DR. BERT LYLE – USAIN BOLT,………..A LEGACY AND RE-EMERGENCE OF STRIDE LENGTH IN SPRINTING

In 1973 I found myself at Texas Women’s College, in Denton, Texas.. I was there at the invitation of Dr. Bert Lyle who was the athletic director and head women’s track and field/cross country coach there.
Let me interrupt right now to state this is a long and convoluted piece to make my point showing how Dr. Lyle is connected in a way to the success Bolt enjoyed in 2008.
Bert Lyle was/is the quintessential manifestation of what a true and good southern gentleman should be in my eyes. He is very intelligent ( Duke grad ), sensitive, compassionate, and what I admire most, has a special feeling and empathy for the underdog. He is also white. I have been labelled a racist by some, and to varying degrees that is an accurate characterization. Growing up in a racist and sexist country, it is impossible not to be acculturated, to some degree, by both of these insidiously pervasive and crippling concepts.  When it comes to music I am a fan of, and prefer, music that blacks basically invented,…jazz, blues, and to a lesser degree, gospel. When it comes to art, my favorite is Pablo Picasso because he did with paint, brush, and canvas, what Miles Davis did with  trumpet, tone and timing. I cried uncontrollably sitting on the steps of my house in Plymouth, Massachusetts  that warm April day when President Roosevelt died. I did the same walking down Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C. when President Kennedy was assassinated . I could not hold back the tears when President Barrack Obama was sworn into office. When it comes to track and field, my favorites are two Englishmen,… Sir Isaac Newton and Geoffry Dyson . My point being, when it comes to the sport that I have been involved with all my adult life, I feel liberated from my self-admitted racial preferences. This allowed me to more easily accept a basic thesis that Dr. Lyle introduced to me  back in 1973 and I saw expressed and exploited in the men’s Olympic sprints of 2008.
Back in 1973 I had just come back from the 1972 Munich Olympics where I worked with twelve athletes . Two of which made finals ( Alice Annum- Ghana and Rose Allwood – Jamaica ) and several others had good performances ( Gerald Tinker, 4 x 100 gold medalist ). When I arrived on the Texas Women’s University campus I was so full of myself that anyone standing in front of me had automatically placed themselves in the direct line of fire from buttons exploding from my shirt, unable to withstand the extreme pressure of a vain and ego-filled body which caused neither my hat or shirt to fit. So here was this mild mannered, erudite white man calmly and patiently trying to get this black, self-anointed/appointed “Phi Beta Kappa” of sprinting to count the number of strides that sprinters were taking in their races.
“Brooks, as you no doubt know, sprint speed is the optimum combination of stride rate and stride length of the runner.”.
” O.K. So what ?”
” By counting the number of strides we can possibly pick up who is doing the best job of combining the two.”.
“Doc that is the easiest thing in the world. The one who finishes first settles all bets !”.
” You may be correct. But we can still learn a lot from seeing what is going on with stride length in the sprints because there is too much emphasis placed on stride rate and turnover.”.
“Doc, do you really think I came all the way out here to count steps ?”.
” Do you know how many strides Annum and Allwood took in Munich ?”.
“No, and I do not know of any reason why I should !”.
As I said this I thought back to the fact that both of these sprinters took unusually long strides for their respective height. Four hours later Dr. Lyle and I were still counting strides of all the Olympic athletes in all of the Olympic sprints of 1972.
I started coaching Steve Williams in 1973. He was to become “The World’s Fastest Human” 2-3 times during the 70s. He was well over 6-3 and was split up to his Adam’s apple. We stressed stride length because of his height and in-seam. He ran 9.9 five times when that was the world record, the only man to equal the world record five times in the 100 meters. He had famous duels with Houston McTear who had run 9.1 for the 100 yards and was the best stride rate sprinter in the world,…however, McTear never beat Williams at 100 meters. During the 80s Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson had their famous duels with Johnson seemingly doing it all with stride rate. Later came Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, both of whom appeared to be stride rate centered, not to mention being compellingly successful as well. There developed a bio-mechanical term and concept to emphasize stride rate, ” Front Side Mechanics”, complete with a technique and execution that stressed shortening stride in favor getting on and off the track faster. In many ways this flew into the teeth of what I had absorbed from Dr. Lyle. Being reluctant and recalcitrant to theoretical change, I was skeptical to a degree. I remember having several discussions with John Smith who was coaching the reigning “World Fastest Human”, Maurice Greene.
“John, we know that good big men beat the hell out of good small men. Right ?’.
“Yeah.”.
“What’s with the sprints being dominated by small guys with crazy turnover ?”.
“Fast turnover is the only way the small guy can compete. We do not have the big guys like Steve, Carl and Lindford Christie around anymore, so the small guys are having their way. “.
“Any guys out there who could do it like Steve and those guys ?”.
“Sure, Marcus Brunson, if he got his act and head together, is a throwback talent. He has shown great 60 meter speed and with his long levers he should rule at 100 and 200.”.
” I think Jeremy Wariner and Allyson Felix show what can be done with more emphasis on stride length. The same goes for Wallace Spearmon.”.
” You are right. Spearmon is a monster waiting to take it to the next level. I think Xavier Carter  can do it too if he had his mechanics together.”.
Listening to all of the television “pundits” and “experts” talk about Usain Bolt’s run in Beijing and how he “shut it down” and could have gone so much faster had he continued to “push it “, I was intrigued to see just how accurate their assessment was, so I had Andy Ferrara, who was one of two DARTFISH vidoegraphers the High Performance Division of USA Track and Field had at every practice session and competition site leading up to, and including the Olympics. With DARTFISH and his expertise we would be able to get both stride count and incremental times for each 10 meters.
There is a sprint axiom for the first 10 meters. It stresses that the optimum number of strides for the first 10 meters is 7. Thompson was there in 7, and so was Dix. Bolt was there in 6 strides ! At 10 meters, Thompson’s time was 1.80, Dix was 1.89, and Bolt was 1.85. Bolt is slower at 10 meters by 5 hundredths and Dix, although he has the fastest stride rate, is back by 9 hundredths . At 10 strides into the race, Bolt has taken 2.62 seconds, Thompson has taken 2.50 and Dix has taken 2.32. Dix has reached 10 steps faster than either Thompson or Bolt . However, Bolt reaches 20 meters in 2.85 seconds. Thompson is there in 2.89, and Dix is at 20 meters in 2.97 seconds.  Already the die is cast and the outcome is determined. Stride length, in this case, is destroying stride rate. For example, at between 50 and 60 meters Bolt takes 3.5 strides, Thompson takes 4, as does D
ix. Bolt is 6.29 ( check out world record for 60 meters ) for 60 meters and Thompson is 6.39 and Dix is 6.46. Bolt is covering the 10 meter intervals from 60 meters through 100 meters at 3.5 – 4.0 – 3.5 – 3.5  strides per 10 meter interval. Thompson and Dix both cover the same 10 meter intervals in 4.0 strides. During the last three intervals ( 70 to 80, 80 to 90, 90 to 100 ) where Bolt is supposed to be “slowing down” he covers the 10 meter intervals in the times of .84, .86, and .87. seconds. Over the same distance it takes Thompson .88, .89, .91 . Dix splits are .86, .87,.89. Bolt takes a total of 41 strides for the 100 meters, and Thompson takes 44.5. Dix takes 48.50 strides !!!!!!
What we clearly see here is that although Bolt was seemingly relaxed and cavalier at the finish of the 100, in fact he was maintaining his stride length, which was the key to his overwhelming success. Further, his deceleration rate was well within what is accepted and expected after top end speed has been achieved. Although he may have been “showboating” he was not in fact “slowing down” as a result of it. The fact he maintained the key element of his success, ….stride length, allowed him to finish as well as could be expected, even if he had tightened up and “pushed it”. The impression we were left with by way of the commentators and others simply does not bear up under the scrutiny of a careful evaluation and analysis.
In the 200 meters the dominance of stride length is even more compelling. Bolt took 42 around the turn for the first 100 and came  back in 38 strides for a total of 80 strides. The second and third place finishers were there in approximately 90 strides. It is obvious that given the amount of talent and training that Bolt possessed at that time, there was no way people could concede better than 10% fewer strides to him over the length of the race(s) and expect anything other than an ass kicking. Bolt’s race strategy and execution is directly out of the Dr. Bert Lyle school of sprinting and legacy.
Good big people beat good small people and for good big, and even not so big, people, stride length can be the winning edge.
Brooks T. Johnson
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