What’s the Fastest a Human Can Run?

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, during a semifinal men's 100 meters at the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

How fast can you run? The trouble with that question is that it’s kind of vague. Are we talking about your absolute top speed or how long it takes you to run a whole marathon? What about your time to cover a mile?

It’s the same when it comes to talking about the fastest any human can run. As a species, we’re not particularly good sprinters. Many dogs and cats are the fastest animal living in their household—greyhounds can reach 43 miles per hour, and even a domestic cat can hit 30 at full clip.

But, as we’ll see, humans aren’t useless: we’re pretty good at covering longer distances. So, let’s dig in.

Absolute Top Sprints Speed

The fastest recorded human sprinter ever is Usain Bolt. At the World Championship in Berlin in 2009, he hit 27.78 miles per hour between meters 60 and 80 during the 100-meter sprint. Over the full 100 meters, he averaged 23.35 miles per hour, finishing in 9.58 seconds and setting a new world record.

That’s fast, but it’s not that fast—my girlfriend’s cat, Fred, could give Bolt a run for his money. Tigers, cheetahs, leopards, bears, and countless other animals could too. At least Fred wouldn’t eat him after.

The Standing Mile is Good

What humans are better at is maintaining speed over a distance. Our absolute top speed is pretty low, but we can hold on to a decent portion of it for quite a while.

Hicham El Guerrouj holds the world record for the mile. His best time is 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds. That means he sustained an average pace of 16.12 miles per hour for the whole race. He ran at around 70% of Usain Bolt’s hundred-meter world record pace for 16 times the distance.

That’s pretty damn impressive.

But Marathons are More Impressive

But things keep getting more impressive the longer the distances get.

Last year, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon (26.219 miles) in 1 hour, 59 minutes, and forty seconds. Due to the circumstances of the run, it didn’t officially break the world record, but it’s still the fastest a human has covered that distance on foot.

And it’s crazy fast.

Kipchoge covered a mile in less than 4 minutes and 34 seconds. For almost two hours straight. That means he held an average pace of 13.16 miles per hour. Compare that to El Guerrouj’s mile speed: Kipchoge ran at over 80% of his speed for more than 26 times the distance.

Even Bolt’s numbers look a little less impressive. Kipchoge’s average speed was about 56% of Bolt’s for more than 420 times the distance. That’s ridiculous and shows just how much humans are built for endurance rather than outright speed.

Over a Distance Things Get Crazy

The marathon is the leading long-distance race people regularly run. Still, some ultramarathons run longer distances that give us an idea of how fast people can cover ground when they have to.

American runner Zach Bitter holds the 100-mile world record with a time of 11 hours, 19 minutes, and 13 seconds. He averaged a mile every 6 minutes 48 seconds. That’s a speed of just under 9 miles per hour for almost half a day.

Yiannis Kouros, a Greek “running god,” holds the current 1000 mile world record. He covered the distance in 10 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes, and 36 seconds. That’s an average speed of just under 4 miles per hour—including rest, eating, and sleeping time.

Even over longer distances, humans can keep up respectable sustained paces. The fastest known time on the mountainous 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail is 41 days 7 hours and 39 minutes, set by Belgian Karel Sabbe. That’s still an average of more than 2 miles per hour for over a month and through rough terrain. The average person needs about six months for the same route.

Get Your Shoes On

It’s pretty clear humans aren’t built to sprint super fast but are instead much more capable of covering lots of ground at a steady clip for hours at a time. One theory of why is that early humans were persistence hunters who hunted game by tiring it out over long distances—although it is, of course, disputed.

Whatever the reason, and however you define fast, now you have an idea of just how fast humans can run, whether it’s 100 meters or 100 miles.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »