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Bolt’s Victory and Gatlin’s Loss: The Implications of Muscular Tone


United States and Jamaican Flags

By James Smith, Global Sport Concepts, Athlete Consulting

Sprint Considerations at the 2015 IAAF World Championships

This article will focus on the 100m Event

The showdown between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin at 2015 IAAF World Championships is over. Much of what has been discussed over the past few days pertaining to the outcome, however, has centered on nearly everything but what, in my view, is the most likely culprit.

Muscular tone, or tonus, signifies the state of passive partial contraction of skeletal muscle fiber. The lower the tone, the greater percentage of muscle fiber that is available to contract fully and the higher the tone, the lesser the percentage of muscle fiber that is available to contract fully.

Sprinting, as one example only, is an activity that relies heavily upon the elastic response of muscle fiber. For this reason, there is an optimal state of muscular tone to enter a race due to how the state of tone is strongly related to the elastic qualities of skeletal muscle tissue.

If tone is too low, the sprinter will be “flat” because too many fibers are left in a passive state of non-contraction. In this way, the elastic response is minimized due to too much laxity in the tissue. Alternatively, if tone is too high, the sprinter will be too “stiff” because too many fibers are in a passive state of partial contraction. In this way, the elastic response is also minimized, however, in this case because not enough fibers are left remaining in a state of passive non-contraction.

A rudimentary example- take a rubber band and perform three trials with it in order to simulate not enough tone (hypo tonus), too much tone (hyper tonus), and optimal tone. When you perform the additional stretch after the pre-stretch to simulate countermovement, do what you can to pull the band the same distance each time in order to gain some consistency short of using a proper mechanical system in the lab.

Hypo tonus- barely pre-stretch the band to maybe 30-40% (this signifies too little tone) then add a quick additional stretch to near maximal length in order for it to simulate the countermovement (stretch reflex) and release it. Note the distance traveled

Hyper tonus- pre-stretch the rubber band to its near maximum (too much tone); note how difficult it is to gain additional stretch (too little elastic potential remaining) for the stretch reflex and release it. Note the distance traveled.

Optimal tone- lastly, stretch the rubber band perhaps 70-80% of its maximum, leaving sufficient elastic potential available for the additional stretch (optimal tone). Perform the additional quick stretch to near maximal length and release it. This approach will render the farthest distance traveled.

Rudimentary field-tests aside, it is important to recognize the significance of the sprinter having an optimal state of tone going into a final and how their performance in the rounds means everything.

While any high-intensity action that involves the legs will influence the state of tone in the legs, in the context of sprint performance, there’s no action more significant on influencing the state of tone than sprinting itself.

From this analysis we may observe the implications of preparing for World Championships or Olympics, each of which involves multiple rounds.

First off, it must be pointed out that this concept is not a new one. The late Charlie Francis, for one, expounded on the significance of managing tone in great detail on many occasions.

Consider the 100m performances of Bolt and Gatlin in 2015 leading up to the World Championships:

  • Bolt
    • 10.12 in Rio
    • 9.87 in London
    • 9.96 in the heats in Beijing
    • 9.96 in the semis in Beijing
    • 9.79 in the final in Beijing
  • Gatlin
    • 9.74 (lifetime best) in Doha
    • 9.75 in Rome
    • 9.75 in Lausanne
    • 10.02 in Budapest
    • 9.78 in Monaco
    • 9.83 in the heats in Beijing
    • 9.77 in the semis in Beijing
    • 9.80 in the final in Beijing

Regarding their 200m performances going in:

  • Bolt:
    • 20.20 in Kingston
    • 20.19 in Ostrava
    • 20.29 in NYC
  • Gatlin
    • 19.68 in Eugene
    • 19.92 in Eugene (heat)
    • 19.90 in Eugene (semi)
    • 19.57 in Eugene (final)

Interesting to note Gatlin’s intelligent management of the 200m rounds in Eugene during the US Outdoor Championships that lead to his 19.57PB. Curious how he failed to demonstrate this tactical savvy in the 100m rounds this past week in Beijing.

From this we know that Gatlin (having set PBs in both the 100m and 200m this season) was in the top form of his career going into Beijing, despite having a denser competition schedule going in, with every indication that he was prepared to rival or improve upon his 9.74PB set back in Doha (as made evident by the way he smoothly ran a 9.77 in the semis in Beijing).

Alternatively, while Bolt was coming off an injury, his times in and of themselves showed no direct indication that he was in form to beat Gatlin. That said, any T&F aficionado knew that Bolt has always shined at major competitions (save for his false start in 100m at the WCs in Daegu in 2011). For this reason, coupled with the confidence he verbally conveyed about his form going into Beijing, there was justifiable reason to bet on him against Gatlin this past weekend (as I did in a gentlemen’s bet against a friend).


Beijing Birds Nest Stadium

Birds Nest Stadium, IAAF World Athletics Championships, Beijing 2015.

From a neuromuscular point of view, the ideal strategy for success at managing the rounds going into the final is to run just fast enough, and not faster, to secure one’s spot in the final. In this way, provided a proper taper is executed prior to the competition, tone is gradually raised from the heats to the semis to the final.

Clearly, this is easier said than done, particularly if you’re not one of the fastest sprinters in the competition. In this case, the sprinters who are not contenders for a medal are laying it on the line every step of the way through the rounds simply in an effort to make it to the final. In this way, tone is assuredly through the roof if they make it to the final and therapy options must be maximized to mitigate the effects of these athlete’s maximal performances through the rounds.

Regarding the top contenders (fastest sprinters), however, an entirely different scenario exists. Usually, but not always, the fastest sprinters are separated into different heats as well as semis. This orchestration is savvy of meet organizers because this bodes well for populating the final with the fastest sprinters in the competition. In this way, there is further opportunity for the sub 9.80 crowd to go on cruise control for the qualifiers and incrementally raise tone along the way.

This fact is missed by casual observers who will scoff at the top sprinters for not blazing during the rounds. Unbeknownst to these fans, the sprinter will almost assuredly burn himself out for the final (by being in a state of hyper tonus) and suffer from a lack of sufficient elasticity in the muscles (there’s only so much therapy options can do in the 11th hour).

Going into this WC, it is likely that anyone who wasn’t capable of going sub 9.80 had a little voice in his ear saying, “you’re in for it.” For this reason, Gatlin and Bolt (even though Bolt didn’t show top form prior to the event) would have had excellent confidence going in. Of course, no one could count out Asafa Powell (a personal favorite of mine) who showed some great form and times this season (despite his historical problems at managing the rounds at major championships), Tyson Gay being a formidable competitor (4th fastest 100m of all time and fastest American of all time) even though this year hasn’t been his best, the young collegiate sprinter Andre De Grasse wowing the world this year, Mike Rodgers showing sub 9.9 speed more than once, Trayvon Bromell looking strong, and so on.

Regarding Bolt and Gatlin, Bolt managed the rounds beautifully by essentially just running fast enough to win each one and automatically qualify for the final. In this way, his tone going into the final would have been optimized because the 9.96 efforts in the heats and semis were more sub-max relative to his season best going in (9.87) compared to Gatlin’s heat and semi relative to his 9.74.

Gatlin went out blazing in the heats with 9.83 finishing 2+ meters ahead of 2nd place finisher Aaron Brown, who went 10.03. Yes, Gatlin looked relaxed. However, he could have shut down and gone mid/high 9.9 and still comfortably won. Then in the semi-final round Gatlin drops a searing 9.77 finishing comfortably ahead of 2nd place finisher Mike Rodgers 9.86 (whose PB is 9.85). Gatlin could have easily taken his foot off the gas at around 80m, instead of 5m short of the finish, and still coasted in for the win.

Gatlin in the 100-meter semi-finals.

So while Gatlin put on a show for all the fans in his heat and semi-final performance, he very likely sabotaged his chance for winning the final. His 9.77 semi-final run, while well executed and he shut down maybe 5m out, was only three-hundredths of a second off his lifetime PB set earlier this season. From a percentage standpoint that equates to 99.7%.

Comparatively, Bolt went into the final having managed his tone very well with, arguably, adequate elastic resources at his disposal. By contrast, Gatlin, having blazed his way through the rounds was very likely in a state of hyper tonus going into the final. In this way, when Gatlin found himself being pressed by Bolt from 10m onward (something he hasn’t experienced in some time) he broke form around the 80m mark and lost the race by .01 going three-hundredths slower than he did in the semi-final round.

From a physical preparatory standpoint, there’s no greater means of preparing oneself for multiple rounds then by inoculating oneself for the nature of that level of stress. This equates to a sufficient prior exposure to, particularly, maximal velocity and speed endurance stimuli. Both of which are exactly what effective training and a sufficient competition schedule provide to a sprinter.

Aside from the physical preparatory side of the equation (which includes the optimization of technical execution), we must factor in psychological preparation and the tactical/strategic plan for managing the rounds.

A seasoned competitor on the world stage “should” be in possession of the requisite psychological fortitude to remain focused under any amount of pressure. The mechanisms involved with this aspect of preparation are not germane to this particular article that is focusing on the state of the neuromuscular system going into the final, however. That said, it is certainly fair to question whether Gatlin ran as fast as he did in the rounds due to nerves; that would then certainly justify additional discussion in the domain of psychological preparation.

It is my opinion, due to their substantial historical experience at WCs and Olympics, that both Bolt and Gatlin went into Beijing with a level of physical/technical/psychological preparation sufficient to be a wash, leaving only their actual race plans to distinguish 1st from 2nd place in the final.

While Gatlin’s form break in the final was likely an aggregate of both race plan failure (the tone implications) as well as the psychological stress of being challenged for the first time in a while (no doubt a chicken: egg scenario), it is my view that the failure to moderate his efforts in the heats and semis is what most profoundly lead to his demise.

Bolt and Gatlin in the 100-meter final.

The margin for error at the world stage in the sprints is miniscule. This demands the absolute optimum in preparatory efforts and race plan execution. It is my opinion that Gatlin’s lack of elastic resources, more than anything, however marginal, due to his overexertion in the rounds, is what prevented him from realizing the true limits of his performance capabilities in the final.

If this is the case, we’ll see if the lesson is learned in Rio next year visa vie his execution in the rounds.

Of course, in the interim, the entire field of competitors has plenty of time to advance their preparation, not the least of who is the greatest sprinter of all time- Usain Bolt.

Please share this article so others may benefit.



  • David Maris says:

    Great article. Only thing I would say though is that Bolt’s time in his semi isn’t indicative of his effort. He stumbled very noticeably and therefore had to run very hard to attain the 9.96 clocking. I would imagine his last 90m was more similar to the last 90m of a 9.7-9.8 run.

    • James Smith says:

      Thank you David, I debated as to whether address the stumble in the article. I believe that he uncharacteristically forced the acceleration going into the 4th contact. If you look in super slow motion you’ll see clean lines of extension on contacts 1, 2, 3, then note his head drop and subsequent center of mass shift backwards at the hip which caused the stumble. Surely his exertion was more substantial than the 9.96 indicated; however, I believe that his time and margin of victory in that race would have been very similar had he accelerated smoothly, just via lesser energetic cost. In this case, he may have had a bit more elastic resources at his disposal for the final.

      • David Maris says:

        I agree with you that he would have likely run a similar time in the semi had he not stumbled (maybe a couple hundredths quicker, as it was a little close for comfort) and therefore he may well have performed better in the final. I don’t know how qualified I am to comment on what caused the stumble. I enjoyed the article though!

  • Rich says:

    Interesting look into a topic that isn’t talked about too often. With the number of sub-10 performers continuing to rise, the battle seems to be shifting from making the podium to making the final. Bolt will always have the advantage.

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