How do modern athletes consistently break records and surpass our expectations on the limits of human performance? Is it really mind over matter? Or all in the new sweat-wicking, heart-rate monitoring, muscle-compressing sleepwear? What are they feeding these people??
In the 2018 Berlin marathon, Eliud Kipchoge broke the world record by undercutting the last record-holder's time by a full minute (which hasn't been done since 1969) – shaving off three seconds per mile on average for the entirety of the endurance race.
Every year, competitors in professional sports strive to overcome their personal bests and end up beating the best recorded athletes in the world, while even experts in sports science are wondering how it's possible for humans to continually improve to such a degree. David Epstein, writer of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, gave a TED Talk in 2014 asking how it's possible that modern athletes regularly beat our expectations: "Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?"
As is the case for most rhetorical questions asked in the titles of TED Talks, the answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Epstein says in his TED Talk that it isn't just new training technology that makes today's athletes so much better, stronger, and faster than their predecessors: it has a lot to do with the technology supporting the competitions like springy running tracks and guttered swimming pools, the development of new techniques, as well as the selection of different body types and DNA analysis, advances in sports science whose impacts have only been felt within the last century.
...but the new training technology also definitely helps. These high-tech innovations are redefining how athletes train past the limits of human performance.
You can catch what you can't see
In most sports that involve ball handling, it's important for the player not only to know where the ball is but where it's going to be. To help athletes acquire this psychic ability to see 0.5 seconds into the future, trainers are making it harder to see what's going on right in front of them.
Goggles like these by Senaptec create a strobing effect that blacks out the wearer's vision in short bursts, forcing their brain to fill in the blanks.
Training with strobing technology was been tested in ice hockey, leading to an 18% increase in performance, and could have beneficial effects for non-athletes as well, as it was shown in one study to improve short term memory.
Another, slightly more low-tech model of occlusion goggles limits athletes' peripheral vision, forcing them to be more spatially aware and develop motor skills with less visual feedback, like these Chin Up Goggles, with the added bonus of looking very fly:
The strobing goggles will cost you about $350 if you want to try to improve your catching or trivia game, and Chin Up ships worldwide for €17.79 – but opening and closing your own eyes is free.
Get your head in the game
In 1997, Timothy Noakes and a team of researchers from the Sports Science Institute of South Africa re-ignited interest in a biological theory first proposed in 1924, called the Central Governor Theory. The theory of the central governor is that fatigue is not simply a by-product of muscle exertion, but a brain process designed to store energy for emergencies and protect the body from catastrophic muscle failures or injuries. If you've ever "hit a wall" in a workout, blame the central governor.
Noakes popularized the theory throughout the late 90s and early 2000s with the life hacking blogosphere and on podcasts like the Bulletproof Executive, before becoming involved in a high profile controversy about dietary recommendations which cost him his medical license.
The theory itself sounds too good to be true: is it really the brain, and not the limits of the muscles, that keeps athletes from giving one hundred and ten percent? And by extension, could you hack your mind to trick your body into peak performance?
Epstein references research testing the central governor theory in a discussion wtih two other experts in sports science for TED Ideas about what sports will look like in the future. In studies where athletes were given a placebo or amphetamines, they were found to be able to work through a core temperature of 104º F, where the body normally starts sending fatigue signals due to the risk of heat stroke.
Of course, speeding on amphetamines is not recommended for any professional or non-professional athlete, but if these results could be replicated through the use of other psychological training methods or sheer willpower, it proves the governor can be overcome; as do the number of catastrophic muscle failures that have been seen at the end of record-breaking marathons, like Gabriela Andersen-Schiess's crippling heat stroke in the 1984 Summer Games:
Take the pressure off
A report by the Innovation Enterprise about how technology is changing contact sports references head-to-toe wearable tech developed by the biggest names in sports: Adidas, Reebok, UnderArmour, Nike, and even Gatorade with a wearable patch to measure hydration. If you move a single muscle on your body, it's guaranteed that someone has already developed wearable technology for you to track, optimize, and train that movement.
Some professional athletes are complaining that wearable tech has already gone too far, as a lineman for the Canadian Football League complains, "I feel like a guinea pig sometimes when we talk about athletes and technology, and I stress that we’re people too."
Athletes are under constant pressure, as every decision they make in their lives, from what they wear, what they eat, and how they sleep, can affect their game. The latest technologies are also designed to take some of the pressure off: the atmospheric pressure.
The AlterG anti-gravity treadmill encases your lower body in a pressurized bubble to control how much of your body weight it carries. It has been applied in rehabilitation programs to lighten the load on people re-learning how to walk, and can be used in training through injuries. Conversely, adding atmospheric pressure to the body could train muscles to adapt to high pressure, so that running under normal atmospheric conditions now feels like walking on the moon.
Training in an extreme scenario, like hypoxic training done in high altitudes, can adapt the body to perform under different types of pressure, so that performance under normal circumstances is a breeze.
One of the innovations that Epstein predicts will become more common from professional athletes in the next decade is the opposite, hyperoxic training.
"One thing I think we’ll see for sure within the next 10 years is more widespread use of hyperoxic training, which is people who are training with masks on to give them more than atmospheric oxygen, because it turns out that the body will work out much harder than you can normally. The oxygen mask that football players use between plays, when those have been tested versus placebo masks, they actually don’t work, because when you’re resting, there’s plenty of oxygen in the air around you. The problem is you can’t get it where it needs to go quickly enough in your body. But when you’re actually working out as hard as you can, and you’re an elite athlete, you can move your blood so fast that it doesn’t catch as much oxygen as it could. So if you’re working out with a mask on, that increases that oxygen pressure around you, and you can actually work out way harder than you would be able to normally. I think you’ll also see places like some of the countries that have sort of centralized sports science institutes build facilities that are hyperoxic conditions to allow athletes to train in them often."
Breathing harder to get better, faster, and stronger in training is only one of the many ways athletes are using technology to surpass human limitations. Defying their mental limits and changing their perceptions through the aid of special goggles is only the tip of the iceberg. Although they stress "we're people too," in the future, athletes could be more machine than man.