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Sabrina Lee studied athletes’ feet and ankles and found that some people are built for speed.

New meaning for ‘athlete’s foot’

December 3, 2009

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Longer toes may give sprinters a leg up on other runners, according to a new study by SFU post-doctoral fellow Sabrina Lee and colleague Stephen Piazza at Pennsylvania State University.

The pair found that longer toes and a unique ankle structure give sprinters a "burst of acceleration." Their paper, Built for Speed: Musculoskeletal Structure and Sprinting Ability, appears in the current Journal of Experimental Biology.

The two researchers studied the muscle architecture of the feet and ankles of 12 collegiate sprinters and 12 non-athletes. Using toe measurements and ultrasound imaging to measure the sliding of the Achilles tendon during ankle motion, they first calculated the leverage of the tendon.

They found that the distance between the tendon and the centre of rotation of the ankle were shorter in sprinters, a difference they say might be explained by "a trade-off between leverage and muscle force-generating capacity."
The pair developed a simple computer model to see how much acceleration they could generate when the tendon lever arm and toe lengths were changed.

"We found the greatest acceleration occurred when the Achilles tendon lever arm is the shortest and the toes are longest," says Lee, who recently began working in SFU’s neuromechanics lab.

Lee says the findings are only one explanation for determining who might potentially be a good sprinter. It’s still unclear what effect training can have on influencing the shape of foot bones.

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