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Part I: Are We Reaching Our Limit?


By Lauren Evans


Note: This is Part I in a two-part series. Part I presents a debate and takes a position on future World Record Performance potential, and Part II explains one solution that makes athletes competitive with past world records. 


Are we reaching our physical limit to performance? 


I’ve been mulling this idea for a while, but standing at mile 25.5 at the Boston Marathon and witnessing Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop blistering by me (the official time at this point was under 2:00:00 hrs for the men; Mutai finished in an unofficial World Record time of 2:03:02) brought this debate to the forefront of my mind. 


As a kid, I seem to remember the question at any major world competition being “How many new world records will [insert top competitor] set?” rather than just “Who will win the gold?”


Recently, it seemed to me, fewer and fewer world records are being set at major events. With less world records being set, are humans reaching their physiological limit to human performance? Dr. Ross Tucker Dr. Jonathan Dugas from The Science of Sport looked debated this question in their blog post entitled Limits to Human Performance: Lessons from Men and Women. 


Dr. Tucker and Dugas based their analysis on this chart (courtesy of The Science of Sport,

















In each of these tables, with the women on the left and men on the right, you can see the time of the world record, the year in which it was attained, the age of the record to today and the percentage variance from the world record and the best performance of the last three years. 


What does this data show? 


First of all, the majority of these records come from a time when doping was the norm. Most of these records, thus, are not indicative of human limits to performance at all, they are limits of performance to a doped body. The average age of these world records on the women’s side is nearly 20 years old! 


Believe me, there is incentive enough for male and female athletes to train hard to attain a new world record. Aside from wanting to be “the best the world has ever seen”, there are monetary rewards as well. For example, Mutai took home $50,000 for the world best and $25,000 for the course record at 2011’s Boston, two very sizeable checks in the running world. 


Yet, according to Dr. Tucker and Dr. Dugas, “women’s records [are] out of sight. Hard luck for women athletes.” They cite the data that in the last three years, women have come within 1% of the world record in only four events. Additionally, 9 of the 14 records on the woman’s side are over 20 years old. (The Science of Sport, 2011)


Dr. Tucker and Dr. Dugas took a closer look at the women’s 800 m race. Of the top 20 performances of all time, 13 come from the 1980s, 2 were set by women since suspended for doping, 3 come from the early 1990’s, and when EPO use was ‘rampant’. That leaves only two performances likely not affected by doping. (The Science of Sport, 2011)


For the men, on the other hand, the physical barrier could still be pushed higher, although it is seemingly near. The men are “much more competitive” with regard to being near previous world records, according to Dr. Tucker and Dr. Dugas. 


Is it possible to improve both strength and endurance…at the same time? 


Something has to be said for 20 plus years of research on athletic performance, nutritional needs, and training effect… right? How do improved diet, novel research, and better training methods affect the human performance barrier? I say it has a very tangible effect!


Since the beginning of time, humans have either been able to carry on forever or have been immensely strong, but not both. So how do we produce a better athlete? This athlete must have an ultimate combination of strength and endurance. Today’s athlete that could be considered to have the best mix of strength and endurance is the modern decathlete. But the modern decathlete, perhaps ‘the world’s greatest athlete’, can be further divided into the ‘fast runner’, the ‘typical thrower’, and the ‘typical jumper’. For example, the ratio of each specialty in the decathlon goes as follows: runs are 40.8% of total score, jumps are 31.24% of the total score, and throws are 27.96% of the total score. It is rare to find a decathlete that is even in scoring across the board; thus most decathletes specialize in either running, jumping, or throwing. (Dr. Bar-Lev, 2010). 


Take base training as the second example; most of us know it well. This is a time when we neglect our speed in favor of developing our aerobic base. Long and (tantalizingly) slow runs can rob our legs of that fast 5k, but will improve our aerobic capacity and functional efficiency enough to enable us to work on speed again at a later date. 


The question then becomes, if athletes are able to train in such a way as to equally improve both endurance AND strength at the same time, then the overall athletic performance of the athlete will no doubt improve. Thus, we will continue to push our ‘human limit’ further to the brink.


According to Peak Performance 2010, new research is proving the ultimate question of sports training: Can you improve both strength and endurance at the same time? 

 “For the first time, researchers are beginning to understand how best to train simultaneously for strength and endurance” (Peak Performance).


Recent research from the University of California shows how one method of training can improve several aspects of fitness at once. The more efficient coaches and athletes get at improving both endurance and strength simultaneously, the further the human race will be from reaching its physical limit. 


There is more to come detailing breakthroughs in this mode of training. For now, although the bar has been set very high, will still see more records broken!


1. American Journal Physiology. 1999 276: C120-7.
Bar-Lev, E, “What Type of “Athletic DNA” Do Elite Decathletes Possess?” in Track Coach 195, Spring 2011, pgs. 6225-6228.  
2. European Journal Applied Physiology. 2008 102: 145-52
3. European Journal Applied Physiology. Occupational Physiology. 1980 45: 255-63
Tucker, R & Dugas, J, The Science of Sport: World Record Limits? 28 November 2010.
Pye, J, & Hamilton, A., Advanced Fitness Training for Elite Sports Performance, from Peak Performance. 2010, (pgs. 29 – 35).

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