Is there a limit to physical power?

In his heyday as a top class athlete Kriss Akabusi broke many athletic records, wining medal after medal at numerous games. However things have changed since then. Year after year records are constantly being broken as athletes get faster, stronger and better. Ever Wondered sent Kriss out to investigate why…and if there’s any limit to how fast we can be

By: Richard Godfrey (Brunel University) , Sarah Schenker (Guest) , Professor Peter C Terry (Brunel University)

  • Duration 15 mins
  • Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Physical Fitness
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A contestant in The World's Strongest Man Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

When Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile in 1954, he re-defined the limits of human possibility. He had broken through what seemed an insurmountable barrier, the Mount Everest of athletics. But since then almost 17 seconds have been shaved off Bannister’s record. Will we ever be able to break the 3 minute mile?

Kriss’s first stop is The Prince Olympic Medical Centre to meet Chief Physiologist Richard Godfrey, and to be put through his paces…

Kriss and Richard Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission Kriss: Richard what are you doing to me?

Richard Godfrey: Well, we’re trying to do a test here that gets progressively harder and we’re hopefully going to be able to measure your maximal oxygen uptake, or your aerobic power.

Kriss: But what will that tell us?

Richard Godfrey: Well it’s a good measure of your capacity for endurance performance. Quite often it tells us about the potential of the endurance athlete.

Kriss: How important will this sort of information be to me as an athlete?

Richard Godfrey: It really depends on what sport you’re involved in. If you’re involved in any event lasting more than two minutes, then it has a relevance.

Kriss: Since Roger Bannister broke his 4 minute mile, the record’s come down by nearly 17 seconds. Apart from training, how have we managed to do that sort of thing?

Richard Godfrey: Diet has improved a lot since then and we’ve learnt an awful lot more about the best way to train and how to improve over time. Today people train throughout the year, maybe even 30 hours a week. In Roger Bannister’s day they only trained for 6 months of the year, so it’s a completely different ball game.

Kriss: Would you say that in the 21st century, this sort of testing regime will be compulsory for a peak performance performer?

Richard Godfrey: Without question, I think it will be a matter of leaving no stone unturned and paying more attention to detail. We know it makes a difference both in terms of health and performance, therefore if we’re not doing it then we’re going to miss out.

Kris: So attention to detail gives us the edge, but are there any limits to what the human person can do, we could never run as fast as a cheetah - so how do you get to that sort of defining edge?

Richard Godfrey: It’s very hard to say where those limits lie, it’s very important to say almost anything is possible, we don’t know where limits lie but we can help you achieve your best, your own genetic potential.

So we know that training is vital in achieving world record speeds. But it’s not the only element. What you eat is also important in achieving body power. Kriss goes to meet Sports Nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker ...

Kriss with Sarah Schenker Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission Kriss: Sarah you work for the British Nutrition Foundation. Can you tell me, why is nutrition important to the athlete?

Dr Sarah Schenker: If you want to be the best you have to shave off seconds or score more goals, you have to be in the best physical condition you can be. Now that takes a lot of training, and that takes a lot of fuel, so the nutritional diet is there to fuel the training, not just the day of the event or the competition or the race.

Kriss: So how’s our diet changed since fifty years ago?

Dr Sarah Schenker: Back in Roger Bannister’s day it was thought that protein was the key to performance. We now know that that’s not the case, and that it’s really a high carbohydrate diet every day, despite whether you’re having a light training day or even a rest day.

Kriss: What sort of foods contain carbohydrates?

Healthy meal Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission Dr Sarah Schenker: Carbohydrate is in two forms. You’ve got complex carbohydrates which are the starchy carbohydrates. These are the pastas, the rice, potato and bread. Then you have the simple carbohydrates which are your sugars, honey, sports drinks, the fizzy drinks, the soft sugary drinks, biscuits, cakes, buns. All those sorts of things contain carbohydrate. If you’re training really hard you eat somewhere between 6-10 grams per kilogram bodyweight in carbohydrate. If you weigh on average 80 kilos, that’s 800 grams of carbohydrate you need to be taking in every day. In terms of pasta that would be two big bags - that’s a lot of pasta to eat in a day!

So this is where the real challenge comes in for nutritionists and dieticians, they need to be able to come up with effective ways of giving carbohydrate in the right amount so that the timing’s right, the type is right, and the athlete is interested in eating it.

Kriss Akabusi Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

But there is still one very important element left in achieving total fitness and that is the power of the mind ...


Kriss with Peter Terry Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission Kriss: Peter you’re a sports psychologist at Brunel University. Can you tell me what exactly do you do?

Prof. Peter Terry: Well, if you think about performance, there are three components to it; there’s the skill of getting over that hurdle efficiently; there’s the conditioning side of things and there’s what going on in the mind. My job is to control the latter or help the athlete control that bit.

Kriss: So how does sport psychology actually help the mental attitude of an athlete?

Prof. Peter Terry : If there was an Olympic final on three different days, you might get three different winners and the reason is that, on the day somebody has got it right mentally, and the others haven’t. During any sort of voluntary muscle contraction, we only use about half of our muscle fibres, what that says to me is, that we’ve got this vast amount of strength and power that is being untapped and it’s trying to find the key that opens the door to everything that’s inside you.

Kriss: I don’t know how near we are to the limit of the human potential, but if we’re going to break these barriers, do you see it more as a physical barrier to be broken, or is it actually the mental barrier?

Prof. Peter Terry : If you go back to the era of Roger Bannister for instance, people thought the 4 minute mile was impossible, people got close to it but just couldn’t get to it and that was because there was a huge mental barrier there. People didn’t believe it was possible so they didn’t make it happen. Once Roger got through that barrier, everybody came following through within weeks, several people have broken it and now of course 4 minute mile is a training run almost. So there’s a natural inhibition in the body, the muscle contractions are limited by how much of your muscle fibres actually contract as a safety mechanism. But some things happen that help you overcome that inhibition.

Kriss running Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission So from this we can see that body power is all about strong muscles, training, nutrition, and being in tiptop mental shape.

If you would like to find out more about these subjects, here are a few suggestions.

Books you can read

Ultimate Sports Nutrition, Frederick C. Hatfield, Contemporary Books Inc; ISBN: 0809248875

High-Performance Sports Conditioning, Bill Foran (Editor), Human Kinetics Publishers; ISBN: 0736001638

Sports Speed, George B. Dintiman, Robert D. Ward, Tom Tellez, Human Kinetics Publishers; ISBN: 0880116072

Links You Can Surf

Brunel Univeristy

British Nutrition Foundation

Also on this site: join Anita Roddick as she investigates just how powerful is people power and philosopher Jon Pike as he explores Machiavelli’s tips for how to achieve political power

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

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