The biology of a record-breaker

Behind medal-winning performances on the track or in the pool, today's sports are driven by discoveries made in the laboratory

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The Independent Online

For the past four years, John Brenkus, 39, has been the host of a TV show in America called Sport Science.

Being American, it's primarily concerned with the biggest and the best, and has an endless obsession with statistical data.

Who punches hardest, putts the furthest? And just how far can a hulking great baseball player thwack a ball? The series, perhaps inevitably, has been a big hit.

"It's a watercooler show," Brenkus says. "People love to discuss sport together, but more than that, they love to argue about it. And the science of it is one of the great tools for a really great argument."

Brenkus has now written a book, The Perfection Point, which is in many ways a natural extension of the show. Essentially, it expounds upon mankind's incessant craving for going one better than their nearest competitor, however improbable that achievement appears on paper. Published in the US last August, it has been a bestseller. It has just been released here and the author is confident of its universal appeal. Though ostensibly written for the armchair fanatic, it doesn't shy away from hard science. In one particularly memorable paragraph Brenkus speaks of "high levels of mitochondrial density and aerobic enzyme activity". Eh?

"I didn't want to bog it down with too much scientific detail," he says, "but, look, there is a certain amount of it you have to understand in order to buy into the arguments I am putting across."

He puts across a great many, and they make for frequently fascinating reading. Who knew, for example, that Michael Phelps's ability to swim like a slippery fish is all well and good, but that the swimming pool itself plays a crucial part in his performance? The importance of the pool's depth cannot, it seems, be overstated, nor lane width or water temperature. Without such optimum conditions, Phelps is merely just another contender.

"It is a book full of analysis," Brenkus acknowledges, "and also an awful lot of competing argument."

Necessarily so, for he makes countless predictions about the future of sport and the likely capabilities of tomorrow's athletes, the running thread that we will achieve more, and faster, than anyone previously thought feasible. He consulted 250 scientific experts during his research, each bringing their own opinions to bear. No wonder it took him two years to write.

"If you ask 100 scientists whether the earth is heating up or cooling down, you would very likely get 100 different answers," he points out.

But if he was drawn to the complicated business of argument, there was good reason. "I have no PhD in any of the sciences, and no real formal training," he admits. "But I do have a degree in rhetoric and communication."

In other words, the man knows everything about the theory of argument: how to start them, break them down, and very probably how to win them, too. He must be hell to live with.

In the 1950s, it was widely believed that completing a mile in under four minutes was an impossibility. We may, as a species, be good at running, but there was only so far anyone could push a pair of human legs. But then, one grey spring day in 1954, a British athlete called Roger Bannister did it in three minutes, 59.4 seconds.

"I would actually argue that we've been underachieving in the mile for thousands of years," Brenkus says. "It's an awkward distance, too long to be a sprint, too short to be long distance. But there was still no real reason why we couldn't do it under four minutes. If we had never done it before, it was because of this self-imposed barrier. And so the question is not how did Bannister manage it, but why did it take anybody so long to do so?"

Nevertheless, Bannister's achievement had a fascinating effect, instantly empowering every other athlete, who promptly set out to better it. Just 46 days later, his record was broken by a mere blink of an eye, two tenths of a second. And it didn't end there. Over the next decade, 300 people would succeed in making Bannister's record seem rather humdrum.

This is a pattern, Brenkus says, repeated throughout the world of sport. "The speed at which records fall directly correlates to the number of people trying to do it," he says. In other words, once somebody has hit the ceiling, somebody else must come along to smash it.


He cites another example: the marathon. Twenty six miles is a hard slog, and until recently it was considered unlikely that anybody would be able to do it in under three hours. But in 2008, the Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie managed it in a hitherto unimaginable two hours, three minutes and 59 seconds. Although he continues to hold the record, seven of the 10 fastest marathon runners of all time recorded their best times after Gebrselassie set his.

"Long-distance running is in our DNA; we were born to do it," Brenkus argues. "It's why our cardiovascular system is far superior to any animal in terms of our ability to run and run. But what's fascinating about the marathon runners' achievements is their consistency of pace, and speed."

A two hour, three minute marathon, he says, means that each mile is completed in an average of 4.46 minutes, an astonishing feat when maintained over 26 miles. Brenkus is therefore convinced that running a single mile flat out at this level means the current mile record of 3:43 will soon be comprehensively smashed. "It's only a matter of time," he says.

While it might conceivably be news to the likes of Wayne Rooney, sport is increasingly dominated by science. And so while your average premiership football player appears content to simply get on with the business of kicking a ball towards a net, behind them are a team of scientists working round the clock to maximise their future potential.

"Sports scientists increasingly look at the whole picture," Brenkus says. "The environmental factors, the equipment factors, the physiological factors – weight, diet, thigh size even. They break down each sport into its constituent parts in order to be able to get better and better at it."

It is a good thing, he says, that most "real" people are so very far from their own perfection points. "It means that due diligence and practice will always yield fruit." But professional athletes have it much harder. If they keep bumping up against the ceiling, surely their perfection point will at some stage be achieved, thereby denying them the prospect of improving further still.

One immediately obvious answer is to cheat. Steroids are a fact of life in sport, unsurprisingly, says Brenkus, when not just achievement, but also millions of dollars in sponsorship are at stake. The trouble with steroids, however, is that they are such a grey area. "If you are doing banned substances that you know are banned substances, then that is flat-out cheating, and wrong. But there are many other substances out there that aren't yet banned but that are just as beneficial to performance enhancing."

Currently popular in the world of endurance athletics is, of all things, Viagra. Brenkus says: "It increases the circulation, the blood flow throughout the entire body, and so far at least it has not made the banned list. This means that it is perfectly legal and that it actually works."

While writing his book, Brenkus found himself inspired to strive even further in his own sport of choice, ironman triathlons. "And I've absolutely improved my performance levels," he says. "That was actually my main motivation for writing it: to share that knowledge in order that we all can."

Each one of us, he insists, can improve our own perfection points, even the more sedentary among us. There is one chapter here, for example, which teaches us the winningly pointless exercise of holding your breath. This requires much practice in the stretching of the lungs, and is something which, theoretically, anyone can do. The world record, though, currently stands at 19 minutes 21 seconds, a high ceiling in anybody's book.

'The Perfection Point' is published by Pan Macmillan (£12 99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit