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???