New research suggests sportsmen and women have reached the peak of human athletic performance.

A fascinating new scientific paper indicates that human performance in athletics, cycling and swimming has plateaued over the last three decades.

While records have been broken, the advances are so slender that the researchers suggest athletes are on the same trajectory as greyhounds and thoroughbred horses, whose own performances have levelled out over the last 20–30 years.

“Performances in Olympic disciplines, such as track and field and swimming events, from 1896 to 2012 reveal a major decrease in performance development,” reported the scientists in the journal Sports Medicine.

“Present conditions prevailing, we approach absolute physical limits and endure a continued period of world record scarcity.”

While exceptional athletes like sprinter Usain Bolt, 800m runner David Rudisha, and the marathon runners Dennis Kimetto and Geoffrey Mutai have set outstanding new world records, the research sees them as outliers.

Investigating the top 10 annual performances in events shows significant stagnation rather than promising progress. One reason may be that after a century of competition since the first modern Olympics in 1896, training, nutrition and the processes leading to peak performance have been ‘carefully optimised by athletes, trainers, and supporting staff.”

Over the same time frame, humans have not grown significantly – measures of both body mass and height, reveal increases during the 20th century, leading to taller, heavier, and stronger athletes. These increases, for example, reveal a close correlation with sprinters’ speed improvement, but more recently there has been a levelling of this physical growth, and elite sport is now more closely focused on optimum ratios of height and body mass, rather than gaining height and muscle.

Moreover, with the globalisation of sport there’s a compelling argument that populations with a physical predisposition to excel in a specific sport, such as East African, altituded welling long distance runners, who might previously have delivered a quantum leap forward in results, have all now been integrated into their respective sports.

This leaves major record-breaking attempts at the mercy of two areas, say the scientists. Firstly, a change in the rules might allow athletes to improve their times significantly, such as allowing swimmers to spend longer under water.

And secondly, new developments in technology; for example, the world record for the furthest distance ridden in an hour is 91.55km, achieved on a streamlined recumbent bicycle, which is almost twice as far as the 54.526km ridden by Sir Bradley Wiggins on a bike approved by cycling’s governing body, the UCI.

While most sportsmen and women are now seeking marginal gains, it’s fascinating to speculate where the boundaries of human performance actually lie. Back in 1991, a medical student called Mike Joyner published an influential article in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which attempted to calculate the fastest potential time that the “perfect” marathon runner could achieve.

Taking into account optimum physiological qualities, including maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), lactate threshold, and running economy, Joyner reckoned, “The fastest time for the marathon

predicted by this model is 1:57:58.”

It’s a gauntlet that no marathon runner has reached down to pick up, and a decade and a half later, the marathon world record remains stubbornly well above two hours.

Perhaps it’s psychological as much as physiological barriers that are holding back elite athletes. When Roger Bannister broke the seemingly insurmountable four-minute mile for the first time he changed the perceptions of human limitations.

The challenge to run a sub-four-minute mile had preoccupied middle distance runners for decades, yet within six weeks of Bannister’s achievement, the Australian John Landy shattered the record by running 3:57.9, and in the following year 37 athletes ran a mile in under four minutes.

Pursuing the idea of “deceiving” the brain to improve sporting performance, Professor Kevin Thompson, formerly head of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Northumbria University and now director of the research Institute for Sport and Exercise at the University of Canberra, devised an innovative test for cyclists.

In a research project, he asked trained cyclists to race against an avatar on a computer screen which they believed was moving at the rate of their own personal best.

In reality, Thompson had programmed the avatar to move at a speed one-percent faster than the cyclist’s fastest time. Despite this, all the cyclists not only matched their virtual opponent but actually rode faster than they ever had before.

Thompson postulated that this is due to a reserve of energy production that athletes can tap into. His research suggested that in training, the mind anticipates the end of a bout of exercise in order to set an initial pace. Sensory receptors, which monitor the body’s responses, feed this information back to the brain, allowing it to ration the body’s resources to last until the end of the exercise to avoid damage.

“We feel that this system is conservative and even in well-trained individuals, who have a well-developed pacing template, there is a reserve of energy production which can be utilised to further enhance performance,” said Thompson.

“A metabolic reserve exists which, if it can be accessed, can release a performance improvement of between two and five percent in terms of their average power output.”

However, his study also found that the cyclists could not access this reserve when they knew that their opponent was exercising at a power output two-percent or five-percent greater. It was only effective when the participants did not know.

“We believe a small deception of the brain can enhance performance. Despite the internal feedback to the brain being heightened by the extra power output being produced, the participants still believed it was possible to beat their opponent,” added Thompson.