What's All The Buzz About Reaction Time?
By Michael Cummings
We hear it all the time during track and field events. We see charts and stats during the Olympic Games. But do we really understand what it is or what it means in the world of sports?
Lets’ start with what it is.
Reaction Time Defined
Also referred to as Response Time, Reaction Time is the amount of time it takes us to respond to stimulus. In other words, the lapse of time between stimulus and the beginning of the response or said another way, the interval of time between application of a stimulus and detection of a response. It is our ability to detect, process and respond to a stimulus.
1. Perception: Seeing, hearing or feeling a stimulus with certainty is essential to having good reaction time. Like when the starter shoots the gun at the beginning of the race, this sound is received by the athlete’s ears (they detect or perceive the stimulus).
2. Processing: In order to have good reaction time, it’s necessary to be focused and understand information well. Following the previous example, the runners, after hearing the gun, will be able to distinguish the sound from other background noise and know that it is time to start running (process the stimulus).
3. Response: Motor skill and agility is necessary in order to be able to act and have a good response time. When the runners detect and correctly process the signal, they start moving their arms and legs (respond to the stimulus).
Why is Reaction Time Important?
Reaction time is important whether you’re an athlete or not. A good reaction time allows us to be agile and efficient when it comes to responding to stimuli in situations like driving, playing sports, or even having a conversation. A good response time benefits us in a variety of ways, but it’s important that we properly process the information that we receive. If someone asks you a question in an interview, they will be expecting you to answer quickly and correctly. The same is true for other examples like if your car tire blows out while driving, or if you have to act on your toes, you will have to respond not only very fast but accurately as well.
As an athlete, a good reaction time means you get a step on the competition. This leads to more receptions and touchdowns if you can beat the defender in football, or baskets if you can anticipate and react to a fast break situation. In soccer, this can mean more blocked goals if you’re the goalkeeper, or as a sprinter, this means gaining that crucial first-step ahead of your competition. Good reaction time with a good first-step (movement time) results in a high-performing athlete.
The good news is that reaction time, as well as movement time, can be trained and improved.
If your reaction time is the period between non-movement and movement it is followed by movement time which in the case of the sprinter, is from the initiation of rear foot motion from the starting block to the moment the same foot touches the ground.
The total response time is a cumulative measure of both reaction and movement time from the initial stimulus to initial foot-strike. However, there is much debate in the field over whether reaction time or movement time is more crucial for sprint performances, therefore we will simply consider reaction time for the sake of this article.
Reaction time is so important because it is measured by thousandths of a second and a time of 0.000 or less is a false start.
Consider yourself on the starting blocks. You’re lined up 2 meters from a speaker emitting the sound of the gun. The sound will travel at approximately 330 m/s not even arriving at your ears for 0.006 seconds. If you are 20 meters from the cap-pistol, the sound will take 0.061 seconds to reach you. If your family is sitting in the crowd 60 meters from the starter, the sound won’t reach them until 0.182 seconds. You will already be on your way by the time they hear the gun.
This is why having a stimulus closer to your body is much more accurate and thusly effective. Having a consistent yet random stimulus at a controlled distance from you is the optimal and most effective way to train for accurate timekeeping of reaction time. Because, once the sound has reached your ears, your brain still has to command muscles to respond. The conduction speed of signals in the brain is about 100 m/s and getting the signal from the brain to the feet could take another 0.026 seconds assuming you’re between 5 and 6 ft tall. Therefore, the closer the start stimulus is to your start position, and the more consistent the sound and location is (albeit random, meaning you can’t anticipate or predict it) the more accurately you will be able to time your reaction time given all the various factors.
The average reaction time to a visual stimulus is approximately 0.250 seconds. 0.174 seconds for an audio stimulus and 0.150 seconds for touch stimulus. Collegiate sprinters average 0.190 seconds and elite level sprinters have been recorded recently with reaction times of 0.104, 0.112 and in 1999 there was a recorded score of 0.101.
The JAWKU Speed Timing Device collects data for comparative analysis across all age groups. Its goal is to give you enough relevant information to see where you stack up next to your competition according to all variables (i.e gender, height, weight, age, etc.).
About the Author
Michael Cummings is a graduate of San Diego State University. He has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach for nearly 2 decades and works with high-performance athletes on all levels. He is an international presenter as well as a passionate inventor and educator. Michael currently resides in Encinitas, CA with his wife and 5 children.