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The Edge of Human Performance

Why have black athletes dominated sprinting? Could marathoner Patrick Makau be the epitome of human athletic performance? Have humans reached the peak of their athletic potential? Dustin Silgardo and Jaideep Dave explore the big question: how long can man keep breaking records, and what will he have
BY:Rajesh Sahu

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August 15, 2009. Michael Johnson, one of the greatest sprinters in history, is in a glass commentary box at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. His mouth is agape as he stares at a television screen. His shakes his head in disbelief, eyes wide with bewilderment. He whispers the word, “Wow.” Across the world, millions of people have the exact same reaction. Usain Bolt has run the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. How did man get so fast? Less than 50 years ago, we were talking about the 10-second barrier being an impossible one to break in the 100 metres. In 1954, people said Roger Bannister would die if he tried running the mile in less than four minutes. Less than 50 years later, Hicham El Guerrouj ran it in three minutes and 43 seconds. How? Mankind, of course, is relentlessly moving forward. In the last 50 years, we have put a man on the moon, cloned a sheep and created Facebook. But there is something very primal about sport that makes it hard to fathom how someone could achieve what Bolt did in Berlin. Yes, technological advancements aid sportsmen; yes, science can devise better training regimes for them; yes, we’ve learned a whole lot about nutrition; but, eventually, modern athletes are made of the same muscles, tissue and bones that man had 100 years ago. So, there must, surely, be a limit to how much they can improve.

This is put in perspective when you consider that several statisticians and mathematicians have predicted limits on human performances that are very close to what has already been attained. Most of these analyses are based on the theory that since athletic records have been improving by smaller and smaller margins over the years, they will, sooner or later, stop improving altogether. Dr Reza Noubary of the Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania has used quantitative analysis to estimate that 9.40 seconds is the fastest man will ever run the 100 metres. Bolt is talking about getting close to that this Olympics. So, what happens if he does? Will man have reached his speed limit?

Even more worrying for sports fans is a study by Professor Geoffrey Berthelot, a specialist in informatics and algorithmics at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris. Berthelot makes a startling claim: that human athletic performance, in general, has already peaked. He plotted each and every world record since 1896 and found that in track and field, since 1993, records have not improved in nearly two-third of the events. Swimming performances, too, says Berthelot, stagnated in nearly 50 per cent of the events between 1990 to 2000, after which performances were improved due to the advent of high-tech swimsuits. The paper goes on to predict that by 2027, 50 per cent of all track and field events will show negligible improvements in terms of world records.


Sporting progress is almost a reassurance that we, mankind, are progressing; constantly taking baby steps across Nietzsche’s bridge to becoming the ubermensch. Our fathers had the sublime Maradona, we have the even better Messi; we grew up wondering whether Sampras would break Roy Emerson’s 12-Grand Slam record, then watched Federer race to 16, before watching even him struggle to match the raw athleticism and physicality of Nadal and Djokovic; we were barely done worshipping Mark Spitz, and we were gifted Michael Phelps. But, in a number of sports, the peak may already have been witnessed. It is quite possible, for example, that we have already seen the greatest pole-vaulter ever. Sergey Bubka set the pole-vault record at 6.14 metres, in 1994. At the last World Athletics Championships, in 2011, the winning height in the pole vault was 5.90 metres.

Several other standing records like Bubka’s, make the notion that athletic progress has already peaked very believable. It is a depressing thought, but it is plausible that man will never surpass several of the current world records without the aid of some form of performance-enhancing agent.


However, statistics can only make predictions and set ceilings on performance based on what has already happened. They do not actually tell you what the human body is capable of. In his book The Perfection Point, John Brenkus, the host of ESPN’s Sports Science show, uses existing statistics as just a starting point and then delves into what is scientifically possible in sport.

Brenkus says that it is commonsensical to assume that there is some upper ceiling on human athletic performance. A sprinter might run 100 metres in 9 seconds in the near future, but, surely, he can’t lick the distance clean in two seconds. Similarly, an Olympian might lift 300 kg of weight at once, but it is impossible that he will lift a bus. But saying this — or ‘predicting’ any of this — is not really saying much. What Brenkus attempts to do is find that exact perfection point that we can reach but never get past. Contrary to the findings of Berthelot or Noubary, Brenkus’ analysis leaves huge scope for improvement in the coming years. In the 100 metres, for example, he pins the perfection point at 8.99 seconds. He uses Bolt’s 9.69 seconds at the 2008 Olympics and identifies the areas of the run which could have been improved to reach this figure (see box).

Similarly, Brenkus hypothesises that we are far off from having run the fastest marathon. He cites a study by doctor and nutritionist Michael Joyner, which examines three variables that limit human endurance in long-distance running: 1. VO2 max, the point at which oxygen consumption plateaus and, therefore, defines an athlete’s maximum aerobic capacity. 2. Blood lactate threshold, a point where lactic acid floods muscle cells too fast for the body to metabolise the excess. 3. Running economy, which is the body’s ability to move forward divided by the energy expended. The study plots the various combinations of these variables to arrive at the fastest time in which a marathon can be run: 1:57:58, which is more than five minutes faster than the current world record (Patrick Makau’s 2:03:38). It is to be noted that, last year, Joyner published his follow-up study that predicted that the first sub-two hour marathon will be run in another 12-25 years.

But even Brenkus admits that his book is based on extrapolations, and assumes certain things will happen, like the fact that an athlete will be born who is even better suited to the 100-metre race than Bolt. To really understand the limits of human performance, we need to explore the various facets that actually go into breaking a world record.


The year is 1968. Dick Fosbury, a 21-year-old American civil engineering student, psyches himself up before approaching the high-jump bar. When he takes off, instead of launching off his left foot, jumping forward and straddling the bar, as was the norm for a high-jumper, he kicks off with his right, turns his back to the bar, arches his back over it and kicks his legs out to clear it. The Fosbury Flop has been introduced to the world. It is stunning to think that this technique of jumping, which is now universally accepted as the most efficient, was invented less than 50 years ago. We’ve seen similar innovations in other sports as well. In cricket, reverse-swing was only discovered in the late 1970s, the doosra only in the 1990s. In football, the swerving, or curling, freekick, perfected by the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, was invented in the 1950s by a young Brazillian midfielder named Didi. Can we rule out future changes in technique that will revolutionise a particular sport? Have we reached a stage where we have experimented enough and know the best way to hurl a javelin? Are we sure the front crawl is the fastest way to swim?

“We do not even know for sure why we walk or run the way we do,” says Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a reputed human evolutionary biologist based in Bangalore. “There are various different studies that suggest that the way we walk and run is the most efficient way to do so, but we don’t know how various factors, like, say, heat dissipation, affect the running gait.”

If we don’t know for sure what the perfect way to run is, then, surely, we can’t be sure we have reached the peak of athletic performance yet. Maybe if we ran on our tippy toes, we’d do the 100 metres in eight seconds or maybe we’d break the long-jump record by approaching the line on all fours. It is, obviously, highly unlikely that any such dramatic change in running style will occur. However, every new piece of information about a sport we gain through science is bound to have minor repercussions on the way the sport is approached.

Dick Fosbury introduced the world to the Fosbury Flop at the 1968 Olympics

The 100 metres, the test of a man’s top speed, is an event constantly attracting research and new theories. Not too long ago, it was thought that running speed was limited by the amount of force with which the limbs can strike the ground (ground force). However, a recent study by Peter Weyand, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Matt Bundle, Director of the biomechanics laboratory at Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences in Montana, and others, has shown that this not the case.

Weyand and Bundle performed experiments on seven athletes, each of whom hopped on one leg, and ran both forwards and backwards. It was found that the hop generated greater force than the sprint, suggesting that sprinters are capable of producing far greater forces than they do now. It was also found that the time for which the athlete’s foot was in contact with the ground was almost equal in the fastest forward speed and the fastest backward run, which suggests that contact time is the constraining factor that prevents a man from going faster in each of the directions.

In other words, the challenge for a sprinter is not to merely produce greater ground forces, but to produce greater ground forces without prolonging the contact time with the ground. Theoretically, a man can sprint at 66.4 kph if he could apply the ground forces that are known to be possible while hopping, which would mean he would complete the 100 metres in close to five seconds. Here, we stress the word theoretical. Practically speaking, says Weyand, it is almost certain that we can’t reach these speeds as the ground forces applied in the running gait cannot be as high as those applied while hopping.

“What sprinters do is a trade off between the force they are applying and the frequency with which they are taking their steps,” Weyand explains. So, the question is, can a sprinter generate the existing ground forces — about 800 to 1000 pounds — faster? “A top sprinter’s foot is only in contact with the ground for about 0.09 seconds, out of which he is only applying a peak force for around 0.03 or 0.04 seconds,” says Weyand. One way of applying a higher ground force in less time would be to increase the proportion and the speed of the fast-twitch muscle fibres, which produce explosive speed.

But Weyand and Bundle both stress that there’s a great deal of the unknown when it comes to 100-metres sprinting. “We don’t understand how the top sprinters produce the ground forces they do. So that limits our scientific knowledge of how fast a human can go,” says Weyand. “The best you can do is informed speculation, but that’s only possible if you have a big understanding of what’s going on. And when it comes to running speed and mechanics right now, we don’t.”


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