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

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

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam