Usain Bolt in the lightening bolt pose at the London 2012

Physiological limits

Can we predict an ultimate limit to human performance?

Improvement in sports records tends to level off, although astounding athletes like sprinter Usain Bolt can still sometimes leap ahead of everyone else.

Mathematically, the technique to use here is called extreme value theory:


extreme value theory


This allows statisticians to estimate how far the extreme of a probability distribution extends, even if we have not sampled it in reality. Applying this technique to the existing records of times over 100 m indicates an ultimate limit of between 9.3 and 9.5 seconds. Bolt’s current record stands at 9.58, and he beat the previous record holder by 0.16 seconds.

Athletes improve through competition, but animals can be bred for high performance. Even so, records tend to level off. Timings from events run over the same course for many years typically show only slow improvement. So any species, unaided, has performance limits that are unlikely to change. Humans, though, have technology, which can be a game-changer.

Lead image:

Nick Webb/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Exercise, Energy and Movement’ in January 2012 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Statistics and maths, Physiology
Exercise, Energy and Movement
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development