T Nation

Limits To Human Performance?


Interesting article I found on another training site.

I'm interested in reading other opinions on the subject of the top end of human performance in all the various sports-Especially sports that include a Barbell!

"What are the absolute limits to human performance levels?

?That?s the question posed by former international distance runner Bruce Tulloh, now a leading coach, in the latest Special Issue of Peak Performance. This Special deals with Future Trends in sport and looks at record progression, the battle of the sexes, the 2012 Olympics and the impact of China?s emergence onto the world sporting stage.

First, the onward march of world records. How far ? and how fast ? can the human frame go? Tulloh points out that each generation tends to think in its own terms: a chunk off a record is regarded as the ultimate performance whereas the real effect of the new record is to recalibrate the sights of the next would-be record-holders: ?Simply put, each generation of young athletes looks at the current records and works harder and harder to reach them. Human nature being what it is, people train just hard enough and long enough to achieve the goal ? but no more.?

There?s also the technology factor. To illustrate the point,Tulloh provides a fascinating potted history of the world one-hour cycling record. This is a mark which actually went backwards in 2000 as a result of a diktat from the ICU governing body which came in response to arguments over bike and helmet design and riding posture. The roll call of the cycling record holders (33 of the 35 come from just 8 northern European countries) also points up another of Tulloh?s theses about economic development: ?Before World War Two there were never more than 50 nations sending teams to the Olympics; now there are more than 200 competing nations, and in most of these, the levels of nutrition and education are increasing year on year. In Nigeria, for example, with a population of 90 million, the percentage of people able to take part in sport will have increased from, perhaps 10% when the country first started sending teams to the Olympics to something over 60% now, bringing 50 million more people into contention in one country alone.?

But what of the elemental sports of running and swimming? Here records once appeared to follow a linear pattern whereas now it?s clear that they tend to follow an asymptotic curve, gradually flattening out over time. Using the linear model, Tulloh returns to a set of predictions for track events he himself made in 1967, looking ahead to 1980. Only one of his predictions was achieved by 1980 ? though all were by 2000. He then offers this (asymptotic) set of predictions for 2025 (men?s events):

Event 2005 Actual 2025 Predicted
100m 9.77 9.69
200m 19.32 19.20
400m 43.32 42.54
800m 1:41.11 1:39.40
1,500m 3:26.00 3:23
5,000m 12:37.35 12:22
1,0000m 26:17.5 25:44
Marathon 2:04:55 1:59:50

When predicting the future, Tulloh warns of the dangers of human meddling in the form of drugs, prosthetics and genetics, but believes that chance and the human factor will always play a big part in sporting performance: ?Leaving aside mathematical predictions, coaching schools and economic factors, there is one more major and unpredictable factor ? the exceptional individual. He or she may appear anywhere in the world, combining a massive amount of natural ability with huge ambition. If that person also has the intelligence and the application to work hard for a long time, and happens to find the right coach or the right opportunity, anything is possible.?

It?s even possible, write Professor Ralph Beneke and Dr Renate Leithauser, that women?s performances may eclipse men?s on a regular basis over very long distances, but never over 100 or 200m, despite the linear graphs which occasionally surface in the media after a new women?s record in one of the conventional athletic distances. Body size and composition will always favour men in events up to at least the Marathon, but they point out that ? there is some evidence that women can run aerobically at a higher percentage of their maximal oxygen uptake than men. During the early phase of a 90-minute run, women were able to convert more fat to energy than men; and, more importantly, if a carbohydrate drink was provided during the run, they were able to convert a greater relative proportion of it to energy than men.

?The implication of this research is that carbohydrate ingestion, which is particularly common in longer events, is likely to be more effective in conserving the body?s own glycogen stores in women than in men, which would be particularly conducive to success in races longer than the marathon.?

Perhaps this explains recent results in the 216km (135 miles) Badwater Ultramarathon in California?s Death Valley. ?Despite the fact that women have less effective mechanisms than men for regulating their body heat in extremely hot environments, in both 2002 and in the 2003 a female ultra-runner outpaced the fastest male by about 4.5 and 0.5 hours, respectively. Furthermore, in each of the last three years, up to three women have been within the first five finishers ? particularly impressive given that this is a race that has always attracted significantly more male than female participants."


I don't have any comments for the moment but I am interested in what the author said about the emegence of China on the international sporting scene.

As an architect involved in the design and constuction of sporting venues in China I regularly witness elite as well as regional training. It is impressive.