Starter’s pistol may influence sprinters’ time

By Tom Nordlie • Published: October 24th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In racing, every second counts. That’s especially true in sprinting events, where split-seconds can separate winners from losers. So competitors must react instantly when the starter’s pistol fires.

Now it appears that gunshot gives some sprinters an extra edge. Strangely enough, this phenomenon may eventually help people who suffer from movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

According to a study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the sprinter in the lane closest to the starter’s pistol usually begins running soonest.

It’s because that sprinter hears the gunshot loudest, improving reaction time. If the noise startles the sprinter, it causes an even faster reaction and a preprogrammed muscle response.

In the study, researchers reviewed data from Olympic events and conducted mock races. As expected, the sprinters reacted faster when they heard the shots at louder volumes. In one phase of the mock race experiment, sprinters who blinked when the gun fired had better reaction times than those who didn’t.

Here’s how these findings might benefit people with movement disorders: When sprinters were startled they ran anyway. This suggests the startle response bypasses parts of the brain that consciously control movement. So it might be possible to use the startle response deliberately to bypass impaired brain circuitry and jolt muscles into action.

Perhaps one day, researchers will help Parkinson’s patients regain movement using loud noises. That would be a startling development. Let’s hope it happens soon. Because in the race to beat movement disorders, every second counts.