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Athletes near limit of human performance
Mike Osborne
07:34 AEST Fri Jul 20 2012

In about a week's time the focus of the world will switch to the London Olympic Games and amazing feats of endurance, speed, and heroism.

But can the likes of Olympic 100m champion and world record holder Usain Bolt continue to break through the barriers of human performance? Or is there a limit to athletic achievement?

Kate Murphy from the University of Melbourne says there is no doubt improvements in athletic performance have slowed, but a ceiling to human endeavour still seems a long way off.

Murphy, an NHMRC Career Development Fellow, says athletes such as Bolt who are changing traditional sporting techniques, along with advancements in technology and growing scientific understanding of the human body means that the boundaries will continue to be pushed and broken.

"We once thought no-one could run a mile in less than four minutes and yet the current world record stands at three minutes, 43 seconds," she said in a recent article for The Conversation.

"For physiologists, human performance is limited by the processes involved in energy production and muscle contraction.

"Performance in a 100m sprint depends on many processes, including the rate at which energy can be produced and used, the speed at which electrical signals can reach muscles, and the rate at which calcium can initiate muscle contraction and relaxation.

"By comparison, marathon performance is dependent on the ability to use oxygen, store and use fat and glycogen for energy, and to keep muscle calcium levels high to maintain contractions. In hot conditions, the ability to sweat is also important for endurance performance.

"Based on current knowledge, there should be a limit to these processes, and therefore a limit to human performance."

The men's long-jump world record was set in 1991, the men's pole vault record remains unbroken since 1994 and short-distance swimming's achievements have actually reversed since the drag-reducing bodysuit was banned in 2010.

"In all sports, what you see is a levelling off," says Steve Haake, director of Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Sports Engineering Research.

Records continue to be broken in many sports, but the margins are getting smaller and smaller, he said.

Geoffroy Berthelot with the INSEP sports institute in Paris looked at a history of Olympic records since the modern Games began in 1896.

He calculates that athletes have reached 99 per cent of what is possible within the limits of natural human physiology.

By 2027, half of all 147 sporting events studied will have reached their estimated limits and will not be improved upon by more than 0.05 per cent after that, according to Berthelot's mathematical estimate.

"Sports performances are reaching a physiological plateau," he said.

Reza Noubary of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania projects that the men's 100m sprint, seen as the benchmark measure of human acceleration and speed, can only have a top time of 9.4 seconds.

The "data suggests that human speed increases are decelerating and will eventually stop completely," said Noubary.

But, he cautioned, this prediction is based only on mathematics.

Murphy says athletic performance does not depend solely on physiological processes, and improvements in other factors have helped to far exceed the limits previously placed on human performance.

Herself a triathlete who completed a PhD in exercise physiology at Victoria University in 2005, Murphy said the other factors contributing to athletic performance included psychology, nutrition, training methods and technology.

"Over the past few decades, leaps and bounds in each of these areas have advanced athletic performance," she said.

Technology is constantly evolving.

In swimming, there have been major advances in the design of Olympic swimming pools, reducing turbulence and improving performance. Olympic pools are now deeper, have ten lanes instead of eight, and anti-wave lane ropes.

Then there were the now banned polyurethane swim suits which reduced drag and improved buoyancy and helped 25 world records to be broken during the two years they were deemed legal.

Murphy said world records since the super-suit era have been, and will continue to be, few and far between.

Doping also enabled performances to be illegally enhanced and now gene therapy is being used to treat diseases associated with muscle wasting and weakness, but one day may also be exploited to enhance athletic performance.

As long as the authorities remain one step behind those developing the latest doping technologies, it will be difficult for a ceiling on human performance to ever be reached.

Finally Murphy said there are athletes, such as Bolt, who have a physique and running technique never seen before, and all of the ceilings put on normal physical ability are simply thrown out the window.

"It's impossible for anybody to predict the magnitude of the freakiness of athletic talent," said Noubary.

"Bolt, it turns out, is a perfect example as he combines the mechanical advantages of taller men's bodies with the fast-twitch (muscle) fibres of smaller men."

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