The energy cost of sprint running and the role of metabolic power in setting top performances
Although most of the literature on locomotion energetics and biomechanics is about constant-speed experiments, humans and animals tend to move at variable speeds in their daily life. This study addresses the following questions: 1) how much extra metabolic energy is associated with traveling a unit distance by adopting acceleration/deceleration cycles in walking and running, with respect to constant speed, and 2) how can biomechanics explain those metabolic findings. Ten males and ten females walked and ran at fluctuating speeds (5 ± 0, ± 1, ± 1.5, ± 2, ± 2.5 km/h for treadmill walking, 11 ± 0, ± 1, ± 2, ± 3, ± 4 km/h for treadmill and field running) in cycles lasting 6 s. Field experiments, consisting of subjects following a laser spot projected from a computer-controlled astronomic telescope, were necessary to check the noninertial bias of the oscillating-speed treadmill. Metabolic cost of transport was found to be almost constant at all speed oscillations for running and up to ±2 km/h for walking, with no remarkable differences between laboratory and field results. The substantial constancy of the metabolic cost is not explained by the predicted cost of pure acceleration/deceleration. As for walking, results from speed-oscillation running suggest that the inherent within-stride, elastic energy-free accelerations/decelerations when moving at constant speed work as a mechanical buffer for among-stride speed fluctuations, with no extra metabolic cost. Also, a recent theory about the analogy between sprint (level) running and constant-speed running on gradients, together with the mechanical determinants of gradient locomotion, helps to interpret the present findings.