The London Olympics have captured the full attention of the public and the mainstream media: there’s something compelling about watching humans pushing themselves to extraordinary athletic achievements. Yet in comparison to some animals, even exceptionally talented humans are slow and weak.
One of the UK’s top sports scientists happens to be a veterinary surgeon. Professor Craig Sharp qualified as a vet in 1956, starting out in mixed practice in Crieff. In his leisure, he was a serious athlete, at one time holding the record for the fastest run to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. He soon began to take a serious professional interest in the science of physical exercise. In 1971, he took up a lectureship in the (then) innovative Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Birmingham, the start of an illustrious academic career. He’s been described as the founder of sports science in Great Britain, working closely with Olympic athletes and coaches.
In last week’s Veterinary Record, Professor Sharp published a detailed academic article comparing the athletic abilities of different animals with humans. His findings make even top athletes seem like puny weaklings compared with the power and speed of the animal world.
In sprint distance races, humans are left standing. A greyhound ran 100m in 5.8 seconds, compared to Usain Bolt‘s best effort of 9.58 seconds. Over 200m, a cheetah has been timed at 6.9 seconds, a horse took only 9.98 seconds, and a greyhound ran it in 11.2 seconds. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt’s world record is 19.19 seconds. A horse has run 400m in just 19.2 seconds, and a greyhound has done it in 21.4 seconds. The fastest human takes over 43 seconds.
Animals beat us over longer distances too: the pronghorn antelope can run 800m in 33 seconds (the human record is 1 minute 41 seconds) and the same animal can cover a mile in 1 minute 30 seconds (compared to 3 minutes 43 seconds in humans).
Humans do a little better over longer distances and varied terrains. On the flat, a horse can run a marathon in 1 hour and 18 minutes, compared to the human record of just over two hours, but when a “man versus horse” race takes place on hilly farm tracks, forestry roads and rough moorland, the gap narrows. Humans are good at charging through undergrowth, rushing up steep banks, leaping off ledges and running down steep hills. Over one 22 mile race, the horse still won, but the winning margin dropped from 30 minutes to just under a minute. Humans have even beaten horses over some long distances, although arguably it’s not fair: horses are obliged, under animal welfare rules, to take lengthy breaks for food and water, whereas humans are allowed to stagger on without stopping.
Running through the wilderness was important to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and we’ve evolved with anatomical features to do this well. Compared to great apes, humans have long legs and narrow waists. We have short toes: if they were 20% longer, this would double the mechanical work of the foot and make us slower. And our big toes are parallel to our other toes, creating a push-off lever when running. Apes’ big toes stick out sideways, similar to our thumbs, making their feet better for gripping objects and for climbing trees, but less good at running.
Our lower legs are biomechanically efficient, with elastic tendons on the soles of our feet, and well developed Achilles tendons above the back of our heels. The tendons stretch under our weight then contract like springs, pushing us off at speed, like pogo sticks.
Our lack of body fur and all-over sweat gland distribution (only equalled by horses) prevent us from overheating during prolonged exertion. We have an efficient fuel system too, storing around twenty miles worth of energy-providing glycogen in our running muscles.
Whatever about speed and endurance, humans don’t fare at all well compared to the best in the animal world when it comes to strength. While the human world record for the “clean and jerk” lift is 283kg, an African elephant can lift 300kg with its trunk, a Grizzly Bear can hoist a weight of 455kg, and a Gorilla can carry 900kg.
Humans do, however, possess one crucial advantage over the animal world: the large cerebral cortex in our brain allows us to think and plan. The impressive raw speed and brute force of nature is outplayed every time by the cunning human mind.