From Greatest to Greater-est

Yes, but what have you done for me lately?

In the field of performance improvement one often hears the phrase “from good to great.” In truth, many organizations are really just trying to get from o.k. to good. But there are a few firms that truly exist in the extreme right tail of performance. Sports is more straight-forward in many ways than business, but it does provide a microcosm of the immense difference between trying to get to very good and to go from the best to even better.

Case in point is the challenge facing Usain Bolt, the great Jamaican sprinter. He already holds the world record for the 100 meter dash at 9.58 seconds. But such is the lot of the truly great that no matter how good you are, you are expected to get even better. Lest you doubt this, simply look at what happens to any company, no matter how great its past accomplishments, who issues results that disappoint investors.

The question then is not just whether you win an Olympic Gold medal, but whether you can lower your own record time. Wrote Erin Valois:

“Every time we have this preconceived notion of what humans are potentially capable of, someone comes along and shatters that notion,” said Greg Wells, a University of Toronto kinesiology professor and author of Superbodies.

A 2010 study led by biomechanics professor Peter Weyand of Southern Methodist University suggested it is possible for sprinters to reach speeds of 56 to 64 kilometres an hour and faster. The team of researchers, whose work appeared in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found the limits of running speed were determined by applying the most force in the shortest amount of time.

“If one considers that elite sprinters can apply peak forces of 800 to 1,000 pounds with a single limb during each sprinting step, it’s easy to believe that runners are probably operating at or near the force limits of their muscles and limbs,” Weyand said in a news release when the study was first announced. “However, our new data clearly show that this is not the case. Despite how large the running forces can be, we found that the limbs are capable of applying much greater ground forces than those present during top-speed forward running.”

The study concluded that human speed is limited by the contraction of muscle fibres, which control how quickly a runner can apply force. But it is too early for researchers to know what athletes can do to maximize their running speed and manage how these fibres work. With more research and improvement in training, Bolt’s records could become a thing of the past.

“Obviously someone can’t run one second. There has to be a limit at some point. But are we anywhere close to what humans are capable of doing? I don’t think so,” Wells said. “I think humans can go a lot faster than what we are doing right now.”

It is not known how much faster Bolt can go, but there are ways he could shave a few hundredths of a second off his record at the Olympics. According to one study in the April edition of Significance magazine, Cambridge University mathematician John Barrow calculated Bolt could improve his world record time to 9.44 seconds — and it has little to do with extra training. He could lower the record with gains in three areas.

If Bolt could work on his start and get out of the blocks with a reaction time of 0.10 seconds, Barrow estimates he would immediately shave off 0.05 seconds from his world record. For Bolt, this is easier said than done. Because of his long strides and the way he is built, Bolt struggles to get out of the blocks as quickly as his competitors. And he could take more off his record by confronting his biggest weakness: the first 10 metres.

“I see him [breaking the record] in two parts,” said Bob Vigars, a kinesiology professor and coach at Western Ontario University. “Not the start itself, that’s overblown about being fast out of the blocks, but that ability to accelerate a little better in the first 20 metres, if he has a slight improvement on that. And then again, if his speed endurance is up to par, where he can hold his top end speed through the finish — that’s where I can see the record going again.”

The other two factors of Barrow’s study have nothing to do with Bolt, but everything to do with the environment of the race. Altitude can play a major part, as the study estimates he could take off another 0.03 seconds if the stadium was 1,000 metres above sea level. London’s altitude is a mere 14 metres.

The final factor is wind. Bolt’s current world record in Berlin stands at 9.58, but there was a 0.9m/s tailwind. If the Olympic Stadium in London has the maximum tailwind of 2.0m/s, Barrow suggests this could help lower his record to 9.47 seconds. Olympic organizers studied the air flow of the stadium and decided on a partial roof to prevent winds from exceeding 2.0m/s, which would invalidate any records.

“Obviously being in London at the end of July early August, the weather conditions should be great,” Vigars said. “You don’t know the aerodynamics of the stadiums … some of these stadiums the wind can come in and start to circulate. Those could be little factors, but you’re dealing with hundredths of a seconds.”

0.03 seconds here, 0.05 seconds there; performance improvement is an entirely different beast when you’re already at the pinnacle compared to a chronic middling performer grabbing low-hanging fruit. It requires more effort, study and breakthrough thinking and a self-driven attitude of chasing the dream of perfection.

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