The end of getting faster?

Year on year we hear about athletes breaking new records beyond what was once thought as being humanly impossible. But will there be a day where we can no longer improve our physical abilities?

A recent presentation by David Epstein (TED) brought together a number of intriguing historical statistics up against our more recent achievements. He explains that over the last 108 years the winner of the Olympic marathon has become an hour and 20 minutes faster. This is similar with the likes of Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt in the 100m sprint.  The record time of Owens was 10.2 seconds compared to Bolt’s 9.58 seconds. That shows a clear increase in speed, strength and power, yet it is not all down to the thought that we are naturally getting better at what we do. Epstein explains that in both of these running events, previous athletes ran on the cinders of burnt wood which would have made a huge difference to the grip an athlete has under the foot. Compared to the synthetics of todays running tracks. Also the use of lighter and stiffer running shoes help the athlete to generate a more efficient running technique.

There are other things that come into play that may help us understand why we are getting faster in certain sports. For example, many youngsters in primary schools have the chance to compete in many different sports. By the time these youngsters reach high school they could well be training in a professional fashion, that is, eating correctly, training correctly, and using the best equipment. So to some it is no wonder that these increases in ability have come about.

The second point that Epstein makes highlights the selection process, or suitability, of athletes in particular sports. Activities such as basketball, sprint cycling, swimming, and horse riding are just a few sports that require specific physiological body shapes. In his own words “the large got larger, and the small got smaller”. All in all to suit a particular sport.

In a sports such as cycling and the Tour de France there are many different shapes and sizes. Some explanation for this is dependent on the type of rider that the cyclist is. For example, they could either be an exceptional climber, time trailer, or sprinter, or maybe even good at all 3 (more commonly known as a domestic rider or domestique). And this will depend predominantly on the type of leg muscles they have.

All shapes and sizes

This may also be the case in triathlons as there are three different disciplines to master (swimming, cycling, and running). Not only this, there are a variety of different distances that a triathlete may focus on. From my own experience, anything from Sprint up to Olympic distance triathletes share a similar body shape. That being very slim and lean, with a low body fat percentage. Nevertheless, the height of such triathletes tends to differ greatly and may not have that much of an impact on performance. Yet the geometry of triathletes at these distances show similarities, for example, arm and leg length in proportion to the rest of the body.

However, many of the Ironman athletes show a slightly different physique despite having the same three disciplines. As with most endurance events one of the key things to consider is power vs weight. The lighter the athlete, the better they can perform at a certain power output. So having done a little bit of research and looked at the top 10 finishers in different ironman races my conclusion was this: Top Ironman triathletes generally hold a lean body shape and tend to be 6 foot and under. They also show signs of increased upper body muscle mass in the shoulders and biceps to possibly suit the length of the Ironman swim (usually 3.9km). In general they tend to hold a slightly stockier build to that of a Sprint or Olympic distance triathlete. Although, further scientific research may uncover something more surprising.

Pete Jacobs 179cm (5’9″)

So with Epstein’s  two points of improvements in technology and the improvements in selection and suitability, my question still stands. What would happen when technology is unable to improve sport any further? Is it the simple possibility that technology is the sole influence in the improvement of our athletes? And when technological improvements stop, will our athletes continue to strive to become faster, higher and stronger?

The impact of having athletes that are faster, fitter and stronger is what captivates the public. The possibility of a new humanly impossible record. What if that were no longer???


Have you got GRIT? Test yourself here.

Having been involved in sports for pretty much most of my life, I have endured times of wanting to quit as well as times of wanting to never give up. These moments come across all individuals at unpredictable times, and it’s most likely that when it does come about it is the worst time possible.

A lot of athletes are often measured on their individual performances in sport. This has always been the way since the very start of sports. The winners are the ones that people remember and the losers… well, nobody remembers them. There are many ways to measure an athlete, in psychology we have performance profiling, in sports analysis we have statistics, and in sports science we have laboratory physiological tests, and if you are lucky enough you will have all three of these areas to measure you and how do you perform. However, there is one aspect that I would like to draw to your attention having recently watched a video that discusses the nature of how resilience should also be considered as a measure of an individuals drive to succeed. This is something that Angela Lee Duckworth explains as being ‘grit’.

Over her years of extensive research Angela Lee Duckworth was able to devise a scale of which grit can be measured. She used the scale in a number of capacities and established that it was a better predictor of success than intelligence. The main contexts that the grit scale was used was mainly academic or military, yet I am interested in how this would differ with a variety of athletes. There are always those days where you may look out of the window and see the rain sheeting down onto the road outside, and we let this factor into our train of thought and some of us may decide against training on that particular day. I believe that this grit scale may help coaches and athletes themselves to decipher how motivated and determined they are to succeed when times are hard.

For me the definition of grit is as follows: ‘Being able to endure difficult moments to achieve a long term target’

We must think back and remember of times when we have achieved such targets and consider how long it took. From that length of time, how many days were good days, and how many days were bad. If we do have a day where everything looks like it is against us we must think of the days where everything was in our favour. If your long term target takes you 365 days I am guessing that roughly only 50 of those days maybe bad ones. To go one step further 50 days could be reduced to 20 days depending on your ‘grittiness’.

So I urge you to have a go and see how gritty you really are by taking the 12 item grit scale as designed by Angela Lee Duckworth by clicking here. How likely are you to tell the rain and the cold to shove it? To put aside your emotions and fill your body with lactic acid? To forget about that hard day at work and hit the tarmac? To put your injury behind you and think of everything you can still achieve? The answers to these questions are what will make us different to one another, and I believe that grit is one of the newest and most influential measurements of how we can succeed.

Please take the time to watch Angela Lee Duckworth’s presentation at one of the TED conferences.

Beetroot will help you Beet your opponents

Not something we buy often.

When walking through the supermarket, most people will go for the usual fruit and vegetables; bananas and potatoes etc. This may be because of the ease of consumption and cooking recipes available. Plus the kids like chips and anything that is sweet. People may have heard about these ‘superfoods’ but not really read too much about them. In most cases superfoods such as blueberries and salmon are usually expensive. However, there is one vegetable that deserves its place as a superfood and is not expensive to buy. I’m talking about beetroots.

Despite the fact that, from fresh, they look like round podgy purple carrots, you can treat them just like you would a potato. Yes, I know that once you have started to peel a beetroot it looks like you have blood all over your hands. Yet, with a little bit of peeling, chopping and imagination you can make some really nice meals with beetroot. I would personally go for the fresh stuff and not the pre-peeled packet that you can often find in the supermarket. Most supermarkets will pump any vegetables that are in a packet with extra additives or preservatives to give it a better colour, taste and to make it last longer on the shelf. These unnecessary additives etc do not work that well inside your stomach. An old nutritionist of mine once said to me ‘stay fresh and eat fresh’. The fresher the products, the more vitamins and minerals you will get from that particular food source. Even professional football clubs realise the importance of fresh nutrition. For example, Chelsea Football Club invested in local farms in order to grow their own fruit and veg, in order to put it on the players plates within 24 hours.

But why buy it?

Beetroot holds something called nitrate. This nitrate helps your body in a number of ways. In the nutrition journal, Coles and Clifton (2012) found that taking in beetroot juice lowers blood pressure as part of a normal diet. In another journal, the consumption of whole beetroot vegetable was investigated against running performance (Murphy et al, 2012). They found that eating a nitrate rich vegetable like beetroot can improve running performance. If you are like me, then you will want to know why this happens. When you eat your beetroot, the nitrate within it is converted into nitric oxide. This new form of nitrate is what the body uses to open your veins up in order to help your blood flow through your body. If the veins and capillaries are wider, the blood has more space to travel through, and so lowers the blood pressure, and hence, helps a person perform harder for longer. If you are unsure whether to buy the juice or the veg, either because you are on a low carbohydrate diet or you are counting your calories, a cup of whole beetroot is under 40 calories and under 10g of carbs, whereas a serving size of 250ml of beetroot juice is 98 calories and closer to 22g carbs (due to natural sugars etc). I must admit though, drinking beetroot juice takes some time to adjust to. So, they include a bit of apple juice to make it palatable. Plus, having a bottle off beetroot juice in the fridge gives you fast access to those all important nitrates, but don’t be alarmed when your urine turns pink, its normal. So my advice is to buy both. Beetroot juice is in pretty much all of the supermarkets for £2.99.

What can I do with a whole beetroot?

So yesterday I tweeted that I would provide a cheeky beetroot recipe. This recipe makes about 6/7 little burger shaped patties, and you can mix it up and add extra bits and pieces to get it to taste however you like.

You need:

  • 3 beetroots (peeled and grated)
  • 1/4 onion (peeled and grade)
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 2 table spoons of flour or pure fine oats

The process:

  1. After grating everything, we want to get all the extra juice out of it, so place the beetroot in the the middle of a clean cotton kitchen towel and bring the corners together and start twisting. You can drain the fluid into a cup and use this later to drink yourself.
  2. Once most of the fluid is drained, place into a large bowl and add the grated onion and the beaten egg. Give this a good mix and add seasoning and anything extra you wish. I had a little bit of chorizo or bacon to go with this.
  3. At the 2 tablespoons of flour and mix through the grated beetroot.
  4. Next, go and wet your hands (so the mixture doesn’t stick to your hands) and then shape a small amount of the beetroot mixture into a ball and then flatten it like a burger.
  5. After you have completed this with all of the mixture, put a pan on medium to high heat and at some olive oil or rapeseed oil. Then you place the beetroots patties into the pan and cook on each side for 4-5 minutes.
  6. Once cooked, put a nice poached egg on top and you have a stunning meal for lunch.
Enjoy with a poached egg on top

Enjoy with a poached egg on top

Running pacing strategy

Everyone in triathlons knows where their weaknesses lie. They may just about confess this weakness to a coach, but apart from that they usually won’t tell a sole. However, without giving too much away about my ‘area for improvement’, I like to read around the parts that hurt me the most. And for me, the most most painful section of my triathlon is the first kilometer of the run. That much effort, both physically and mentally, goes in to the swim and the ride that the ability go through the transition is usually a disorientating 30 seconds. The blood just doesn’t seem to shift fast enough. You may be the person has the background of running, and so you find this part rather easy, but as an ex race cyclist the first few minutes of the run feel like I’m running with bread knives in my hamstrings. So, have a found a cure? No, but I may have found a strategy.

In a study by Hausswirth et al (2010), going a bit faster or a bit slower during the first kilometer after the cycle/run transition can make all the difference in your performance. The researchers tested a number of athletes over a few trials. Each trial had a different running strategy for the first kilometer. After finding out each subjects 10km pace, they asked each runner, for the first kilometer, to run at 5% less, 5% more, and also 10% less than their 10km pace. For a 40min 10km runner, this would be doing 4:12s/km, 3:48s/km and 4:24s/km for the first kilometer. The subjects then ran the remaining 9km as fast as possible.
The findings highlighted that running at 5% slower has a greater effect of overall performance.

The implications of why this occurs is not discussed in the abstract, but from my own perspective, knowing that I can afford to 5% slower for the first kilometer will certainly have a positive effect on my psychology, and may even push me to apply more power on the bike.

So there you go, you can go faster if you run slower….but only in the first kilometer 😉
Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Apr;108(6):1115-23.
Pacing strategy during the initial phase of the run in triathlon: influence on overall performance.
Hausswirth C, Le Meur Y, Bieuzen F, Brisswalter J, Bernard T.