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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

Posted August 25, 2008 6:00 AM by ShakespeareTheEngineer

Every four years, I find myself involved in the same discussion. The latest was thanks to Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. What is the limit of human performance? How much faster, farther, and higher can we go before we reach our limit? How can we achieve records that are broken only once in a lifetime, and not several times in one competition? When will humans just max out our physiology? It's not that hard to imagine reaching an end to the human body's (non-drug enhanced) abilities. Especially because in one major world sport, it's already happened. But first, let's check the track and the pool.

Running Down a Dream

Consider the progression of the world record for the 100-m dash. In 1912, Don Lippincott set the record in Stockholm, Sweden at 10.6 seconds. That mark was broken five times by 1960 and was down to 10.0 seconds. By the early 1970s, the 10-second barrier was broken, and (ignoring known performance-enhancing drug users), it was down to 9.84 by 1996. By 2008, in the (hopefully) post-steriod era that saw many records rescinded as their owners tested positive, Usain Bolt crushed the record by a total of .05 (in two successive races), jogging the last ten meters to a mind blowing 9.69. Many believe that had he run as hard as he could, he would have broken 9.60, finally shaving one full second from the first record set by Don Lippincott 96 years ago.

Will it take athletes 100 years to go one second faster? One second may not seem like a lot, but consider the percentages. It is an improvement of about 9.4%. During that same time span, the record for the 800-m (half-mile) went from 1:51.9 to 1:41.11. That's a change of roughly 9.6%. But running isn't the only sport seeing records fall like this, however.

Splish Splash, And the Records Crash

Swimming, as you may have expected, has seen even greater improvements in speed as the sport has become more common around the world. When Michael Phelps broke the 200-m freestyle record in Beijing, it represented about a 32% decrease in time over the record set in 1910.

Everyone knows that measurable records based on speed and distance fall all the time. That stands in contrast to "counting records" such as number of games won, number of homeruns, etc. But there is one performance marker that really hasn't fallen: how fast can someone throw a baseball.?

Van Pelt Asks the Question

ESPN Radio personality Scott Van Pelt asked why (besides the lack of accurate measuring equipment) there haven't been more pitchers who have thrown over 100 mph in their career. That list includes Walter Johnson, who debuted in 1907; Bob Feller, of the 1940's and 1950s; Nolan Ryan of the 1970s and 1980s; and, currently, pitchers like Billy Wagner (and 19 others contemporaries of Wagner, according to some sources), who have hit 101 MPH or better, at least once.

So how is it that Johnson, Feller, Ryan, and Wagner - pitchers 100 years apart - hit just about the same maximum velocity? Some people say that modern-day hurlers Joel Zumaya and Mark Wohlers have broken 103 mph, but some stadiums have less than reliable radar guns and there is much debate over whether or not the readings were accurate. Even with Zumaya supposedly throwing 104.8 on October 10, 2006, something is amiss.

In the next edition of this blog, I will dig into the biomechanical/biomedical reasons as to why baseball has not kept up with the improvements in speed seen by most other major sports around the world.

Resources:

http://www.slate.com/id/2116402/
http://www.slate.com/id/2116402/sidebar/2116451/
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/fastest-pitcher-in-baseball.shtml
http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/players/7630/news;_ylt=AitWQibWYJ0f0N3JGpQ3XCaFCLcF

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#1

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 6:21 AM

Easiest way to view it would be to plot a graph of 100m time ( or winning averages over a whole year to smooth the data) vs year. Presumably one would see it asymptotic to some limit.

Del

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#2
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 6:36 AM

Ha! That graphic is coming in tomorrow's Part II.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 9:25 AM

Strike that. Part II of this blog is running on Wednesday.

I have six different blog articles (three for The Whiteboard Jungle, two for The Biomed Blog, and one for The Automotive Blog) running this week, so please forgive me if I forget which is going off on what day.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 9:33 AM

I'm off for a few days...
So I expect the mice to play...
I'll check up as soon as I'm back...I'll probably have the shakes from CR4 withdraw by then <shudder>.

Del

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 9:41 AM

Amazing how fast that it can happen. I have only been here for eight weeks and it is the first site I check in the morning and usually the last before I go to bed (depending on how the various sports teams I follow have been doing).

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#6

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/25/2008 11:56 PM

Track & field tests our abilities to the limit (and other Olympic sports).

It is not the same with baseball, although it is a team sport it is not so hectic like say Basketball, it is more about skill then getting maximum results.

A pitcher does not have to throw over 100miles to get the batter out our a batter does not have hit at full strength to get a home run.

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#7

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/26/2008 7:34 AM

I say load them up with as much steroids as they want and then let them have at it. That way every athlete will be on the same level playing field.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/26/2008 8:21 AM

I agree that you don't need to throw it 101 MPH to be successful, but if your heater touches 103, you are guaranteed a contract with someone, no matter how wild you are. That alone should push humans to try to throw to the limit of the human body.

You might never make it to the big leagues, but teams will line up to try to sign you in hopes that you might.

While I agree that sprints are all about speed and speed alone, and that pitching relies on more than just speed, no one is going to sign a pitcher who throws a 68 MPH heater, a 57 MPH curve, and an El Duque styled 21 MPH Eephus pitch.

Knowing that if I could throw it 100 (instead of the 76 that I could, at one point) would get me a contract, I would clearly have reason enough to continue to throw harder and harder until I maxed out my capabilities.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/26/2008 8:27 AM

You know, I hear this comment, usually tongue-in-cheek, all the time. That if you just opened the flood gates and let people do whatever they wanted to, then you wouldn't have to police it and we could enjoy ridiculous levels of human performance. And if people wanted to gamble with their health and die like Ken Caminiti did, at age 41, that is their choice.

But that also means that people who want to stay clean won't really have a chance. And that alone makes it not right.

Beyond that, as it relates to this discussion, tomorrow's Part II will show how taking steroids really won't help a pitcher throw harder, only recover faster.

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#10
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/26/2008 8:42 PM

They sign the guy with the best result and maybe he just tries at "only" 89Mph but more precise

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#11

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 8:53 AM

Show me a clean athlete and I will show you a guy pushing a broom @ McDonald's. My comment was not tongue-in-cheek. If you load them up on steroids, then you have completely levelled the playing field because now only the athletes that have trained hard will win. I know that steroids do not make you stronger, they allow the body to recover quicker. Therefore, athletes that have a body chemistry/genetics that allow them naturally to recover quickly will do better than the ones that don't since they are all taking performance inhancing drugs. quid pro quo.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 9:02 AM

And if you don't want to wreck your body with drugs and take years off of your life, then don't play sports?

What if there was a real XFL (or XLB or XHL, etc.) where you could do any sort of PED you wanted? If you wanted, you could see a guy so juiced up he could hit a 700 foot home run, and after he ran the bases, he would roid rage and start wailing on the catcher for extra points.

Sounds like something straight out of Ancient Rome, but with the success of reality TV, you would definitely have a market.

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 9:04 AM

Actually, as it pertains to this discussion, steroids won't make it so a pitcher can throw faster, anyway. At least not when you are talking about 100+ pitching.

It's not like if Zumaya uses PED's he will be able to throw 109.

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#14
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 7:58 PM

Steroids are not only used for muscle build up but also used after training to recuperate faster, and there are many more drugs that enhance performance

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 11:26 PM

But according to this research, it doesn't matter. If the arm produces more torque with roids, HGH, or lemon flavored pez, most UCL's will rupture. According to the research from The United States Sports Academy, that is.

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#16
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 11:53 PM

Yes, but for sponsors and owners its is pertinent to get, the pitcher back on the mount in the shortest time possible hence the extra substances.

In a lot of performance based sports science and materials also have an influence, i do not know in basebal, if the bats, balls or the playing field have changed over the years

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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 1)

08/27/2008 11:58 PM

Oh, there is no doubt about that. I was talking more about how those substances can't make a pitcher throw 115MPH.

They want bigger, stronger, faster because that sells tickets. But there certainly has been more frequent and more catastrophic injuries in most pro sports in the last 15 years. Or at least it seems like there has been.

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