The physics of pole vaulting

Katelyn Cain | Staff Writer

With most sports, the spheres of school and athletics are kept separate, but pole vaulting, an event in track and field, incorporates physics to maximize jump height. Understanding the physics of pole vaulting is essential to achieving the perfect pole vault, according to head pole vault coach Mark Sutton.

Photo by Katelyn Cain
Photo art by Jami Bechard

“There is a science to [pole vaulting],” Sutton said. “Over 30 years ago, Vitaly Petrov, a physicist, created a technique [concerning] the physics of pole vaulting. Today, most athletes use this model to [jump] high.”

According to Sutton, there are specific formulas that go into pole vaulting, such as: initial energy=final energy and Force=(mass)(acceleration).

“[One equation is] initial energy equals final energy,” Sutton said. “The energy that an athlete puts into the pole will equal the energy that the pole releases the athlete at the end of the vault with. [The second equation is] concerning force. The force of the pole equals the mass of the athlete times how fast thepole accelerates the athlete upward.”

According to Advanced Placement Physics teacher DeeDee Messer, if a pole vaulter wants to reach a certain height,the equation is height = 0.55*(jumper’s height) + (1/2)(velocity^2)/(gravity).

“Because a pole vaulter’s height is slightly above the ground, the equation needs to be adjusted with your center of mass, which is 55 percent of your height,” Messer said.

While sophomore Emily Schlimm, a former pole vaulter, said that there is a lot of physics behind a pole vaulters’ success and “talent can only get you so far,” Sutton said that it is both physics and natural ability that jump-starts a pole vaulter’s success.

“[Pole vaulting requires] a little bit of both [physics and natural ability],” Sutton said. You must want to work at the fine details of the science behind pole vaulting to improve.”

Sutton said that besides understanding the physics of pole vaulting and being naturally gifted, a pole vaulter needs to be a well rounded athlete.

“You must train to be as strong as a thrower, as fast as a sprinter, have the endurance of a distance runner and the body awareness of a gymnast. Each day the athletes must train differently and be…very well rounded athlete[s],” Sutton said.

According to sophomore Sydney Sloan, a varsity pole vaulter, an athlete must master all of these factors and understand the physics in order to achieve a “perfect pole vault.”

“[To achieve the perfect pole vault,] you need to have a strong run and a good jump,” Sloan said. “You have to keep your right leg forward and swing your left leg through to get inverted. Otherwise, the pole could come to a stop. And then, you come out of the jump and you turn your right foot over your left and then you have to hollow out to get over the bar.”

Sutton said that even if these techniques are mastered, very few athletes have completed a “perfect pole vault.”

“Very few people in history have achieved a “‘perfect pole vault.’” It takes years and years of training on top of being incredibly naturally gifted,” Sutton said. “People may train hard for 20 years and never have a perfect vault, because you have to get everything precise.”

Although Sutton said he believes in athletic training to push a pole vaulter to the top, Messer said she finds pole vaulting incorporates more of what’s taught in a classroom than any other sport.

“Just as there is some sort of science to every sport, pole vaulting, encompasses the most aspects of science and physics,” Messer said.