Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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World Records 2012: What do they mean?

Unless something unusual and unexpected happens today in the marathon, the only world records in track and field will be for the women’s and men’s 4x100m relays and the 800m for men.  Most of this post will be about what David Rudisha did in the 800m; however the U.S. women went 40.82 in the relay and broke a record held by East Germany from the uber-doping era in the 1980s by over 1%, a remarkable achievement.  Before the ink was dry on the women’s record speculation started about just how clean it was.  This speculation was fueled in part because the previous record was held by a team from East Germany where there was a massive and well documented state sponsored doping program.  Last week I linked to a scientific summary of exactly what the East Germans were doing.  Here is that link again.

However, before we get too suspicious let’s quickly compare the Jamaican men to the U.S. women.   The 100m personal bests for the Jamaican men total 39.00s.  Divide their relay record of 36.84 by 39.00 and you get a ratio of 0.9446.  The personal bests of the U.S. women total 43.45s so the ratio of their 40.82 relay record to their group personal best is 0.9395.   Not that much difference.  If their ratio was similar to the Jamaican men’s their estimated time would b 41.04, still the world record by 0.31 seconds.   They were 0.22 seconds faster which can easily be explained by their superb baton exchanges.

So, before we all get a terminal case of skepticism about records, let’s look at the data.  Plenty of big jumps in record times over the years have had nothing to do with doping.

Now to Rudisha of Kenya who ran 1:40:91 in London.  He is the first man to break 1:41 and really dominated the fastest race at that distance ever run.   The depth of the field and the number of people who broke 1:43 was incredible.  Three of the ten fastest 800m times ever were run in this race.    This was clearly not the typical “sit back and kick” middle distance or distance race seen at the Olympics.

So, how good is Rudisha’s time?  I checked on the point tables contained in my copy of the classic “Computerized Running Training Programs” book and compared point totals for world records.  The tables are not perfect but they use a few reasonable assumptions about physiology and statistical models to make some educated guesses.  The tables were developed in the late 1960s and have stood the test of time.  I will pick the time in the tables closest to current world record for comparison with the current record on the right.

100m                  9.6 = 1110 points            (Bolt 9.58)

200m                19.2 = 1140 points           (Bolt 19.19)

400m                43.2 = 1110 points           (Johnson 43.18)

800m             1:41.1 = 1070 points           (Rudisha 1:40.91)

1500m           3:25.6 = 1100 points          (El Guerrouj 3:26.00)

3000m           7:19.8 = 1120 points          (Komen 7:20.67)

5000m         12:37.5 = 1130 points         (Bekele 12:37.35)

10,000m      26:16.4 = 1140 points         (Bekele  26:17.53)

Marathon  2:03:30.0 = 1120 points         (Makau 2:03:38.0)


You can see from the point tables that the 800m record appears a bit slow in comparison to the 400m and 1500m records.  The same is true for the marathon in comparison to the 5000 and 10,000m records.   The other point here is that Bolt’s 200 is worth about 1140 points and is the current “best” record for men.  1140 points in the 800m would be 1:37.7!  1140 points in the marathon would be 2:02:09!

The final point I want to make today is that Peter Snell, who won the 800m in Rome and 800/1500 double in Tokyo ran 1:44.3 on a grass track in 1962.  On a synthetic track that would convert to an estimated time between 1:41 and 1:42.  Below is a brief video on Snell with some footage of his races.



There is a lot more I could discuss related to Snell including high mileage training for 800/1500m runners but that can wait for a series of longer posts I am planning on training.   Here is a link to a longer documentary on Snell and his revolutionary coach Arthur Lydiard.  Like the Kenyans who have followed, Snell led an active life from a young age and the hill running and training long runs had to help.  In comparison to the East Africans, only the altitude was missing.   I wonder what would happen to the 800m record if a good (45 second personal best) but not great 400m runner followed the Lydiard plan used by Snell.


One Response to “World Records 2012: What do they mean?”

  1. August 12th, 2012 at 11:27 am

    George Brose says:

    Also to be remembered about Snell’s grass track experience was it being a short track, less than 440 yards. That may have meant and extra turn and a tighter radius. There are various qualities of grass tracks too. I ran on one in Zimbabwe around a school cricket ground, and it was like being on a golf green.

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