Do Taller People Run Faster? (or Slower)

If you are a runner, you know how much work you have to put in to be competitive regardless of the category. Explosiveness, flexibility, and strength all play a crucial role in determining how fast a human can run. 


But, when you look at it from a physics standpoint, a longer stride means more distance covered with a single step. That leads us to conclude that the taller you are, the faster you run. However, in practice, that’s not always the case. So, do taller people run faster?


In ideal conditions (same strength, stamina, flexibility, and weight), taller people will run faster than shorter people. However, it’s impossible to get ideal conditions. Taller people have a longer stride but usually have more weight slowing them down, so height doesn’t matter that much.


Even if they don’t have more weight, they lack the strength and explosiveness shorter people have, so it still evens the playing field. Of course, some disciplines are generally better for taller individuals, while some are better for shorter runners, but there are no rules that guarantee a taller runner will be faster, and vice versa.


Does Height Affect Running Speed?

Tall people have a longer stride, meaning they cover more distance with a single step because of their leg length and overall height. If you consider only that fact, it’s easy to conclude that size affects running speed drastically. But, that’s not the case in practice.


I already mentioned that taller runners usually have more weight, slowing them down because of simple physics. It’s harder to get a heavier object moving, and once you do, it takes much more force to keep it moving, meaning they burn energy much faster and lose that explosiveness that smaller runners have.


On the other hand, if a tall runner is around the same weight as his shorter opponent, he has a lot less muscle mass. Therefore, he has less strength and explosiveness. That makes the longer stride irrelevant, as the most significant factor in running fast is strength and flexibility.


So, smaller runners usually have strength and explosiveness, while taller runners have a longer stride, which eventually evens the playing field. Height affects running speed only if the individual can utilize that advantage without sacrificing other integral parts of the running technique.


How Does Height Affect Running Speed?

There are instances where runners utilize their height to perfection. 


The disciplines where it gives the most significant advantage are mid-length races, such as the 400m or 800m. I’ll explain why height affects running speed the most in these disciplines using Usain Bolt as an example.


I know he’s a sprinter, best known for his 100m and 200m dashes, but that’s an anomaly among short-distance sprinters, which is why he was such a phenomenon in his prime. If you take a closer look at the slow-motion footage of his races, you’ll notice that he tends to start a lot slower than most of his competition.


But then he compensates for his lack of explosiveness at the start by using his strength, flexibility, and long strides to regain momentum and finish off as fast as possible. He is tall and heavy, so he needs a fraction of a second longer to get his body moving. That’s called inertia, and it’s pure physics.


Most tall sprinters (99% of them) don’t have the strength, nor the time and distance to compensate for that poor start, which is why Usain Bolt was so outstanding. That’s also why height affects running speed more when running 400m or 800m races. You have enough time to accelerate and use those long steps to compensate for a slower start.


Do Taller People Run Faster?

While Usain Bolt is the world record holder both in 100m and 200m races, he’s actually an exception to the rule. A longer stride doesn’t necessarily mean faster running, as body mass causes inertia, fatigue, and above all, it causes your stride pace to be slower. 


That allows shorter runners with a faster stride pace to cover ground quicker, making them generally faster. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, as with Bolt. Still, the myth about taller people running more quickly than shorter people is busted simply by applying fundamental physics principles and realizing that inertia and mass don’t go hand-in-hand with fast running.


What makes people run faster or slower is the impact you make with every single step as you run. You have to find the golden middle to reduce friction but still garner enough force to propel you further. It requires joint flexibility in the hips, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, which is harder to accomplish if you are taller than an average human.


Best Height for Running

Before I get into the optimal height for running in each discipline (short and long), I have to stress that there are no rules that state how high you should be to be a top runner. We’ve seen short and tall people being the fastest humans on Earth at some point, which means that it all depends on the individual.


That being said, some disciplines commonly suit certain types of runners. I already told that tall runners usually have the most significant advantage in mid-distance races, where their height has the biggest impact.


Short or Long Legs for Short Distance Running?

When it comes to short sprints (100-200m), you’ll have the best chance if you are around the average height.


Sprinters will need to be more muscular, as the characteristics needed are strength and speed, to repeatedly produce the required force for the fastest time possible.


The reason for that is because that way, you have the best strength/length ratio. Legs with average/shorter muscles have strong connective tissue and tension, while also producing a shorter foot-to-ground contact. This means they will be able to maintain a strong burst effect each step for a longer duration than longer legs can.


You are strong enough to explode forward, keep the momentum, flexible enough to put force behind every step, and light enough to avoid inertia during the start and keep pace. This is why it is typical for men to be under 6ft (183cm) tall. In general, average leg length seems to win this round.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but in general, overly short or long legs will not be suited to world-class sprinting.


Short or Long Legs for Long Distance Running?

Long-distance races, such as marathons, 10k races, etc, suit shorter runners the best. One reason is that in general, shorter people weigh less, which is crucial when running long distances. You burn fewer calories and fatigue slower, as you need to carry much less weight.


With long-distance running, body ratio is often a factor. For instance, a tall guy with short legs would not be optimal for long-distance running, so having longer limbs in relation to body mass and height is an advantage. Take the long-distance running champion, Mo Farrah, for example, whose legs are very long in relation to his torso, and this allows him to cover more range each stride he makes.

Having said this, it is not always the case, as there are many factors that determine physical ability, and without impeccable endurance, alongside other things such as strength and power, long legs are only one factor to make the best long-distance runner.


General Tips for Short Leg Runners

Some general tips are as follows:


  1. Depending on the distance you'd like to work on focus on strength training can help small legs produce more power. This can include speed practice such as tempo running, and short or long interval work. 
  2. Practice working on your cadence (strides per distance) to suit your body type
  3. As your center of gravity will be lower, practice movement, balance, and foot coordination for a perfect motion.

Practicing running up hills is something to consider. This is because it gives an overall body workout, and the force of gravity pushing downwards will influence the muscles into a state where they are being tested to their limits and will grow stronger as a result. This can also help to coordinate a lower center of gravity and will improve muscle strength and cardiovascular capabilities, as well as improve speed on flat ground. 


General Tips for Long Leg Runners

Some general tips are as follows:


  1. Strengthening the legs to help with shorter, balanced strides can help with an overall faster cadence, as you do not want to be over-striding. You will naturally take longer strides as your center of gravity is higher, so working on the correct technique can help maintain a strong center of balance and a faster burst each time your feet bounce off of the ground.
  2.  Finding the right footwear is important as you will have a considerable amount of weight loading onto the joints each step you take. Also, work on the body to find an ideal weight for speed vs joint health.
  3. Longer muscles need more time to be warmed up and down for longer periods, as if they are not they will be venerable to injury and also impact performance.

For longer legs, it may be advisable to avoid hard interval training as this can impact the joints. Another key area to work on is your core. Posture is a significant part of running and the taller you are the more likely it will be to slump over. Practicing core building exercises and help to keep your legs, hips, and body properly aligned.


The Finish Line

In the end, it’s all about strategy, conditioning, and tempo-control, along with physical predispositions such as strength and flexibility. If you can find that perfect, golden middle between power, pace, weight, and flexibility, you’ll almost certainly be a successful runner, regardless of your height. 


It’s easier said than done, though, which is why you’ll need years of training if you want to compete at the highest level.

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