On a Saturday in July 1891, in Paris, France, the American Luther Cary ran and won the 100 meter sprint final, setting the first documented record at 10.8 seconds.
Fifteen years later, in 1906, Knut Lindberg from Sweden ran the distance in 10.6 seconds, and come 1956, Willie Williams from the United States, knocked off another 0.5 seconds, running it in 10.1 seconds.
The first man to break the magical 10 second barrier was Jim Hines from the United States in 1968, with a time of 9.9 seconds. And 41 years — and many improvements — later, Usain Bolt from Jamaica put the record on a once unthinkable 9.58 seconds.
People often tell themselves (or others) that they’ve done their best. “That’s an easy way to let ourselves off the hook”, says Seth Godin: “But in reality, trying our best requires unreasonable amount of preparation, a silly amount of focus. It’s much more honest to say ‘it’s not worth doing my best’.”
But still, if the argument ‘trying your best’ makes any sense, how do we explain the dwindling of the 100 meter sprint record? Wasn’t Luther Cary trying hard enough? Or was Usain Bolt trying a massive 1.22 seconds harder?
Understanding better equipment isn’t very difficult. Above: the shoe worn by gold medal winner Jesse Owens, at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Beneath: a research lab, mapping motions to analyse the forces at play during a sprint.
This question answers itself. We understand why records are broken: there’s better understanding of the human body now, as there was in 1891, resulting in better training regimes and better diets. Also, there’s better equipment.
We — you and me — will probably never do a single task that requires a Usain-Bolt-esque effort, but there’s still lessons to take from the 100 meter sprint record progression.
If we look at trainings in a broad view, we might understand why so many habits don’t stick. People begin playing a new instrument, they start a new language course or they start blogging, but after one month of frantically trying and having lost enthusiasm by seeing little progress, they quit.
The best training regimes, like diets, are the ones you can maintain. Or, not — as Seth Godin said: ‘some things aren’t worth trying your best’.
Atze Kerkhof, a former olympic speedracer and now a top-tier simracer, has a very interesting take on this. In an interview with Sean Cole from The Simpit, he says: “Instead of doing countless laps, learning like robot, I prefer a short trainings, with maximum efficiency.”
Atze points out that the benefit of trying smarter (versus trying harder) is that actually analysing data and see where you can improve, probably gains you more than merely spending time (and doing so, in less time). But the main thing efficiency in training covers, is that you don’t get frustrated when at first you don’t succeed, or improve.
Trying smarter has brought the sprint record down, and it may just improve whatever you do, too. In fact: if we continue the trend of the past 100 years — including diminishing returns — the 9 second barrier will be broken somewhere near the year 2070. By people trying just as hard as Usain Bolt.
Further reading: Advertising as a sport