Friday, August 12, 2016

Have We Reached the Athletic Limits of the Human Body?

The Olympics are in full swing this week, giving us in the United States a brief respite from our nasty presidential campaign. As you might guess, I view the Olympics through the lens of biological physics. One question that physics can help answer is: Have we reached the athletic limits of the human body? Can sprinters run faster and faster, or have we reached the physical and physiological limit? Can pole vaulters vault higher? Can long jumpers jump longer? Can swimmers swim quicker? An article in last week’s Scientific American by Bret Stetka tries to answer these questions.
At this month’s summer Olympic Games in Rio, the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt—a six-foot-five Jamaican with six gold medals and the sinewy stride of a gazelle—will try to beat his own world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100-meter dash. If he does, some scientists believe he may close the record books for good. Whereas myriad training techniques and technologies continue to push the boundaries of athletics, and although strength, speed and other physical traits have steadily improved since humans began cataloguing such things, the slowing pace at which sporting records are now broken has researchers speculating that perhaps we’re approaching our collective physiological limit—that athletic achievement is hitting a biological brick wall.
The article cites a 2008 paper by Mark Denny, the author of Air and Water, a book often cited in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. Denny suggests that there are limits, and we are closing in on them.
Are there absolute limits to the speed at which animals can run? If so, how close are present-day individuals to these limits? I approach these questions by using three statistical models and data from competitive races to estimate maximum running speeds for greyhounds, thoroughbred horses and elite human athletes. In each case, an absolute speed limit is definable, and the current record approaches that predicted maximum. While all such extrapolations must be used cautiously, these data suggest that there are limits to the ability of either natural or artificial selection to produce ever faster dogs, horses and humans. Quantification of the limits to running speed may aid in formulating and testing models of locomotion.
Yet Denny was not overly cautious in his paper. He predicted minimum times for many races, including the 100 m dash. Stetka writes
Bolt hopes to beat the researcher’s [that is, Denny’s] fastest predicted 100-meter dash time of 9.48 seconds. Unfortunately, according to Denny, the now notably older sprinter may have missed his chance. The sprinter was a chasm ahead of the pack in a semifinals race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he slowed up before crossing the finish line. “I think had he kept going at full speed he would’ve set an all-time, unbeatable world record,” Denny speculates.
Then Stetka quotes Denny as saying
“When I published my paper, the feedback I got was that this was going to destroy the Olympics,” he recollects. “That’s like saying the 1962 Brazilian soccer team was the best ever so no one’s ever going to watch the World Cup again. But if Bolt can run the 100 in 9.47 seconds and beat my prediction, then hats off to him. I think there’s always going to be the lure of ‘maybe someone’s going to do better.’”
I plan to watch the Olympics and see if humans can run faster than ever before. I’m a big fan of Mark Denny, but I’ll be routing for Bolt (or Gatlin) to beat Denny's prediction.


P.S. A long frustrated sigh goes to Michael Phelps and the other USA swimmers engaged in “cupping” therapy pseudoscience. Oh, where is Bob Park when we need him! Ignore the quackery and gibberish and focus on the swimming.

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