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Sports

Investigating the Limits of Sport Performance

How far can an athlete go? Deutsche Welle visited Stuttgart University’s Institute of Sport Science to see how sport scientists investigate the boundaries of physical ability.

Zhang Xiangxiang of China lifts 176kg weights in Beijing

Athletes have to go further and further to set new records

In the main hall at the University of Stuttgart's Institute of Sport Science, there is a row of equipment that looks like a cross between dentists' chairs and torture instruments, but it's all intended to measure athletes' physical performance.

"It's not so easy to set the boundaries for sport performance. There are certainly absolute boundaries that we cannot surpass. An athlete can certainly not complete a 100 meter run within 9 or 8 seconds, regardless of how much we develop further. Let’s say at least within the next 100 years," says biomechanics professor Wilfried Alt.

But it is still difficult to identify an absolute boundary because athletes could have genetic predispositions that can give them a performance boost, which is just enough to set a new record.

"The overall results, with slight increases in performance, will approach an absolute boundary that we cannot specify for certain, and that we cannot express in numbers," Dr. Alt said.

But for now a team headed by Dr. Bubeck, who leads cooperation with the Olympic training and research center in Stuttgart, measures athletes' performance ability. This is demonstrated by gymnast Andreas Hofer, who jumps onto a platform fitted with sensors. A computer displays how much power was in the jump, how quick it was, the height of the jump and so on. The purpose of these repeated recordings is to calculate the characteristics of the athlete's body.

A quicker recovery

Footballer Michael Owen walks with crutches

Sport science can fast-track athletes' recovery from injuries

The list of muscle characteristics plays an important role after injuries if the athlete needs to return to top form as soon as possible. That is how one wrestler managed to return to form for the Olympic Games in a relatively short amount of time.

"In that case we first looked at a study to ascertain which muscles are important in a wrestling dive, and the athlete was also with us. When the athlete got injured he had to be operated on both shoulders. Afterwards we could look at the results and say which muscles needed to be built up appropriately. We could then give the rehabilitation experts optimal recommendations," Dr. Bubeck explained.

Health before performance

The training program at the Sport Science Institute above all tries to ensure that top athletes avoid injuries and stay healthy. For example, in an exercise to measure torso power, Andrea Hofer registers more force on his right-hand side. In this case, the bias is not pronounced enough to pose a danger. But when a sport promotes very one-sided training, like shot-put for example, it is important to train up the other side as well, for the body to stay healthy.

Australia's Leisel Jones swimming in Beijing

Health is often sidelined as athletes push their limits

However, as chances of setting new world records are getting smaller, many athletes are increasingly willing to sideline their health. In the last few years, not only doping cases have risen, but also legal use of painkillers, which athletes use to suppress the body’s warning signs of overexertion.

Dr. Alt explained that sport science is working against these trends to help every athlete reach his or her optimal performance healthily.

"In order for this to change, it is important that not only reaching an imaginary boundary stands in the forefront, but also the healthy performance development and the fact that none of the organisms function systems are pushed beyond their tolerance levels. That is really our goal, the link between improving performance and keeping a healthy body."

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