trouble with timing. For instance, Jamaican great Asafa Powell set the 100 meter dash world record four times but never won an individual Olympic medal. Many less famous sprinters are perennially on the cusp of elite status but can never quite break through. So even if you successfully follow Steps 1 through 6, I hope you have one more dash of luck come your way.
If you do, I look forward to seeing you on TV.
Correction, July 17, 2015: Due to an editing error, this post misstated that a person’s genetic talent likely needs to be in the top 0.000001 percent to be a world-class sprinter. That number is closer to 0.0001 percent.