The Science Of Success
July 21, 2016
Brasilian pole vaulter Fabiana Murer joined the ranks of the world’s best vaulters in June 2008, with a mark of 4.80 meters. Eight years, one month later, Murer rose another .07 meters, hitting 4.87 meters (15.98 feet), and claimed 2016’s top vault.
Born March 16, 1981, Murer has been competing on the international circuit since she was a teenager. She took gold at the 2011 IAAF World Championships, silver last year in Beijing and is a three-time winner of the South American Games. Despite her success, Murer’s objective remains ascendance, a goal made possible through mastery of technique.
As Murer’s story suggests, a pole vaulter trains over a lifetime for an action that takes just seconds to complete, but is filled with complexities. This is how it works:
1. As Murer sprints along the runway, pole in hand, she increases her energy of motion, known as kinetic energy. When she arrives at her takeoff point, she jabs her pole into the ground, where it bends at nearly a 90-degree angle. That transfers her energy into elastic potential energy as she’s lifted into the air.
2. As the pole begins to straighten back into a vertical position, it releases the stored elastic energy. This pushes Murer higher and higher above the ground, transferring the elastic energy from the pole back to her in the form of gravitational potential energy. This is the force that carries Murer forward, feet first, over the bar.
3. However, elite vaulters like Murer add something extra, not willing to depend merely on the forces propelling them up and over. While gliding mid-air, Murer also applies chemical energy from her muscles to hurl herself over the bar. Pushing off the pole as it recoils — not to mention a strong jump before takeoff — is necessary for an elite vaulter to even come close to clearing a bar set over 15 feet above the ground.
4. The science grows even more complex when Murer is directly above the high bar and the slightest impact would send the bar plummeting, nullifying all this effort. Just 150 milliseconds after their feet clear the bar, elite vaulters begin to arch their bodies. Even though their midsections go over the bar, the average position of their principal mass is actually underneath the bar. This is the same biomechanical technique used by high jumpers, dating back to the advent of the Fosbury Flop, the sport’s leading landing style. It allows Murer to only require enough force to get her center mass to a height near, but not over, the bar.
5. After releasing the pole, Murer twists her hips at approximately 450 degrees per second. This allows her to visually monitor where she is in relation to the bar. And while she initially twists her body to face the bar, about 200 milliseconds after releasing the pole, she opens her legs to stop twisting. This increases her body’s moment of inertia, or resistance to rotation, and helps Murer stabilize herself as she falls to the soft comfort of the landing pit.
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