Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Ever Faster, Higher, Stronger

A couple of days ago Emily Sohn of Discovery News called to chat about why and how world records continue to fall.   Here is a short version of our discussion:

  1.  Multiple incremental improvements over time.  A good example is swimming and contributing factors include: better and deeper pools, wave suppressing lane lines, high tech suits, and technical advances like better turns.  Better pool architecture and lane lines reduce the chop and turbulence in the water and my bet is that the availability of easy to use video equipment has also helped coaches tweak technique.
  2.  Major technical breakthroughs.  Two examples that come to mind are fiberglass pole vault poles and more recently “clap skates” in speed skating.   The skates provide essentially an extra lever and when they were introduced there was a record breaking spree.   In sports like golf and tennis there seems to be a continuous march of improved clubs and racquets.
  3. More and better competition.  For all sorts of reasons including more money in more sports and the end of amateurism people now compete for longer.   Top athletes in many sports can now make a living doing their thing.  Elite sport used to be mostly for people from wealthy countries and that is not longer the case either, so the talent pool has expanded and is likely to continue to expand.
  4. Better medical treatment helps people recover from what were once career ending injuries.  While it was a motorcycle accident, the fact that Hermann Maier came back in skiing after almost losing his leg, proves the point.  The skill of my orthopedic surgery colleagues, the rehab physicians, therapists and trainers is incredible.  Orthopedics has also been aided by improvements in materials science and high tech replacement parts and less invasive techniques.   In the last 30 years I have personally seen orthopedic surgery move from essentially medieval carpentry to one of the most tech driven and creative areas of medicine.
  5. In sports like figure skating, diving and gymnastics that include acrobatic “tricks” there has to be an element of world wide “double-dare” going on.   In other words the world sees someone do a “triple” whatever and people start to think about how to do a quadruple…….
  6. There are no more secrets, training techniques and technical improvements in equipment diffuse rapidly and the rate of adoption of new ideas is now essentially instantaneous due to the electronic environment we all live in.
  7. Depending on how well you believe that drug testing works, there is always the issue of doping. So undetected doping is a possibility.  As I have mentioned before, while drug testing is not perfect, it is better than it used to be.  The fact that a number of records in track and field date from the 80s and 90s (especially for women) suggests that testing is getting better.  So hopefully doping is less of a factor, but healthy skepticism is always a good thing on this topic.

As I said to Emily, I am not sure the underlying human motor has gotten any better, but when you add the factors listed above up improvements continue to pile up.

Enjoy the next to last day of London 2012.


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