John Brenkus Answers Your Peak-Performance Questions
We recently solicited your questions for John Brenkus, author of The Perfection Point, a book about the limits of athletic achievements. Read on for Brenkus’s thoughts on those special swimsuits at the Beijing Olympics and the most surprising perfection point he encountered in his research. Thanks to everyone, especially John, for participating.
I think the 100-meter dash is the “simplest” in terms of activity but hardest to think through logically. I will always think someone will be able to go .01 seconds faster than the last guy… but can anyone get below, say, 9.25? – MRB
Absolutely. Although we probably won’t see that mark reached in our lifetime, 9.25 is conceivable for the species to achieve. When you optimize factors like reaction time, wind resistance, altitude, power to weight ratio, etc., you can systematically calculate the best the species can do. And based on my calculations, we may someday be able to set our sights on 9.00 … and someone just may break it.
Do you think performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids, erythropoietin?and human growth hormone are effective? How much does it push the edge of performance (percentage-wise)? What are the most dramatic examples in modern sports? Are all unexplained, sudden record-breaking performances now suspect? Perhaps athletes must tone down their dominance to escape scrutiny. Do you think the NFL is rife with anabolic steroids? Why can woman use estrogen and still compete — but men are forbidden from using the male version of the hormone, androgen? – Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team
Lots and lots of great questions. To sum them all up, yes, steroids (performance-enhancing drugs, or PED’s) work. Period. It’s impossible to calculate an exact percentage by which they increase performance because it varies from person to person. Sudden records are always suspect, but we have to be careful not to rush to judgment. First of all, I’m not sure what a legal vs. illegal PED is anymore. Just because a substance is on a list today doesn’t mean it’ll be off the list 10 years from now. Likewise, there are substances that athletes are doing right now that are perfectly legal that may be banned in a few years. Overall, I think we need to have a more open dialogue about this issue. It’s not black and white … just one big shade of gray.
I’ve always been interested in how the mind affects performance. For example, I’ve heard stories of weight lifters who couldn’t get past a particular weight until their coach took a heavier plate and painted it the color of a lighter plate, so that the athlete thought he was trying to lift a lighter weight, which was under his psychological barrier. Do you investigate this kind of phenomenon, and do you have any insight into the best ways to train the mind for maximum performance? – Steve Nations
The mind is by far the most powerful muscle in the body. Mental barriers hold us back from achieving more than physical barriers. Think about the 4-minute mile. It took us 200,000 years of evolution to break 4 minutes, but once Roger Bannister did it, the mental barrier was broken. Within 10 years, 300 people had broken the 4-minute mile! Mind over matter…
Did you do any analysis on swimming? If so, how did you take into account world records that were set in technical swimsuits, which have since been banned in competition? – Allison
I calculated the fastest a human can swim in the 50m (freestyle) without the aid of a suit. Man, did Beijing mess up the record books or what?
How do you distinguish between human limits and artificial ones? For instance, is improvement in shoe technology part of the human limit when determining the top speed of racers? What about nutrition? How do you distinguish the line between human accomplishment and artificial results? – Chris
Great question. In The Perfection Point, I make the assumption that each of the respective leagues is going to continue to regulate the degree to which equipment may aid a performance. Governing bodies like the PGA and NASCAR have been very pro-active in limiting the equipment in their sports to make sure performances don’t spin wildly out of control. Just recently, the NBA banned the new shoes that increase vertical leap by more than three inches. We all saw what happened when the Olympics fell asleep at the switch and allowed the LZR suits into swimming. Now, all those records set in Beijing need to have an asterisk next to them. But now those suits are banned and life can return to normal!
I feel confident that the speed of sound is an upper bound for unaided human athletes. Upper bounds are easy. However, I suspect that what you’re actually interested in is the least upper bound, which is quite a different kettle of fish. Please be more precise. – Ian Kemmish
You’re absolutely right. The Perfection Point is the asymptote on the graph. It’s the point we will always get closer to, but will never exceed.
What perfection point were you most surprised by when you were writing the book? – Vito
There were two: the mile and the marathon. They’re really a study in contrasts in terms of human performance. I think we as a species have under-achieved in the mile, but in the marathon, I think we’ve over-achieved. The mile is an odd distance that we now rarely run. It’s not a sprint, and it’s not a long distance. This “middle ground” makes it hard for us to wrap our brains around how fast we should pace it. On the other hand, long-distance running has been around since the very beginning, so we’ve had lots of opportunities to figure out how far we can push it. Chris McDougal‘s book Born to Run is a fantastic book about the evolution of long distance running. Check it out!
One sport that pushes humans to the limit, mentally and physically, is cycling. The big question, Mr. Brenkus, is how much of cycling is the bike? What role does technology play in pro cycling? – Nadav
I can tell you from actual experience (I’m a 5-time Ironman finisher that the bike itself only makes a real difference if you’re an elite athlete. And even then, the bike itself only shaves off a tiny percentage of time relative to the strength of the athlete. When you look at an event like the Ironman World Championship in Kona, the bike times have remained fairly consistent even though the bikes themselves constantly get better. In a lot of ways, the most important thing is comfort and confidence.