As a Personal Trainer, and someone competing in races and extremely demanding physical challenges, this topic is one of the main motivating ideas that drives me. Have you ever considered what the limits of human physical potential might be? Personally, I know that there is ultimately a limit to what can be accomplished physically. Physical things have physical limitation. However, I don't believe that anyone, ever, in the past, present, or future, has ever, or will ever reach their actual physical potential. I do think that people are getting closer and closer though, and that's so very exciting!
Let me explain why I think this, and hopefully, I'll open up a window of possibility for every reader.
Let's look at a really simple example, and one that many OCR athletes can relate to as they try to improve their overall speed. We're looking at the 1 Mile time. In England in the year 1865, a man named Richard Webster was considered to be the world record holder for 1 mile in 4:36. Fast forward 80 YEARS LATER to 1945. The new world record time is held by a Swedish man, Gunder Haag. His time was 4:01. It took 80 years to reduce the fastest mile by 35 seconds. Throughout that time, as I'm sure you've heard before, there was a belief in some circles that no one would ever run a sub four minute mile. 9 years later, along comes Roger Banister, another man from England, who ran the first official sub four minute mile ever recorded. He broke a record, and along with it, a limiting idea about what the human body is capable of. His time was 3:59.
Here we are today, and the current mile time record holder is an Italian man, Hicham El Guerrouj, who put down a time of 3:43 in 1999. It took almost 135 YEARS to reduce the fastest mile time by about 53 seconds. What do you think is possible in the next 100 years? Can someone run under 3:30? Why not? (Source for Mile Time History)
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The mile time was a simple example for reference. We could look back at every other physical record in history and see the progressions. It doesn't matter if it's marathon time, 1 rep deadlift max, atlas stone lift, 100 meter run, or any other record or feat of human physicality. We are progressing over time, and barriers of "impossible" continue to be broken.
I'd like to talk about another exciting piece of training to consider. If you've been training for years (doesn't matter what you've been training for), you've probably found that, over time, it's harder and harder to continue to make progress. If you're a runner, it could be that your first year of running saw your average mile time decrease by over a minute. Today, however, you might be fortunate if your average mile time drops by a few seconds. If you're a power lifter, you may have gone from squatting 300lbs to squatting 450lbs in a few years, but the jump from 450lbs to 600lbs may have taken you five years...maybe more.
This "slowing" of progress is referred to as The Theory of Diminishing Returns. The best way I've seen this term defined is as follows: "The principle of diminishing return suggests that the rate of fitness improvement diminishes over time as fitness approaches its ultimate genetic potential." (Definition Source)
To some of you, hearing that fitness improvements (as a percentage at least) decrease over time might sound discouraging. Don't be discouraged. Here is the part that many people don't think about, and which is the most exciting thing (in my mind) about any type of fitness and training.
Although improvements may slow "as fitness approaches its ultimate genetic potential", I don't believe that a single person ever, in the history of the world, has reached their full genetic potential in fitness. The current world recorder holder for the mile probably could have run it faster. If he'd started training earlier, or if he'd eaten better more consistently, or if he'd slept better, or stretched better, or had the perfect coaching, or if he'd incorporated more efficient strength training. I take nothing away from the man. He is the fastest mile runner (that we know of) in the history of the world. He's the one and only for what he's done (as of right now). But could he have done better? He probably could have. Maybe it would have been 1/2 a second faster. Maybe 1 second faster. Maybe 2 seconds faster.
For myself, and for everyone else out there, we have current best times and current best lifts. Could our current numbers be better if we'd trained better, eaten better, recovered better, and been coached better in the past? For every single person alive, myself included, I know the answer is yes.
I have immense respect for the work ethic of top-tier athletes (drug free athletes since I compete in arenas where PEDs aren't legal) because, to be the best now, requires putting in more work than ever. You have to recover faster and you have to recover more completely. You have to work harder than ever, but not to the point of injury. You have to have a mind of steel.
Imagine what a person could accomplish if they devoted every single second of their life to a single goal. If a person geared their entire life around a single objective, and they lived it completely, I think we'd see world records not just broken, but completely shattered.
It's tricky to think about, but one day in your life, you will be the fastest you'll ever be. One day, you'll be the strongest you'll ever be. One day, you'll reach a peak in endurance. You probably won't know it on the day it happens, but it will happen. Those "bests" don't mean you've reached your genetical potential though. They are your "bests" based on every single decision you ever made prior to those "best" moments, but that doesn't mean that you maxed out your ultimate abilities. The athlete who drinks and parties on weekends is not going to reach their ultimate potential no matter how hard they work the rest of the time. The athlete who struggles with relaxing (like myself) may not recover completely, and won't reach their ultimate potential.
No matter how dedicated you are, you aren't completely dedicated. That might not be a bad thing either! You don't have to devote your entire life to running the fastest marathon in history, or pulling the heaviest truck in history. Your goals don't have to be earth-shattering. If they are, go and hunt them down! If they aren't, just know that your goal is achievable, because a vast expanse of "possible" lies between where you are now, and what your potential could be.
I don't believe a single person has reached their "ultimate genetic potential" to date. Get out now and work toward your potential. I'm excited to be alive in this day and age (partly) because so many strength, endurance, and speed records are constantly being broken all the time, and we're discovering more and more just how massive is the physical capacity of humans.
If you have thoughts on this topic, we'd love to hear them. Leave a comment so we can nerd out with you.