David Epstein, a journalist who focuses on the science of sport, frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated, and author of the book The Sports Gene, tackles an interesting question in this TED talk: statistics show that in the past decade athletes seem to be getting stronger, better, and faster – so, are they? And how is this possible?
If you just compare speeds; for example, Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt in the 100m sprint, or the amount of runners able to run a mile under 4 minutes now (over 1,300) compared to in 1954 (just 1 man – Sir Roger Bannister), it seems that we are undeniably getting faster. Epstein posits three reasons for this improvement: technology, change in the gene pool, and change in mindset.
Running on soft cinders versus the synthetic tracks we have today however, slows the runner by 1.5% according to biomechanics. This is a small example of technology influencing sports, a far more dramatic example is that of cycling improvements. From 1972 to 1996 the longest distance cycled in one hour was about a 5 mile difference. BUT, when doing the same challenge today, on the same cycling equipment as they had in 1972, the difference is only 883 feet.
That accounts for some of the improvement, but training technique also comes into play. Bannister trained for 45 minutes at a time, the 1904 Olympic winner drank rat poison and brandy before running – obviously, we have more of a streamlined training approach nowadays. That approach to training also includes the realization that specific body types will perform better for specific sports, so as the search for those body types widened the large athletes got larger and the small, smaller, until the optimal body type for each sport is found.
Lastly, it’s the change in mindset that I find most interesting. Basically, if one athlete can do something, others will inevitably follow because they now know that it’s possible. Athletes are managing somehow to beat our own “limiter” in the brain, pushing us further and harder than we may think possible.