If you watched the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games you would have noticed there were many records broken, often by the same athlete. Why do we keep breaking World and Olympic records?
Of course there is no one answer to this question and this is not meant to be a prescriptive article, but more of a thought process around the fact that records are broken all the time.
The great and humble Georges St Pierre said that MMA fighters of today are better than fighters of his generation and future fighters will be better than current ones. It is a fact of sports because all the disciplines that support athletic performance keep evolving.
Mind over matter
Breaking records does not only applies to sports. Guinness records exist because of the competitive nature of human beings. We strive to break records of all kinds, we like to be challenged.
In addition, there is now sports psychology, an important discipline that is likely making a huge impact on the mindset and mental health of athletes.
The human body
On the physical level, human bodies today are bigger and stronger than in the past. This is a probably the result of many factors, including food (availability, energy availability), exercise (as opposed to physical labour), advances in healthcare, etc. Natural selection has a big role to play as well. Whether we are more resilient than our ancestors or not remains an open question, with the increasing prevalence of conditions such as allergies, autoimmune diseases and cancer suggesting maybe we are not.
Training wise, there have been many advances in the history of sport. The most dramatic changes can be seen in equipment, with modern inventions ranging from game-changing to ridiculous and useless. This includes the gear athletes train with (e.g. weights, cardio machines, etc.) and play with (e.g. racquets).
Equipment also includes wearables and machines used in laboratories to measure things like heart rate, heart rate variability and VO2 max. Measuring some of these parameters are useful for determining, among other things, how well the athlete is responding to training and recovering.
Gear also includes sport-specific shoes, clothing (e.g. compression tights) and accessories (e.g. lifting straps and belts) that can help athletes train and perform better.
Training methods and protocols also continue evolving and building on science for the improvement of training adaptations and athletic performance. For example, now we understand the value of strength and conditioning work for all types of sports, not only strength-based ones.
We finally get to food! As mentioned before, the availability of food in general and of novel foods with different levels of processing, together with an increase in portion sizes, has likely led to overnutrition and a subsequent increase in physical size. This does not always come with a competitive advantage, but in some sports and/or categories, it can.
Sports nutrition is fairly new discipline. Apparently, the first studies were done in the 1920s-30s (1). However, sportspeople have always eaten, following whatever they thought gave them a competitive edge.
According to historical records, athletes in the early 1900s consumed a fair amount of booze, including during competition at the Olympic games. High protein, particularly from meat, was favoured early on. Later, people realised the importance of carbohydrate for endurance performance and the fact that heavy, fatty meals did not sit well pre-competition (2).
For many people sports nutrition is reduced to sports supplements, which for sure have made an impact in the evolution athletic performance, but are not everything. Understanding of energy availability, hydration, macronutrient breakdown and nutrient timing should be the foundation of the athlete’s diet.
The number of available supplements has increased dramatically in the past handful of decades. Some supplements can certainly bring an edge to an athlete’s game, some are a waste of money and some can be detrimental to health and/or athletic performance. Unfortunately, supplements also pose the risk of introducing banned substances unless tested and certified by organisations such as Hasta. The Australian Institute of Sport has a Supplement Framework that classifies supplements based on the evidence behind them. The AIS Framework is updated periodically based on evidence.
As mentioned before, in the early Olympic days alcohol was consumed because it was thought to be a performance-enhancing drug (PED). Fast-forward to more modern times, a number of PEDs such as erythropoietin (EPO) and steroids have been used in a variety of sports to cheat. Substance testing has developed at the same time, but arguably slightly behind to substance use. The net result is likely to be that a percentage of World and Olympic records have been set under unfair conditions and a (hopefully) small percentage of those will remain undetected or unreported.
Even though training and competition schedules, caffeine use and international travel can certainly get in the way of adequate sleep, many athletes and coaches now understand the importance of sleep in recovery and performance.
Likewise, many athletes have incorporate mindfulness, meditation and/or breathing practices to their routines, which can positively affect their mindset, attention capabilities, stress management (in and out of competition) and physiological response.
Finally, increased exposure of athletic events through television, social media and the internet has probably had a big impact on records. As exposure and fame go up, accountability and external pressure go up as well.
Why do we keep breaking World and Olympic records?
The answer is likely a combination of several factors, which include human psychology, changes in the human body, changes in training gear and methods, better understanding of nutrition and supplements, and other factors such as increase awareness of sleep and stress management.
- Juzwiak, CR. Reflection on sports nutrition: Where we come from, where we are, and where we are headed. Revista de Nutrição. 2016;29(3):435–444. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1590/1678-98652016000300013
- Grandjean, AC. Diets of elite athletes: has the discipline of sports nutrition made an impact? The Journal of Nutrition. 1997;127(5 Suppl):874S-877S. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/127.5.874S