In July, the world’s greatest distance runner, Mo Farah of Great Britain, challenged the world’s greatest sprinter, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, to a race. Farah suggested a distance of 600 or 800 meters, both options significantly longer than Bolt’s preferred race distances of 100 and 200 meters yet significantly shorter than Farah’s own preferred race distances of 5000 and 10,000 meters. Bolt readily accepted the challenge, choosing the 600-meter option.

No venue or date has yet been selected for the showdown, and some track and field insiders have expressed doubt that it will ever happen. Nevertheless, many fans have offered predictions, with a majority favoring Farah. In a September interview for BBC Radio, Bolt admitted that he would need to train specifically for the 600-meter distance to have any chance of beating Farah.

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There seems to be widespread agreement that if the compromise race distance were only 400 meters, Bolt would win. Indeed, Bolt occasionally competes at that distance and has a sizzling personal best of 45.28 seconds. Farah’s personal best time for 1500 meters, 3:28.81, predicts a 400-meter time of 46.0 seconds. It’s doubtful that Farah could close the gap on Bolt at that distance with any amount of specific training.
But what if the challenge was not a single race of 400 meters but a set of five races of 400 meters with 5-minute rest periods between them? It’s very easy to predict what would happen in this scenario. Bolt would win the first race by at least half a second. The second race would end in a virtual tie. Then Farah would beat Bolt by ever-increasing margins in the last three races, utterly humiliating him in the fifth.

This is not pure speculation. Research shows that while speed-trained athletes perform better than endurance-trained athletes in an individual sprint, endurance-trained athletes perform better than speed-trained athletes in multiple sprints.

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One study of this kind was conducted at Loughborough University in 1991. It involved six endurance-trained runners and six “games players.” Since this study was done in Britain, we can guess that these “games players” belonged to rugby and or soccer teams. In any case, the point is that the training of these games players was speed based rather than endurance based.

All 12 athletes were asked to perform a set of 10 sprints lasting just 6 seconds each on a nonmotorized treadmill. Each sprint was followed by 30 seconds of rest. The researchers measured performance by recording power output in each sprint. As expected, the speed-trained athletes tended to produce more power than did the distance runners (839 watts versus 777 watts, on average).

As was also expected, power output declined in both groups as the workout progressed. But the drop from the first sprint to the last was more than twice as great among the games players than it was among the runners (29.3 percent to 14.2 percent). And, in fact, the runners outperformed the games players in the last few sprints.