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Sports Physics: Is the Best Shot Putter Just the Strongest Athlete?

In 2016, American shot putter Michelle Carter won gold in Rio de Janeiro. Her winning “put,” the act of pushing a heavy spherical ball called a “shot,” traveled an astonishing 20.63 meters. That’s essentially like tossing a four kilogram (8.8 pound) cannonball clear over the length of an adult sperm whale. Most people would just be lucky to avoid dropping the shot on their own foot. 

For those unfamiliar with the sport, you might guess that brute strength would be the number one skill required to win a shot put event. After all, wouldn’t the most muscle-bound athlete simply be able to push with more velocity than their competitors?

When competing against the best athletes in the world, every small advantage counts. Competitors practice intricate glide or spin techniques to maximize the power they can generate with each push. They also closely chart data such as release height, release angle, and shot velocity to achieve the best possible outcome.  

Simulation software can be used to study the effects of these input parameters on shot put distance. Using Altair OptiStructTM, Altair engineers performed explicit dynamic analysis of the shot in flight to study the effects of various inputs on overall distance travelled. Explicit dynamic analysis captures the physics of short-duration events for objects undergoing highly nonlinear, transient dynamic forces.

An optimization study was first run to determine that about 45 degrees was the ideal release angle to yield maximum distance. Using a release height of 1680mm (about 5 feet 5 inches), the 45-degree release angle, and a throw velocity of 13.5 meters per second, the engineers were able to model a shot distance of 20.4 meters - nearly identical to Carter’s winning put. With the ability to accurately model real-world physics, athletes can use software to explore how small changes to their release angle or release height could positively or negatively affect their maximum distance. 

Explicit analysis of shot put using Altair OptiStruct

Explicit analysis of shot put using Altair OptiStruct

In a second simulation, OptiStruct was applied to study the effects of throw angle of a discus. Using the same speed of 10 meters per second but adjusting the throw angle, we can see how much influence a minor mechanical adjustment can have on the outcome. When the discus was thrown at a 60-degree angle it traveled 9.9 meters. Adjusted down to a 45-degree throw angle, the discus traveled 12 meters, more than 19% more distance than the original throw. Further exploration of these input parameters can help athletes and their trainers determine the optimal way to throw the discus or put the shot, helping them maximize their abilities and put them in the best position to with their event.

Discus thrown at velocity of 10 m/s at a 45-degree release angle

Discus thrown at velocity of 10 m/s at a 60-degree release angle

The shot put and discus are relatively simple examples of the use of simulation to optimize performance. Engineers can often use their expertise and judgment to make decisions on simple designs, but when faced with more complicated product designs with many interrelated parameters, it is much more difficult to find the optimal balance. An iterative approach (adjust parameter, re-run simulation, view results, repeat) quickly becomes both tedious and insufficient to explore all possible combinations, leaving the engineer unsure if there are options still left unexplored. 

Designs of experiment (DOEs) and optimizations are useful tools that can be applied to address some of these concerns.  But these multi-run simulations are not necessarily easy to define, set up, and manage. Computer-aided engineering (CAE) pre- and post-processors don’t often have integrated tools for this purpose. Even if they do, there may be a steep learning curve, and the tools are not typically very user-friendly. As a result, they often remain the domain of certain “experts.”

Altair® HyperWorks® Design Explorer brings these exploration tools to product engineers and analysts in a natural, seamless, intuitive way. Design Explorer provides an end-to-end workflow, from defining and executing, to post-processing and interpreting multi-run simulations for real time product performance prediction and evaluation. 

With Altair’s simulation and optimization tools, everyone from athletes to automotive engineers can accurately predict performance and gain optimization insights to ensure peak execution when it matters most. To learn more, visit