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Running faster and facing breakthroughs and plateaus

One of the best things about running is making progress and gradually running faster. Whatever level of ability you have you can always get better.
 
Often, running faster does not happen linearly: your progress varies from a little bit one week, to a whole lot the next week.
 
If you look closely at the progression of world records in running events over time, you will see a very similar pattern. Advancement of world records does not happen in a consistent and regular way. Big jumps in running faster are followed by longer periods of much less progress.
 
Why is the rate of progress – in world records, and your own performance – not constant?
By looking at world record performances in running events over time we can answer this question.
 
And along the way we will discover a little thing called breakthrough performance.  
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Men’s 100m sprint times have progressed rapidly over the last few years, thanks mainly to the achievements of Usain Bolt. Bolt has set the last two world record times, and each time has taken the record significantly lower. In fact, Bolt has taken the record below what historically many have thought was ever going to be possible.
 
Bolt has created performance breakthrough.
 
The graph below shows the world record times recorded over the last 100 years
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The graph shows obvious progress towards reduced time. But it’s not a straight-line progression.
 
There are clear and repeated ‘steps’ along the way, where in a very short period, the record time has dropped dramatically. These drops are then followed by a much longer time period where the record time has dropped much less. There are breakthroughs and plateaus.
 
How do breakthrough points happen?
 
Whenever someone like Usain Bolt comes along and creates a breakthrough, there are always the same 3 reactions:
 
the athlete is a genetic ‘freak’
modern scientific training and nutrition techniques lead to better performance
performance-enhancing drugs are being used
 
Certainly, for any world-record holder the first two ideas are always true. Performance-enhancing drugs are a sometimes a reason.
 
In any case, what’s more interesting is the fact that the athlete’s performance takes the old mark to an unexpectedly improved level. It’s like punching a hole through what was a perceived ceiling in performance.
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Usain Bolt creates breakthroughs in 2008 and 2009
 
Perception and barriers
 
Thresholds of performance are like ceilings of achievement. Because breaking a threshold is a great feat, thresholds are sometimes seen as barriers.
 
One such barrier exists in the 100m sprint, as described in Wikipedia:
 
The 10-second barrier is a term used in track and field athletics which refers to the physical and psychological barrier of completing the men's 100 metres sprint in under ten seconds. The achievement was traditionally regarded as the hallmark of a great sprinter, but its significance has become less important since the late 1990s as an increasing number of runners have surpassed the ten seconds mark.
 
As greater levels of performance become more commonplace, a greater level of achievement becomes expected. In this way, a barrier becomes broken more frequently, as more athletes are running faster.
 
Wikipedia goes on:
 
A number of athletes broke the barrier during the 1980s but the 100 m final at the 1991 World Championships represented a new zenith in the event: six athletes ran under ten seconds in the same race, and winner Carl Lewis lowered the world record to 9.86 seconds
That single race in 1991 changed the perceptions about the 10 second barrier.
 
Individual perceptions change as performances improve
 
Tyson Gay ran a 100m time of 9.68 secs in June 2008, beating the previous record of 9.74 secs (Gay’s time does not qualify as a world record because of the tailwind of 4.1 meters per second — above the 2.0 allowable for records). Afterwards he said:
“I didn’t really care what the wind was,” Gay said. “I’m glad my body could do it. Now I know I have it in me.”
 
He learned what it felt like to run a 9.68 time. And this gave him the belief that it was possible.
 
Second in the race was Walter Dix, who ran a 9.80:
“Tyson ran a great race,” Dix said. “I was just trying to run him down. Now he knows how it feels to run a 9.6 and I know what it feels to run a 9.8. That will favour us. We know how it feels in your legs…”
 
Dix and Gay both experienced something significant in the progress of performance: when a level of performance that recently seemed unreachable becomes an experienced level of performance.
 
 
Defying the curve
 
Analysts spend time predicting the maximum level of performance that will one day be possible based on human physiology. They also make predictions using historical data on how world record performances will progress.
 
When a massive breakthrough performance occurs however, predictions often need to change. Like when Usain Bolt ran 9.58 in 2009.
 
Bolt broke the mathematical model that had fit 100m record data for almost a century. His performance that day could reset how fast researchers believe humans ultimately can run.
"This trend seems to defy simple curve fitting," wrote Tatsuo Tabata, director of the Institute for Data Evaluation and Analysis in Japan.
 
Statisticians have used a lower limit for 100-meter times of about 9.45 seconds, according to Tabata and other researchers. The exponential curve seen above — which is drawn from an equation calculated to fit the world record data — had been quite successful at predicting the steady progress of faster and faster 100-meter times.
 
But Bolt’s recent string of world records was clearly not an expected event: The model didn’t predict a 9.69 (the time Bolt ran in 2008) until almost 2030.
 
See Bolt’s 2009 world record set here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nbjhpcZ9_g
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Bolt's new world record
 
There are patterns of changing performance: barriers, plateaus and breakthroughs
 
Before a breakthrough event (or sequence of events) there is often a plateau of performance. A plateau is where the rate of improvement is low.
 
The graphs below show the world record marks for different running events. On these, we can see the trend of both plateaus and breakthroughs, as athletes are running faster overall.
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In times of performance plateau, it can be tempting to think that maybe the limit of performance has been reached.
 
But you never know when the next Usain Bolt might come along.
 
What we do know is that performance improvements have been made even when we have historically thought that limits have been reached, at least for the events we have looked at here.
 
So if there is a plateau for a long period of time, rather than thinking that the limits of performance are fast approaching, sometimes it may be more useful to think that a breakthrough performance is fast approaching.
 
Our own breakthrough performances
 
Individually we can all experience breakthrough performances in our athletic endeavours. It works in exactly the same way:
1. Your conditioning and fitness improves
2. Your overall perception of what you can achieve shifts
3. You have a singular experience of performing at a new level, which reinforces that this new level is actually possible
 
You may be starting a new event. Maybe you have a new 5km running route that you have started doing. Or maybe a new type of interval training. If you persist with this same type of training over at least, say, 10 times you will notice breakthroughs and plateaus.
 
Here’s what often happens:
 
1.   Initial progress then plateau
Over the first five or so times you will gradually be running faster, and you will then plateau. There will be a time taken or a distance run that seems to be about ‘it’.
 
2.   Breakthrough
One day out, often at an unexpected time, you’ll break-though the ‘it’. You’ll perform in a way that stands out and you’ll run a lot faster than ever before.
 
3.  Plateau at new breakthrough level
After that breakthrough event (or couple of events), you will continue to progress slowly or plateau at that new level. You and your body now know you can perform at that level, and it will now become more normal, and even expected, that you will perform like that.
 
What you experience in your own training might well follow a similar pattern – much the same as how world records are broken.
 
And just like world records, there will be a limit as to how you can perform. It’s just that we don’t really know where that is, and we should remain open to all possibilities.
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