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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Limits to human performance: Lessons from men and women

World Record limits?  What the men's and women's records tell us

Yesterday, I did a post discussing some of the physiology of performance limits, looking at whether we are close to reaching a ceiling of human performance?  As mentioned, it has been a recurring theme since we began this site.

For today though, an interesting approach to the issue dawned on me.  The main argument in yesterday's post was that human performance is limited by maximal capacities in one or more physiological systems.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to use oxygen.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to lose heat, or to store energy, to supply ATP, and so forth.  The physiology thus sets the ceiling, and really, the question everyone is asking when they about performance limits boils down to how close you believe we are to the PHYSIOLOGICAL limits set by these various system's capacities.

Statistical methods reveal some interesting possibilities, and certainly add value.  For one such analysis, check out this post, which concludes that the marathon "limit" exists at 2:01:48.  Given my arguments yesterday, over what is required for a runner to break 2 hours, this doesn't seem too far off the mark, but then what's 1 minute in 120?

However, I'm more interested in whether it's possible to predict a physiological limit based on the physiological capacities, like we did for the Tour de France climbing power output earlier this year.

Comparison of men and women, and what it reveals

It occurred to me that an interesting way of looking at this might be to compare the men's and women's world records, for a simple reason - many of the women's records are "unphysiological".  I'll elaborate more below, but many of the current world records for women date back to an era when doping was the norm, and most have not been challenged in well over 20 years!

Take a look at the table below, which illustrates this for 14 selected athletics events (I chose the events partly randomly, but also to exclude new events like women's steeplechase and pole-vault, and events where specifications have cleared the record books, like javelin).

What you are looking at are the women's world records on the left, men's on the right.  For each, the darker shaded column is the percentage difference between the World Record and the Best Performance in the last 3 years, just to illustrate whether the current group are getting close to breaking that record (you may have to click on the table to enlarge, apologies)

Now, what does this tell us?  A few things:

Women's records - out of sight.  Hard luck for women athletes

First, considering that there are performance bonuses for breaking world records, it's not great to be a woman in athletics.  The average age of the 14 women's records I've looked at is 19 years, 5 months, compared to 10 years, 10 months for men's records (which is skewed a little by the field events). 

Of the 14 women's records, only 3 are "younger" than 10 years, and 9 are older than 20 years!  That is, more than half the women's world records have stood for as long as the athletes now trying to break them have lived!

On the men's side, it's a lot more "fluid" - five of the records were set in the last 3 years (indicated by a difference of 0% in the shaded column), and only the field event records are older than 20 years.  If you rely on prize-money and record bonuses to make a living, being a woman athlete will cost you - you have no chance!  (In fact, the IAAF should scrap the women's performances and turn the record books back to zero, but that's another debate...)

In terms of how close the athletes are getting to the records, the pattern is much the same.  In the last 3 years, women have come within 1% of the world record in only 4 events, and this includes the 5,000m, which was set in 2008.  It also includes the women's 800m event, which, as we've seen in the last 12 months, is shrouded in controversy, first with Jelimo and then Semenya.

On the men's side, it's far more "competitive".  As mentioned, five of the records were set since 2008, and with the exception of the field events, all the events have seen performances come within 2% of the world record.  I do realize that the current crop of women marathon runners, for example, is pretty weak, whereas we're in a golden era of sprinting on the men's side, so this "snapshot" is incomplete, but it makes the point.

And that point is that men are much, much closer to their world records than women are.

The doping effect - shifting the "physiological capacity"

Now, the reason for this is obvious to anyone who follows athletics.  The women's records all date back to the 1980s, and if you go down the list, you will see only tainted performances from a tainted era.

Take the 800m event for women, for example.  If you look at the top 20 performances of All-time in this event, you'll see that:
  • 13 of them come from the 1980s
  • 2 were set by women who have since been suspended for doping
  • 3 come from the early 1990s, which is when EPO made its big impact on sport (as seen by the Tour de France)
So that leaves only two performances not tainted by (or suspected of) doping of some kind - Pamela Jelimo and Caster Semenya.  And a lot has been said about those...

A bar set by physiology plus drugs, and a natural performance limit that can't reach it

The point here is that women have not improved in 20 plus years, and the reason is because the bar has been set by a generation of women who had an unfair advantage as a result of doping.

So what does this have to do with the limits to performance?  Well, if the only thing driving constant improvements in times was the "carrot" of a target, then the women of 2010 would be much closer to those of 1980.  Much like Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier and supposedly showed others that the "impossible" was achievable, the theory has been put forward that the "limit" to performance is psychological.

I'm not belittling the role of psychology and belief, I'm sure it's a significant part of it.  But what women's records show us is that if the physiology can be enhanced, through doping in this case, then it sets the bar at a level that is now seemingly unmatchable, despite better training methods, better equipment, better diet, more advanced performance analysis and the passage of 20 years!  Unless you believe that the woman of 2010 is simply an inferior athlete (in most events, not just one), you should recognize that the performance limit of a non-drug using athlete lies BELOW that of the current records.

My conclusion then, is that women's world records will not improve, because the physiological capacity of the undoped female lies BELOW that of the doped athlete.  And therefore, women are very close to their physiological limit!

By the same token, men must also be close to their physiological limit, because there is nothing to suggest that women will have approached it sooner than the men.  The only way the records will "leap" forward now is if a population of new individuals, whose physiology breaks the "capacity barrier" emerges, like the Africans might have done in the 1980s.

Failing this, I do suspect we are getting ever closer, and in case of women's athletics, the performance limit lies somewhere between what is currently produced, and the records set by doped women in the 1980s.


P.S.  I realise that in the last 3 years, a number of those performances I've used in the table could well be drug-assisted as well.  This makes the argument stronger, because if the current generation are doping, and still falling 2% or more short, then that "limit" is well and truly out of reach.  Hence, the natural physiological limit is very close indeed.