If you hang around sports long enough (or watch enough SportsCenter) you’ll undoubtedly hear the phrases, “You can’t coach height,” and “You can’t coach speed.” The former is an indelible truth, the latter is an outright lie. You can coach speed. Here’s a promise: if you are able-bodied and have never been coached as a sprinter I can make you faster – probably in less than an hour. You won’t break any world records or be able to run much faster over a long distance, but I can improve your sprinting speed so that you’ll have a faster 40 time. (And that’s what the superhero scouts are looking at anyway, right?)
How is this possible? Simple: mechanics. In all likelihood, you don’t run very well. You don’t drive your knees or use your arms correctly or your body position is wrong or most likely, all these things. And you know what? Most super-speedsters don’t know how to run right either. (Okay, to be fair, the real problem is artists who don’t know how to draw people running, but work with me here.)
Here’s a cover from THE FLASH No. 214:
Not surprisingly it’s got a picture of the Flash running – actually several. Look at the way their arms drive all the way across their bodies. Ugh. Movement like that would cause the entire upper torso to twist creating a lot of wasted motion, in fact this movement would probably slow you down more than anything. But it’s very common to see super-speedsters depicted like this in comics. How should the arms look? More like these guys:
These aren’t sprinters but you can get a good sense of proper arm position and even knee drive by examining the various runners in this picture. When you’re trying to run fast your arms should be moving in the same plane as your legs – the object is linear momentum and velocity so driving the arms across the body is counter productive. And yet Flash does this a lot. There are times he looks more like and speed skater than a speed runner.
Body angle would be a fascinating thing to study if you had access to a real life super speedster. Typically you wouldn’t coach the kind of extreme body lean you see depicted nor it’s ramrod upright opposite that is also pretty common, but some of that has to do with fatigue. It’s very difficult for your garden variety human to maintain a 45 degree body lean for an extended period of time and it’s not particularly desirable because it limits the ability to take a longer stride – one of the big components to successful sprinting. But it’s also a postural limitation since a pronounced body lean would put stress on a number of muscles groups that are normally not very active while running. And the more muscles you fatigue the faster the body as a whole fatigues. But the Flash does not get tired so this wouldn’t be a limitation for him and there may be some aerodynamic advantages to a body lean like the one shown below, especially at the speeds at which the Flash moves.
But I suspect a super speedster would be better suited running slightly more erect. It’s a more natural position and if nothing else it would allow for greater visual awareness. How erect? Well, Michael Johnson set world records in the 200 and 400 meters and won multiple Olympic gold medals running in a nearly vertical position so I don’t suppose there’s any real limitation. Although I have to say that this doesn’t look right:
Since they already can pick them up and put them down faster than anyone else and they never get tired, what would be the purpose in teaching a super speedster better biomechanics? So there’s a little wasted motion, big deal, right? A little wasted motion multiplied over the speed and distance the Flash typically travels becomes a lot of wasted motion. And even the Flash could be faster – how many times have you seen the Flash needing to run “faster than he ever has before”? About every third issue right? So here you go Flash, just give me one hour and we’ll break a few more barriers.