How Technology and Smarts Help Athletes Push the Limits

Science is helping to create new training methods and amazing performances by athletes such as swimmer Katie Ledecky. How much faster, stronger, and better can humans get?

By Christine Brennan
photographs by Mark Thiessen, David Burnett, Nichole Sobecki, John Huet
Published 4 Jul 2018, 16:40 BST
Swimmer Katie Ledecky shattered her own record in the 1,500-metre freestyle swimming event by five seconds ...
Swimmer Katie Ledecky shattered her own record in the 1,500-metre freestyle swimming event by five seconds in May, her first professional race. She set a new record of 15:20.48. The previous record was set at the world championships nearly three years ago.
Photograph by John Huet
The full length story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The race for the ages can be run only in our imagination: Usain Bolt vs. Jesse Owens.

Bolt is in his 21st-century lane, a smooth, slip-resistant rubber surface spread out for 100 metres, designed to quickly return energy to his legs as he races across it.

Then there’s Owens in his pre-World War II lane, an uneven bed of cinders, a soft surface that actually steals energy from his legs as he runs.

Bolt, the Jamaican sprinting legend who has eight Olympic gold medals and has held the world records in the men’s 100- and 200-metre sprints for nearly a decade, is wearing lightweight shoes made specifically for running on high-tech surfaces. For his entire competitive life, he has received the finest training the world has ever seen. He jets to competitions and has his own cook, who makes him lean, nutritious meals. Bolt also has been at his peak during the height of the steroids era in sports. He has never tested positive, but suspicion follows many top Olympic athletes of his time. Bolt had to forfeit a gold medal he won as part of a relay in the 2008 Olympics after a teammate tested positive.

Jesse Owens won the 100-metre race at the 1936 Olympics in 10.3 seconds.
A lightweight shoe like the one that Usain Bolt wore to set the world record in the 100-metre sprint in 2009 is shown on a piece of Mondotrack, similar to what he ran on that day in Berlin. The surface is designed to return energy to runners, making them faster.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen

Owens, who won the 100 metres with a time of 10.3 seconds in the 1936 Olympics—one of four gold medals he claimed in Berlin—is wearing leather running shoes. Bolt is able to get a quick launch from state-of-the-art starting blocks, but Owens must dig his own “starting blocks” out of the cinders with a gardening trowel.

Owens grew up in a segregated America, with few of the perks of modern athletes. To get to Berlin, he and other U.S. athletes spent several days crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner.

Bolt, who ran the 100 metres in a record 9.58 seconds in 2009 and retired last year, is still widely recognized as the world’s fastest man. But how much faster was he, really, than elite sprinters of previous generations like Owens?

Setting aside the questions about performance-enhancing drugs, how far have we come in our never ending quest to go faster, higher, and farther? And what are we learning about how technology and new training methods can help us push the limits of human performance?

A demonstration included in a 2014 Ted Talk given by sports journalist David Epstein showed that if Owens had run on the same surface as Bolt, Owens’s best time in the 100 metres (10.2 seconds)—accomplished shortly before the 1936 Olympics—could have been within one stride of Bolt’s performance in the 100 metres (9.77 seconds) at the 2013 World Championships.

In the eight decades since Owens’s historic victories, improvements in training, testing, technique, clothing, and equipment have helped athletes become better, faster, stronger, and more precise. But researchers believe we have not yet reached the limits of human possibility.

The much longer, full article can be found in the July 2018 issue, which is available in all good newsagents or you can subscribe to the magazine.

Usain Bolt, shown in 2016, holds the record, 9.58 seconds. With a better running surface and lightweight shoes, Owens could have been significantly closer to Bolt’s times.
Photograph by Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters
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