Record-breaking has slowed, but science could find new ways to make us keep getting stronger and faster

Science writer Bret Stetka tapped the expertise of SMU biomechanics expert Peter Weyand for an article in Scientific American examining the potential for humans to continue improving strength and speed beyond what has already been achieved.

Stetka quotes Weyand for his expertise on the mechanics of running and speed of world-class sprinters like Usain Bolt. The article “Have We Reached the Athletic Limits of the Human Body?” published Aug. 5, 2016.

Weyand, director of the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the scientific basis of human performance. His research on runners, specifically world-class sprinters, looks at the importance of ground forces for running speed, and has established a contemporary understanding that spans the scientific and athletic communities.

In particular, Weyand’s finding that speed athletes are not able to reposition their legs more rapidly than non-athletes debunked a widespread belief. Rather, Weyand and his colleagues have demonstrated sprinting performance is largely set by the force with which one presses against the ground and how long one applies that force.

Weyand is Glenn Simmons Centennial Chair in Applied Physiology and professor of biomechanics in the Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

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By Bret Stetka
Scientific American

At this month’s summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt—a six-foot-five Jamaican with six gold medals and the sinewy stride of a gazelle—will try to beat his own world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100-meter dash.

If he does, some scientists believe he may close the record books for good.

Whereas myriad training techniques and technologies continue to push the boundaries of athletics, and although strength, speed and other physical traits have steadily improved since humans began cataloguing such things, the slowing pace at which sporting records are now broken has researchers speculating that perhaps we’re approaching our collective physiological limit—that athletic achievement is hitting a biological brick wall.

Common sense tells us that of course there are limits to athletic achievement: Barring some drastic amendment to the laws of physics, no human will ever run at the speed of sound. And physiologically speaking there’s only so much calcium that can flood into a muscle cell causing it to contract; there’s only so much oxygen our red blood cells can shuttle around.

In this vein, in 2008 running enthusiast and Stanford University biologist Mark Denny published a study attempting to determine if there are absolute limits to the speeds animals can run. To do so he analyzed the records of three racing sports with long histories of documentation: track and field and horse racing in the U.S., along with English greyhound racing…

…Bolt may be comforted to know that for Southern Methodist University physiology professor Peter Weyand, one of the leading experts on the biology of performance, we humans haven’t quite reached our athletic ceiling. Weyand explains that when considering endurance, for example, there are two paths to improvement: either increasing the amount of blood being pumped out of the heart or increasing the oxygen concentration in the blood itself, as is the case with blood doping. “I don’t think we’ve hit our limits yet,” he believes, “I think people will find ways to enhance oxygen delivery through the body and squeeze more performance out of humans. The only question is will these approaches be considered legal.”

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