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

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride