Olympians Are Faster And Stronger, But How?

Read Emily Sohn's Piece For Discovery News, 'How Do Olympians Keep Getting Better?'

The Olympic motto says it all. It translates to: "Faster, Higher, Stronger." But as athletes come up against the limits of human potential, writer Emily Sohn wondered, how do they continue to improve? The answer, she found, has to do with technology, psychology and access to a range of sports.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The motto of the Olympic Games translates as faster, higher, stronger. And for more than 100 years now, athletes have continually set new records. But how? There have to be physiological limits. Surely, the human body can only run so fast, jump so high or lift so much weight. But every time somebody establishes a new mark, somebody else comes along to break it, and even mere mortals can see the same dynamic at work as they establish individual bests in whatever their sport may be. So, athletes, call and tell us how did you surpass your expectations. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Emily Sohn wrote about Olympian records for Discovery News and joins us now from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you with us today.

EMILY SOHN: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And I was interested in the quote you got from an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Carl Foster, who told you there is almost certainly a species limit. He thinks we're near it but that every time some scientist says humans can't go any faster, they're promptly shown to be wrong.

SOHN: Yeah. And this is something that scientists and mathematicians seem to love to do is to look at - take these measurements of human ability in human bodies and do the math and see how fast they think we could possibly go. And it makes sense. I mean, if you think about something as simple as dissipating heat. You know, you start exercising, you sweat, you get hot. And if you got too hot, you would keel over and die. There has to be a limit at which your body is going to stop and not let you go any faster. And they do all these calculations and come up with numbers. And then, you know, bit by bit athletes keep breaking those records.

CONAN: And there are kinds of reasons for that including that there is simply a bigger pool of athletes.

SOHN: Yeah, and I think that's the biggest thing. And, you know, one thing just to get out of the way because I know it's going to come up is that, you know, doping comes up every time someone breaks a record that, you know, maybe they're taking performance-enhancing drugs and that's why. But there's a lot of evidence that records have started to stagnate and that detection is getting better. And it seems like the biggest thing really is that more people are playing sports, that they're starting at younger ages, that they're - sports medicine is so much better that they're able to recover from injuries that would've been career-ending. People are playing into their 20s and 30s, whereas they would've stopped at college age before.

And then also, you know, there's this exposure. So we've got the TV and YouTube and the Olympics are on, and kids can see swimmers who were once in an obscure sport now becoming national heroes and they think, well, maybe I could do that. And instead of playing basketball or football or hockey, which were the big sports, you know, a couple of decades ago, they'll feel, maybe I'll try swimming. And it increases the chance that people with the innate talent to be swimmers are actually going to try swimming and thus increase the chances that those records will get broken.

CONAN: And as you wrote in the piece, swimming, once a high school and collegiate sport, you can now be a professional swimmer.

SOHN: Right. I mean, you can make a living at it, which you couldn't do before. Before it was, you know, you squeeze it in. And there was one anecdote - I don't know the runner, but there was a marathon runner in the 1920s or '10s and he worked a full-time job. So he would run to his work and work all day on his feet and run home. And now we know that you need recovery, that recovery is just as important as training. And, you know, athletes are able to do that. They're able to take the rest they need and do it as a full-time job, which, for sure, increases the chance that they're going to excel and reach as close to the limit as they can get.

CONAN: Or they could pass and draw between a Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. Mark Spitz won all those gold medals and went to work as a dentist because he had to pay the bills. Michael Phelps, able to make a living - a good living - as a swimmer.

SOHN: Yeah, and I think Michael Phelps is just the perfect example. I mean, I just love watching him perform. And, I mean, it's been so many Olympics now. You've seen him grow up, and he's really become - and he is a household name. He is on the covers of newspapers all over the world. And what does that do for the sport of swimming? I mean, it really propels it to something that kids are going to want to try starting when they're 4 or 5 and, you know, giving themselves a chance to be the best.

CONAN: And the same for sprinters from Jamaica, one assumes.

SOHN: Right. And that came up too, that, you know, I think a great example is the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when - I think until then the Europeans and Americans had been dominating running events. And then that Olympics was the first one that the East Africans made a show at. And I think the altitude worked in their favor as well, that they just dominated and suddenly were launched into the spotlight and making lots of money because of it.

And, you know, it's easy to imagine that you see that and you live in Africa and you think, well, maybe I could be a runner. And all of these kids are starting to try to run. You know, now that the Jamaicans are really dominating things, the kids in Jamaica are going to think, well, you know, I see my national heroes doing this. I want to try it too. And maybe they're the next great Olympians.

CONAN: As a whole generation of Dominican shortstops grew up in one town, San Pedro de Macoris. They saw somebody be successful and suddenly they decided to try it too.

SOHN: And, you know, what's still untapped - Michael Joyner, who's an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, pointed out that, you know, India, you don't see a lot athletes from India at the Olympics. And there's such a huge amount of - number of people in India. What if they started swimming and running? You know, what - who is there? What kind of talent and genetics are there in India that we haven't seen yet? And I think the South American countries are also underrepresented in sports. So there's still major potential for, I think, people to topple records that seem insurmountable just because the people who are able to do it haven't tried it yet.

CONAN: We're talking with Emily Sohn, a freelance journalist and a contributor to Discovery News. We'd like to hear from athletes in our audience, world class and lesser, who have surprised themselves and surpassed their expectations. How do you do it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Mark. And he's on the line from Portland.

MARK: Yes. Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: I'm a former SEAL, former long-distance runner. And I think when we talk about achieving limits, one of the assumptions when you say you can't break a limit is that the training itself isn't going to change. And I've seen that dramatically change over my lifetime in SEAL teams and in running. And when you incorporated things like CrossFit programs, things like where you're doing high-intensity interval training, which didn't exist when I went through, and so the athletes that are going up in SEAL training now are in much better condition than really anybody who went through it that time. And you see the times going down.

I think the same thing is true of the Olympic athletes. When you look at the types of training they're doing, they're dramatically different than they were back then. So I think that - the assumption is that we're not going to realize additional efficiency in training, and I don't think we've seen the end of that, in my opinion. And the other thing, how did I achieve what I've done - I think two things: One is visualization, more or less believing that you can actually do what you're setting out to do. And the other piece of it, which is key to any high-end athletic program or athletic feat, is endurance or tolerance of pain. And so those are my comments.

CONAN: It's interesting. And have you achieved something that you thought when you started out you could never do?

MARK: I think getting through SEAL training, you know, doing some of the things that are done there, I certainly didn't think I could do that prior to going in. I think that was, you know, staying up for five days and (unintelligible) that was certainly pretty difficult. More recently, I think just - I gained weight and trying to go through the pain of losing weight has been a lot more difficult, so using visualization, believing that I could do it and accepting a very high level of paint is...

(LAUGHTER)

MARK: ...unpleasant but doable.

CONAN: Congratulations on the weight loss. And again, that is no small accomplishment to get through SEAL training.

MARK: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate the phone call. And Emily Sohn, one of the things you wrote about was, yes, improvement in training techniques. But one of the things that he was also talking about, visualization, the belief that you can do it. If somebody else breaks a record, you can do it too.

SOHN: Yeah. And that comes up again and again. I think Roger Bannister is the perfect example of that, who was the first person to run a four-minute mile in 1954. And that record had been 4:01 for nine or 10 years. And people for 15, 20 years have been talking about breaking this four-minute barrier. It was so - it had become such a psychological barrier that, you know, there were even rumors from what I've heard - I don't verify this - but that people just thought if you did it, you know, you might die, that it was just that impossible.

And then he did it. And within weeks, someone else did it and then he broke it again. And, you know, just a few, you know, 10 years later, a high school student was doing it. Now lots of high school students go under four minutes. So it's just sort of that example, and I think the newest one is going to be the two-hour marathon. The current record is 2:03, and there have been several papers written about...

CONAN: That's for men, yeah?

SOHN: For men, yeah. About how fast people will possibly go, factoring in, you know, the physiological limits as well as, you know, if you have the perfect conditions and the right temperature that scientists have speculated that the fastest marathon ever will be a 1:58 or maybe slightly under but never faster than that. But we'll see, I guess.

CONAN: Andrew is on the line with us from Dayton, Ohio.

ANDREW: Hi, Neal. A big fan. I just had a story that's - I ran cross country and track in high school. And for my sophomore year - I won state championship my freshman year in the 1,600 meters. And my sophomore year, up until the week before the state meets, there were five or six runners that had all run the exact same time that I'd run in the state meet the year before. And that was the fastest time that anyone had done in our classification in high school. And so there was - it was anyone's game. And after the - as the race played out, me and another one of the runners, who's a big rival of mine, person I knew personally and was friendly with but didn't - wasn't too friendly as we were pretty strong competitors, and after the 1,600 meters, we dropped our time by 10 full seconds...

CONAN: Wow.

ANDREW: ...which - yeah, which in any race is pretty big and particularly in a race like that. And we dropped our time at 10 full seconds, and actually the difference in our time was seven hundredths of a second after all 1,600 meters, and he actually wound up edging me out. I got second after winning...

CONAN: I was going to ask you - you got the silver, yeah.

ANDREW: Yeah, it was pretty frustrating, but I've sort of come to appreciate it as a sort of sign of being able to come back. And even though - I mean, even though I lost, I still take a lot of pride in that accomplishment, and that was still was the fastest time I ever ran was that day. And I simply chalk it up to the fact that neither of us were willing to lose. We just would not lose a step to one another.

CONAN: That's interesting. You mentioned Roger Bannister, Emily Sohn. He had Glenn Cunningham on his heels. So...

ANDREW: He was a big role model for me. I really, really looked up to Roger Bannister in high school. And my dad wasn't a runner. He was a swimmer in college, but he always influenced - encouraged me to read and learn about Roger Bannister because he was sort of in college around the time that that whole thing happened, and that was a big inspiration for me, that someone said that this is an impossible feat and no one can ever do it. And then he just says, well, I'm going to go ahead and do it then.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So rivalry as a spur to athletic achievement.

ANDREW: Yeah, absolutely. I think - I mean, the next person - the next closest person was a full six or seven seconds behind us. And so I really think that it was simply the fact that we were unwilling to lose that brought us down so much so quickly.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the phone call.

ANDREW: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the achievement of new records, either personal bests or world records and how that continues to be possible. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

There is also a technology, Emily Sohn, not just better training techniques, but better ways to evaluate what people are doing.

SOHN: Right. And I think when we talked about exposure to sports, the idea that you could compete in a sport that you hadn't thought of before, once you pick it - you know, one of my sources pointed out there are these underwater cameras in a swimming pool, so you can see now what those top athletes are doing in a way that no one could before. And you as an amateur athlete could - can study that, work with your coach on that, refine your techniques, you know, compared to the days when you go out there and try to go fast, but don't necessarily know what you're doing.

And then also on the technology angle there, the - there's also these - you know, if you imagine that there are these physiological limits and there's a line or a ceiling on a grass and we're marching up the curve ever closer to that ceiling, you know, if athletes are just as fit, say, you know, and you can argue about this, as they were before, that there are all these little technological advancements that can add up. You know, in the swimming pool where you get deeper pools, you get lane lines that absorb waves, synthetic tracks. There is fiberglass poles in the pole vault. All those little things kind of add up. And when you're talking about sports where tenths or even hundredths of a second matter, those things can lead to world records in ways that they didn't before.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Alex, and Alex on the line with us from Steamboat Springs in Colorado.

ALEX: Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. You know, I'm a wildland firefighter up in Northern Colorado, and I find that aside from having my captain yell in my face and getting me to run faster, when I was kid, coming from a broken home and coming from a lot of different issues, getting a pair of shoes for Christmas from my father really got me moving, got me competing against a lot of people and finding community that just had such positivity, put me in a world where I've gained respect from people I didn't know. And it helped me figure out my issues back home.

So having that community, having that positivity and having that ability to make better choices through a community that you find is just incredible. Put me in track made me a wildland firefighter today, and I'm healthy as can be, you know? So that's kind of where I feel that comes from.

CONAN: That's interesting. You've had a busy summer.

ALEX: Oh, very busy summer. It's been interesting up here in Northern Colorado.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Interesting is one way to put it.

ALEX: Yes, very much so.

CONAN: All right. Well...

ALEX: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks very much. But it's interesting, Emily Sohn. You do point out that though we continue to break records, the rate at which we break them seems to be plateauing.

SOHN: It does. And I think that really argues towards the first point, that it's the numbers of people participating that make the difference. With Title IX, I think, is a perfect example, in the 1970s when women were suddenly exploding into sports in numbers they never had before. They just shattered records left and right. They dropped and dropped and dropped, and then they've started to plateau just like the men's records have. So, you know, that argues for two things. Some people say it argues that maybe we're getting better at detecting doping, that records aren't getting smashed as much as they were. But also that maybe we are approaching these limits that we have. We're getting closer to them.

CONAN: Emily Sohn, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SOHN: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Emily Sohn, a freelance journalist and contributing writer for Discovery News. She joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. You can find a link to her piece "How Do Olympians Keep Getting Better?" on our website. That's at npr.org. Tomorrow, we'll talk with ranchers about how the drought is changing what they do. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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