What are the hard human limits of athletic world records?

Two hours, one minute and 39 seconds.

Kenyan superstar Eliud Kipchoge ran the quickest official marathon ever recorded in Berlin in 2018, ever closer to running it in under two hours.

At the London Marathon this year, he came close to beating it (02:02:37) but has since announced he intends to break the two hour barrier at a special event in autumn.

The two-hour marathon has been a target for a long time.

Exactly 100 years ago in 1909, British athlete Henry Barrett set the marathon world record of 2:42:31, 40 minutes – around a third – slower than the current record.

But before we got close to the two hour marathon, the four-minute mile and the 10-second 100m were the pinnacles of athletic achievement.

Roger Bannister went 3:59 for the mile in 1954 and a decade later it was the sub 10-second 100m which got the battering.

Usain Bolt now has the 100m record at 9.59 seconds and Hicham El Guerrouj has brought the mile record down to 3 minutes 43 seconds.

But how far could those limits go? Is there a point where humans stop being able to set new world records?

And how long will it take to whittle away 100 seconds to get the marathon under two hours?

There is a 10% chance of it happening by May 2032, according to Simon Angus, associate professor of economics at Monash University in Melbourne.

He used a historical progression of the male marathon world record time since 1950 and extended it into the future.

This will come, Angus thinks, from ‘the accumulation of performance improvements across a range of technological, physiological, psychological and nutritional areas’.

Like Angus, most agree it won’t be a single big advance that will get us to the two hour barrier but many tiny tweaks.

This follows the theory of marginal gains, made famous by Team Sky cycling team, with a focus on identifying every individual aspect and improving each by 1% to significantly enhance the overall performance.

As only a 1.4% improvement is needed to get from the current world record to 1:59.59, surely it is feasible?  

Professor Andy Lane of the University of Wolverhampton thinks it could be:

‘We don’t really know our limits, particularly at non-maximal efforts such as the marathon,’ he says.

‘On completing the world record, the athlete will reflect and know very quickly where one second could be saved… And if one second could be saved, why not two or three or more?’

But Dr Mark Burnley, senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Kent University, suggests that physiologically, a two-hour marathon will likely be the limit of what is possible.

‘It requires a sustained speed of 21.1 km/h and the number of people who can run this fast without experiencing muscular fatigue is vanishingly small,’ he says.

‘Simply running fast for a long time slows you down, partly because you run out of carbohydrates to fuel the effort and partly because running damages the muscle and this will slow you down too.’

We have three key physiological limiters:

Likening it to a car, Dr Burnley says to really push the limits of performance requires ‘a very big engine (VO₂max) with a very high operating speed (lactate threshold) that uses very little fuel (running economy)’.

The ceiling for VOmax is determined primarily by genetics and the way we train. This improves slowly so to reach our limits perhaps we need external help.

An attempt to go sub two hours ethically with external help was set up by Nike in 2017 in their Breaking2 project offered a few elite runners specially designed trainers, multiple pacers and the Formula 1 track at Monza to run around.

The attempt got within 30 seconds of the two hour mark. Close, but not close enough and it wasn’t eligible for a world record.

Will the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly NEXT% trainers be the tech which gets Kipchoge those extras seconds faster?

The shoes are designed with a carbon fibre plate in the midsole, this stores and releases energy, propelling runners forward.

Nike claims they can save you 4% of energy per stride and a study of the shoes’ predecessor by the New York Times backs this up.

The data of half a million marathon runners was analysed and those wearing the Vaporflys 4% really were 3-4% faster.

Kipchoge was wearing them in his first sub2 attempt.

Is this fair?

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If over half the podium places in the 2017 World Marathon Majors were taken by athletes wearing them, is it too big an advantage?

When the carbon fibre combines with the foam in the sole it is basically acting like a spring, meaning the shoes are propelling the runners to victory instead of their own legs.

There is precedent of new tech designed for elite athletes being banned.

Shortly after the introduction of a new type of swimsuit, 20 world records were set at the World Swimming Championships in 2009.

Multi-gold medal winner Michael Phelps threatened to boycott future competitions allowing the suit and, a year later, the suits were banned.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has already updated its rules around running shoes following the initial Nike Vaporfly release and is now investigating if ‘prototypes’ not widely available should be banned.

Away from technology you wear, external help can be received by taking performance-enhancing substances.

Doping is regulated and carefully checked with any elite athlete and a list of banned substances is rigorously enforced.

But what happens in the future when it is not just taking the performance enhancing drugs we already see but it actually could be our own genes which are doped?

Seven legal elements that could help push the limits of human performance:

Gene therapy adds extra genes to an individual’s own versions.

With more than 200 gene variants linked to exceptional sporting performance then experimental gene therapy for medical reasons could be repurposed for sporting advancement.

Gene therapy to block the breakdown of muscle tissue or to add copies of the EPO hormone gene to stimulate red blood cells is already being tested in science labs.

It would be highly unethical and risky for health but very tempting for athletes who feel they have reached the natural limits of their performance abilities.

But what happens if gene editing is done before a young person ever thinks about becoming an elite athlete?

For elite athletics to remain ‘clean’, does it mean that anyone who has had gene editing, as this becomes more common, cannot set any world records or win gold medals?

Gene editing could be vital for an individual’s health if they have an illness but inadvertently beneficial as a runner.

Perhaps we could find ourselves in a similar situation to 2012 when it was suggested the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius may have actually had an advantage against runners with both legs in the Olympic 400m due to the advanced technology in his blades.

As technology advances, debates around ‘clean’, ‘pure’ and ‘unedited’ athletes will increase in volume.

With or without external help, the two hour mark is still very present in people’s minds.

Will breaking it open the floodgates for others to follow or do these ‘big number’ barriers actually act as a limit?

If we were purely focused on going faster rather than crossing an arbitrary line, could we actually stretch performance further?

If the scientists are right, we still have decades before we find out.

If Eliud Kipchoge is right, we might only have a few months to wait.

The Future Of Everything

This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.

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