The acceleration theory can help you crush your competition.
At times in life, it might seem like everyone is ahead.
At such times, you might experience stress, self-doubt, and performance anxiety — especially if you have a competitive personality.
Struggling to stay ahead at all times might be draining mentally and physically. Just keeping up becomes a chore.
Turns out that staying ahead might also be overrated. I came to this conclusion when researching how to become a better sprinter.
Here we go:
My Sprint Experiment in Greenwich Park
In 2004, I lived in Greenwich, London. My girlfriend and I rented a rundown apartment above a local post office near Cutty Sark.
Broke and restless, we spent a fair deal of our time exercising in Greenwich Park, home of the GMT date line. The park was an excellent place to play around with a stopwatch and some sprints.
Why not? We were both strong sprinters in high school and wanted to see if we could still hit some decent times.
I quickly learned that I wasn’t even close to any of my high school records. As disappointing as this was, I added some interval training to my regimen. I pushed myself hard but could not get my new, slow times down.
Whatever speed I had as a teenager now seemed to be gone.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up.
I turned to research.
Inspired by the Best of the Best
I remember watching the 100-meter dash in the Olympics when I was a kid. I was mesmerised by how some sprinters could come up from behind in the last part of the race and crush their opponents.
But at the same time, I always wondered:
If an elite sprinter is leading the 100-meter dash at 80 meters and someone else is coming up fast from behind, why isn’t the pack leader putting up more of a fight?
I reasoned that something must be left in the tank with only 20 meters to the finish line. But no. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 100-meter dash sprinter pick up the pace that close to the finish line.
Naturally, I started searching for how the 100-meter dash works from a mathematical perspective.
I will use more recent data points from Maurice Green and Usain Bolt to illustrate some of my findings.
Data Points from Maurice Green
In his paper A Mathematical Model of the 100M and What It Means, Kevin Prendergast outlines a formula for describing what happens during a 100-meter dash.
Prendergast tests his proof on the results from the 1999 World Championships, where data from the eight finalists were analysed. Seven of these sprinters were then grouped and compared to the winner, Maurice Greene.
Data points from the sprinters (excluding Maurice Greene) in that race showed:
And here are the same data points, but for Maurice Greene alone:
The seven finalists reached their points of max speeds at an average of 59.79 meters into the race, at which point Maurice Green was still accelerating, reaching his point of max speed at 86.84 meters! It shows in the duration of acceleration, which for Greene was 8,68 seconds (almost the entire race!) and 6,44 seconds for the rest.
Greene’s max speed wasn’t all that much higher than the others, but the others decelerated for 3.38 seconds while Greene only slowed down for 0.99 seconds.
“The practical lesson from this model for sprinters and coaches would seem to be the benefit of extending the time of acceleration. It is this, rather than raw power out of the blocks, that will result in faster times. It is probably a matter of control. […] It is possible to derive a mathematical model that models a 100m performance very well. It provides valuable information on the makeup of the performance, regarding acceleration, velocity, and distance at any stage in the race. It enables us to see the vital ingredients of success in 100m running, and that the most vital is to accelerate as long as possible.”
Data Points from Usain Bolt
If we assume that the friction between our feet and the ground is a constant and that running on two feet is a given, then a theoretical superhuman would be able to run 100 meters between 4,5 to 5 seconds.
Going any faster is impossible without altering physics.
But here’s the exciting part:
Look at the velocity curve for one of the world’s fastest sprinters, Usain Bolt.
When I looked at breakdowns for famous 100-meter sprinters over the last 40 years, their average top speeds hadn’t increased all that much, but Usain Bolt stands out with his maximum speed of 12,2 meters per second.
We can see that Bolt’s speed varies during a 100-meter dash. So, what can we discern from his data points? I looked closely at several 100-meter dash finals.
The acceleration phase: To accelerate, you must be at an angle with the ground (leaning forward, pushing with legs) to be able to push hard against gravity.
The top speed phase: Once in an upright position (running tall with as little contact with the ground as possible), you can only maintain speed or decelerate.
Turns out I’ve been wrong about sprinting. I always tried to reach my top speed as fast as possible in my sprints.
The world’s best 100-meter dash sprinters can only maintain their top speeds for 20-25 meters. Maurice Green accelerated for an incredible 8,69 seconds and kept his top speed for 0,99 seconds.
And what was I doing? I cruised easily at my “top speed” for 75-80 meters.
How fast would I have to run at a top speed that I could only sustain for no more than 20-25 meters? I realised that I should try to extend my acceleration phase.
Time for a new experiment.
Back to Greenwich Park: New Experiment!
My girlfriend and I went back to Greenwich Park, marked every 10 meters along a 100-meter track, and I made a few test sprints.
First, I ran as usual. I reached my top speed (running tall with as little contact with the ground as possible) after about 25-30 meters, and I managed to keep my speed reasonably well for the remainder of the distance.
Now, I wanted to extend my acceleration time. But for how long? I decided to go for the 60-meter mark.
I prepared myself, and as my girlfriend started the stopwatch, I got off to a good start. As I kept accelerating, the strain on my body was immense. At the 30-meter mark, I felt like a was carrying an elephant on my shoulders. At the 40-meter mark, I was physically unable to keep accelerating for longer.
And as I began closing in on the finish line, my legs and upper body were spent. At 80-90 meters, I could feel myself decelerating.
Reaching the finishing line felt like an eternity. Also, I felt a lot more drag throughout the sprint, almost as if someone had attached a parachute to my waist, slowing me down even further.
Discouraged, I asked my girlfriend about my time.
“Well, Jerry, that was your fastest 100-meter dash ever,” she said while staring at the stopwatch like she couldn’t believe it. “By a margin.”
The Acceleration Theory in Everyday Life
How do you apply the acceleration theory outside sprinting?
I began thinking of everyday ambitions as sprints of various lengths.
The philosophy goes like this: First, you work hard on improving. Then, when you hit the 60% mark, you put everything into overdrive — time to fly!
When working with a client, I spend 60% of the initial project scope doing groundwork, asking uncomfortable questions, researching, preparing material, running tests, etc. While others start delivering results at their lower-end top speeds, I keep accelerating.
I know that by staying uncomfortable for longer, I’ll win in the end. Call it “a geek’s approach to life.”
If a personal project is planned for 12 months, the 60% mark will occur after 219 days of acceleration. If a small task is to be done in 12 minutes, it’s time to fly after 432 seconds of preparation.
If I live healthily until I’m 85, my life’s 60% mark will occur at 51. Yes, I’m determined to crush it when I get there.
This mindset keeps me honest and hardworking. It reminds me never to stress about being behind in the first half of anything. And it motivates me to go for gold like a space rocket when the acceleration phase is done.
Establishing 60% Marks in Life
Based on my insights from Greenwich Park, I think these observations have served me well not only in my public relations career but also in life.
Here’s how to sum up the acceleration theory:
Know what done (100%) looks like: Always know the distance for a particular undertaking (i.e. the equivalent of knowing where the finish line will be).
Your focus before the 60% mark: Hunker down and accelerate continuously. Never mind about your competition; focus on the hard work of gaining momentum.
Your focus after the 60% mark: Get up straight and maintain your hard-earned top speed. Be mindful of maintaining good form, and don’t try to get back into accelerating again.
Here’s how to sum up five straightforward takeaways:
And remember: Your competitors are not ahead. They’re just the ones who peaked too soon, waiting for you to overtake them.