Who's Faster: Usain Bolt or Mo Farah?

The Olympic 10,000-meter champion Mo Farah has challenged Usain Bolt to a 600-meter race for charity. Who's the favorite?

And the fastest man in the world is?     Photo: erki.nl, Steven Zwerink/Flickr

The Olympic 10,000-meter champion Mo Farah has challenged Usain Bolt to a 600-meter race for charity. If this race actually goes off, who'll be the favorite and how fast might the winning time be?

The Distance
There is no “official” world record for 600-meters, but the race is contested from time to time and the world best is 1:12.81 set by Johnny Gray of the U.S., set in the middle 1980s. Gray was a superb 800-meters runner who had a very long career and still holds the U.S. record at 1:42.6. Looking at the current crop of runners, the 800-meter world record holder, David Rudisha (1:40.91), had a 600-meter split of about 1:14.3 on the way to his 800-meter world record in 2012. 

Rudisha’s personal best in the 400-meter is 45.15.  When I use the outstanding point tables from the classic book Computerized Running Training Programs to estimate how fast Rudisha might go for 600-meter it comes out to perhaps 1:12:00 or a bit faster. (This incredible book was published in 1970 and the tables are for 660 yards so I had to convert a bit, 600 meters is about 4 meters shorter than 660 yards.)

What About Bolt?
Bolt is obviously the world’s fastest human by a sizable margin and he was a superb 400-meter runner as a teenager. In fact, because of his height, he was encouraged to focus on that distance at one time. In that distance, his current personal best is 45.28 set in 2007, the year before he stole the show at the Bejing Olympics. 

So the question for Bolt is can he “cruise” 400 meters in 48 or 49 seconds and then hang on for another 200 meters?  He has also gotten bigger over the last few years—which is detrimental to performance in longer events—and is listed at 94kg, which I assume is 5-10 kg more than when he ran the 45:28 in 2007.

What About Farah?
Farah is best known for his success at 5,000- and 10,000-meter events. However, he just ran a 3:28.81 1,500-meter, which is one of the fastest times ever for that distance. Based on all sorts of “rules of thumbs,” this means he should be able to run close to 1:45 for 800-meters—or perhaps faster. People who can go that fast for 800-meters can usually break 47 seconds for 400-meters. So the question for Farah is can he go out in 49 or 50 seconds and essentially slow down less than Bolt over the final 200-meters.

Modeling Their Times
When I plug Bolt’s personal best for the 400-meter and my estimate for Farah’s 800-meter “potential time” into the tables, they both score about 1,000 or 1,010 points, equivalent to about 1:14.9 for 600-meters. 

If This Were the 1960s or 70s
Prior to the advent of professionalism in track and field, Bolt would have routinely run 400-meter legs as part of 1,600-meter relay teams and perhaps been more ready for a longer race.  I have no idea what his training program consists of, but my guess is that he rarely runs over 300 meters fast. However, I am quite sure that Farah routinely runs nearly all out efforts at distances between 400 and 600 meters. My other guess is that he does longer repeats followed by some very fast 200- or 300-meter sprints.  So Farah will not be in uncharted physical or mental territory if this race comes off. Bolt might be.

Farah the Favorite
Other hings to think about include how the race will be structured. Will they run the first 200 meters in lanes? What will Bolt do to avoid going out too fast?  That having been said, I would give a slight edge to Farah, and I think 600-meters is a fair test. 

Those who pick Bolt might want to think about Ashton Eaton, the world record holder and Olympic Champion in the decathlon.  Eaton is not quite as big as Bolt and can run 400 meters in 45.6 seconds, but his 1,000-meter personal best is “only” 2:32.6. So something dramatic happens as the distance goes up for big and fast guys like Eaton and Bolt.  

These drops might be exaggerated for Eaton because the performances come at the end of multi-event competitions where fatigue is a factor. However, Eaton is in great shape and almost has to be better trained than Bolt for a longer race.  My take is that he would struggle to beat Farah and so will Bolt.

Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the last 25+ years, he's published 100s of studies many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes at Human Limits. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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