Right Foot Forward
July 19, 2016
Picture a sprinter at the start of the men’s 100 meters: He’s coiled up on the blocks, taut, folded into himself, poised like a pulled slingshot. His hands are in front, rigid arms holding up his body, with one leg stiff, straight back and another curled underneath, ready to push out and thrust him upright. But which leg is curled underneath, responsible for this initial surge of power? Does it matter? According to legendary sprint champion Michael Johnson, yes.
“People tend to look at sprinting as simple: The gun goes off and you just take off and run as fast as you can,” Johnson says. “But there’s technique, there’s strategy involved. The best basketball players are the greatest players because they can make adjustments. It’s the same thing that track athletes do — it’s just that you are able to see the complexity of other sports.”
In the men’s 100 meters, an observer’s inability to track a sprinter’s strategy can be attributed to the race’s hasty length; the world record, set in 2009, currently stands at 9:58 seconds.
In 2011, Su Bingtian broke the Chinese record with a time of 10:16 seconds. At the 2012 London Games, his best time was 10:19; the slowest time in the final was 9:98, exasperating the athlete. “No matter how developed my technique was, if I didn’t change, I would never run under 10 seconds,” Su recalls. “But if I did make a change, I might have the chance to breakthrough.”
So, in 2014, Su committed to transforming his technique. “I realized I can run really fast for the first 60 meters but cannot keep the speed to the end,” he says. “So I tried really hard to figure out a solution to keep the speed longer. And changing my starting stride came to my mind.”
The rebuild centered on switching the sprinter’s push-off leg from right, his natural inclination, to left. Su and his coach believed the change would increase his pace through to the finish line, potentially redefining his potential. During the transformation, Su kept his gamble mostly private; he didn’t even tell his family. Aside from his coach, he only confided in a few other Chinese sprinters, who were nearly unanimous in their responses: This was a risky choice — a sentiment Su, himself, felt.
“To change a technique which I’m familiar with since childhood is really hard,” Su says. “In the beginning, your body won’t get used to it. You need to work hard to change muscle memory. Even when I was walking on the street, I would suddenly get started. My friends were like, ‘What was that?!’ and I would say, ‘Just practicing.’ In the beginning, I was repeating the new start in my dreams.”
Returning to international competition with his modified strategy in 2014, Su ran an indoor 60-meter race. He finished in 6:71, far off of 6:55, his fastest time the year prior: “Definitely terrible for me,” Su confirms, adding that the outcome “made me doubt my decision, even to myself.” But, still, he persevered.
A few months after that race, Su began to see progress. Back in China, he ran the 100 meters in 10:10. And then in May of 2015, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, he finally hit that elusive, all-important sub-10-second mark, with a time of 9:99 — and equaled the time three months later at a meet in Beijing.
“A challenge is something you dare not do but always want to try,” Su asserts. “People asked me, ‘Why risk everything and change technique?’ But I wanted to push my boundaries. No matter if you succeed or if you fail, a brave change is worth trying.”
Su’s Best Times
(annually, from 2012 to present):
- 00:10:19 seconds on August 4, 2012 in London, England
- 00:10:06 seconds on May 21, 2013 in Beijing, China
- 00:10:10 seconds September 28, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea
- 00:09:99 seconds May 30, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon
- 00:09:99 seconds August 23, 2015 in Beijing, China