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In Pursuit Of The Edge

Elite athletes are pushing the limits of human performance and breaking boundaries for the rest of us.

January 09, 2006|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

THROUGHOUT the first half of the 20th century, the idea that anyone could run a mile in under four minutes went from preposterous to remotely feasible. By May 6, 1954, when Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, breaking the hypothetical barrier had gripped the world's imagination.

Just 46 days later, John Landy of Australia broke that record by six-tenths of a second. In the years since, no fewer than 964 men from 60 countries have beaten the four-minute-mile barrier. Today, the record -- held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco since July 7, 1999 -- stands at 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds.

But the records are tumbling at slower and slower rates, not just in running times but also in weight lifted, laps swum and heights jumped. When new records are set, they're not smashed, but rather tweaked by a fraction of a second. The decimal point, set at a 10th of a second for Bannister's record, now measures one-hundredth of a second.

"Soon, we'll have to go to a third decimal place, and then a fourth," says Alan Nevill, statistician with the University of Wolverhampton in England.

But even as human beings approach optimal performance, elite athletes can still shave fractions of seconds off existing records.

"We're certainly at a point of diminishing returns," says Mike Saunders, director of James Madison University's human performance laboratory in Virginia. "We're getting closer and closer to our species' physiological peak performance all the time. But the peak is theoretical, and it'll take infinity to reach. The closer you get to perfection, the harder it is to make improvements."

In a May 2005 paper in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Nevill created a flattened S curve representing humankind's capacity for performance. A second line plotting improvements in performance would get ever closer to the curve without reaching it -- a concept known in mathematics as an asymptote. Both lines could go on forever as people get better by a hair, then half a hair.

The sports in which athletes will have the most difficulty beating existing records, says Nevill, are those in which the athlete has to power his or her own body weight -- running, walking, high jumping -- without the buoyancy of water or the aid of equipment.

For those sports, it's probably going to be a long time between records. "And the records will be beat by one-thousandth of a second rather than a second," says George Salem, codirector of the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Research Laboratory at USC. "Improvements are going to be hard to come by."

The sports that still experience sporadic bursts of record-breaking are those that can boast improvements in fields and equipment, or because of new entrants into the competition. Running tracks aren't covered with crushed cinders anymore. Swimming pools have wave suppressors. Bicycles are lighter and better balanced. Whole populations from Third World countries have only recently begun showing up at starting lines, some influenced by practicing in extreme climates or on hilly or sandy terrain.

Women likely have more surge years ahead of them than men, largely because they entered the competitive arena later. It wasn't until Title IX, the 1972 federal law requiring that girls get the same athletic opportunities in American schools as boys, that females in this country began to get the same level of sports training and opportunities as males.

But just because the measures of success in some sports are increasingly imperceptible to the naked eye doesn't mean athletes will quit trying. It's like, after shedding 30 pounds, trying to lose those last five pounds.

The most promising avenues for making humans better, faster and stronger lie in the areas of nutrition science and biomechanics technology, performance researchers say. The research is sport by sport, movement by movement, limb by limb.

Scientists are concocting beverage brews, adding or subtracting dashes of carbohydrates and protein, tinkering with diets three days or six days before a race. Researchers are putting high-tech scales in starting blocks, then showing runners how various footholds or body positions -- often unique to an individual -- can get them to explode out of the block. Video cameras are capturing the swinging techniques of right-handed cricket players and the stroke velocity of table tennis players, all looking for ways to make minuscule improvements.

Optimal nourishment

Nutrition science led one of the first revolutions in enhancing performance with something utterly basic. Water.

A high school or college football player in the 1960s would typically be told not to drink water during workouts or games. "It wasn't science," says Saunders. "It was macho." Then came the proof that not only did dehydration harm performance, it could be dangerous -- even deadly.

In the 1970s and '80s, it was further established that dosing the water with carbohydrates during prolonged physical activity improved performance.

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