August 21, 2012
Human Max Speeds Compared To Fast Animals

The recent Olympics reminds us of the outer limits of human physical performance. But how do we compare to other animals? An assortment of animals can move faster than humans.

Humans can run at a maximum speed of 23.4 miles per hour (37.6 kilometres/hour) or 10.4 metres per second, which gives them the edge over the Dromedary camel.

But only just, as these animals can run at a top speed of 22 mph (35.3 kph) or 9.8 metres/second.

While reading these numbers a thought occurred to me: genetic engineering will enable such huge increases in human performance that natural athletes will become uninteresting. What is interesting about 23.5 miles per hour once genetically engineered humans can do 30 mph? Anti-doping regimes maintain their support mainly because doping is seen more as an easier way to reach the top than as a way to break records. But if cheating with doping is really as widespread among elite athletes as some think then we already are getting excited and cheering on the pharmaceutically enhanced. If current anti-doping testing regimes can only catch the most egregious violators we are getting our expectations raised to expect levels of performance that natural humans can't achieve. We will want records to be broken. Once enhanced humans break those records in very dramatic fashion I think natural human athletes are going to come to be seen as boring and very much a fashion of a quaint past.

Will genetically reengineered humans some day reach cheetah speed?

A cheetah is around twice as fast as the world's top sprinters at 64 mph (104 kph) or 29 metres/second. But the pronghorn antelope also puts in a very respectable 55 mph (89 kph) or 24.6 metres/second.

And let's not forget the North African ostrich, which at 40 mph (64kph) or 18 metres/second, is the world's fastest running bird. Or sailfish, which reach a swimming speed of 67 mph (108 kph) or 30 metres/second.

What I wonder about fast race horses: How do they compare to other types of horses for long distance speed? If you want to travel more miles per day what kind of horse can sustain the highest speed for hours?

Then, of course, there are thoroughbred racehorses, the fastest of which has managed 55mph (88kph), and greyhounds at 43 mph (69kph).

Birds are probably the fastest animals for distance travel. What bird can travel the most miles in a day? Geese? Ducks? Other?

And birds would win a few gold medals too. Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 161 mph (259 kph), while ducks and geese rival cheetahs, with speeds of 64 mph (103 kph) in level flight.

Do not be surprised some day if human distance runners use pure oxygen canisters feeding oxygen directly into their blood streams so they can sustain fast speeds longer. If the Olympics forbids them from competing then I expect sports contests for bioengineered will be organized and those contests will become more popular and interesting than natural wild type competitions between natural humans.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 August 21 11:19 PM  Biotech Athletics

jp straley said at August 22, 2012 6:05 AM:

When everybody can hit the fast ball and snag the long hit to left field, then what's the point of professional teams? Sport returns to the local level.

Russ said at August 22, 2012 6:36 AM:

A faster fastball, maybe. But I agree, there's a potential huge upside for informal club sports. (Which would be great, in my opinion.)
I'd be leery of genetic enhancement doing much for human running speeds, though -- we're made for running animals into the ground from heat-exhaustion, and from my own sports experience (boxing and savate), if you wanted a sneaky way to really enhance human performance, an additional boost to heat-sheeding would make a HUGE overall performance difference.

PacRim Jim said at August 22, 2012 3:11 PM:

Quantum baseball.
You don't know who wins until you observe the game.

Dublin said at August 22, 2012 3:50 PM:

The idea that genetic engineering is some kind of magic pixie dust that can overcome fundamental limits is really pretty laughable. The "Kentucky Derby Limit" of racehorse development was hit decades ago, and no amount of breeding (or really, even doping) seems to make a huge difference any more, despite the occasional outlier like Secretariat. (See and

It's far from clear that genetic engineering can significantly improve on the efforts of centuries of breeding for speed, and that's as true for people as it is for horses...

Ronald Brak said at August 22, 2012 9:36 PM:

Why genetically engineer humans when you can rip their legs off and install robot legs? Or wheels? Or a rocket? Or why not rip the bottom half of a human off and throw it away and then throw away the top half and enter a robot? I think the olympics for the bioengineered will end up like the current olympics - lots of rules enforced in the name of keeping things sporting: eg. each athlete must have at least 10 kilos of meat, each athlete must pass a Turing test before competeing, etc. And even then, people might be more interested in the robo-olympics, which will of course have lots of rules to keep things sporting. Sort of like how car racing often has all sorts of rules and is not just a free for all for whoever can build the fastest vehicle. (For a start, F1 cars wouldn't have drivers.)

anonyq said at August 23, 2012 6:29 PM:

Competition is fun between equal opponents. Super humans are not equal and as such not so much fun to watch. Also cycling is one of the most popular watched sport in the world but the allowed bikes are very inefficiently designed so i don't see how people are that much interested in records

Humans are "engineered" to run very large distances fast. Around the 100km humans start to win from horses. But being an extreme distance runner means you any good at sprints

Randall Parker said at August 23, 2012 9:02 PM:


Secretariat seems to me to demonstrate how much could be achieved when all the right factors line up. That so many horses were bred with Secretariat with so little result shows how hard it is to get all the genes to line up, IMO. Imagine cloning Secretariat instead. Or imagine sequencing Secretariat, identifying all the performance genes, and amplifying some of them even further.

Another reason why humans will perform better in the future: genetic load. We all have hundreds or thousands of mildly harmful genetic variants. Get rid of all the genetic load of harmful mutations and line up all the performance enhancement mutations and the result would be humans who easily break today's world records.

Ronald Brak said at August 23, 2012 11:23 PM:

The right genetics are vital to be a contender, but at the level of performance of Olympic athletes, random factors play a huge roll. Just as identical twins don't look exactly alike, they're not exactly the same on the inside due to random developmental processes and environmental effects. One hundreth of a second can be the difference between going to the olympics and staying at home and there's more than enough random variation between identical twins to account for a one hundreth of a second difference in performance. Variation between identical twins is particularly obvious when it comes to non Mendelian diseases. In the example of schizophrenia, a disease with a strong genetic component, there is only a 50% chancee that person with a schizophrenic identical twin will have schizophrenia themselves.

bbartlog said at August 24, 2012 5:55 AM:

The degree of modification required for a human to reach 30mph would be such that they would widely be regarded as semihuman freaks. That is, it would really be somewhat irresponsible for any parent to perform such engineering on their kids-to-be. If there were actually something useful to be gained by modification (as would be the case with better brains) beyond the ability to win at some arbitrary competition, I might see it differently.

Phillep Harding said at August 24, 2012 8:32 AM:

Need to change the shape and length of the legs and the feet, maybe increasing the foot to the same length as the shin, in order to increase human running speed to any extent.

(If anyone recalls the fantasy film "Dark Crystal", the land striders were humans on stilts. The "behind the scenes" video covered the discovery of how fast humans could move on specially designed stilts. That video is the source of my opinion above. I did not find a source or a name for the video after a quick search, perhaps someone else remembers it?)

Ronald Brak said at August 24, 2012 6:32 PM:

If you want a high speed biped, a kangaroo is probably the way to go. Rather than gentically engineer a human, it might be easier to put a human brain in a kangaroo. There's room in the pouch.

Brett Bellmore said at August 25, 2012 5:43 AM:

The idea that genetic engineering can't make big improvements seems common, and I don't see the basis for it.

Breeding is limited to the stock of useful variants within a species, supplemented by the mutation rate. Genetic engineering can cross species boundaries. Surely you could do something to speed up humans without considerable cosmetic consequences, if you could do things like substitute spider silk for weaker structural proteins, or alter human lungs to be counter flow, in the fashion of bird lungs.

For that matter, it's well known that chimpanzees are enormously stronger than humans, even setting aside their smaller size. This seems to have something to do with the details of how their muscle fibers work. Perhaps it's a consequence of human neotony?

And this is without considering the potential for novel genetic alterations.

No, I'd say there's considerable room for improvement in human performance, without having to do anything at all to alter cosmetic aspects of the human body.

Phillep Harding said at August 25, 2012 10:05 AM:

Brett, perhaps correct regarding endurance, but human running speed is related to the pendulum period of the leg assembly, and changes there would be visible.

Brett Bellmore said at August 26, 2012 5:37 AM:

Nah, I considered that: Elastic energy storage. You can alter the period of a pendulum either by changing it's size, OR by altering the return force.

Phillep Harding said at August 26, 2012 12:13 PM:

(shrug) I dislike using force to solve problems.

Except some forms of social reform. (Historical reference to Samual Colt.)

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