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The Science of Pushing Your Limits

The Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh shows off his explosive power and sends Sports Science host John Brenkus flying. (Charles Baus/ESPN.com)

As the executive producer and host of the popular "Sport Science" segments on ESPN, John Brenkus spends a lot of time exploring the limits of human performance.

Brenkus, 40, likes to refer to himself as a “human crash-test dummy.” During the segments, he routinely gets tossed, struck, and otherwise knocked around by some of the biggest names in sports—all in the name of gleaning new insight into athletic performance.

In his recent book The Perfection Point, Brenkus applied statistics, physics, and physiology to determine the theoretical bests for a number of athletic accomplishments, including the fastest mile, the longest golf drive, the heaviest bench press, the highest dunk, and the longest home run.

On "Sport Science," Brenkus is labeled “incredibly average” as an athlete, which is true only in comparison to the pros that appear on the program. He’s a five-time Ironman triathlon finisher whose BASE Productions company has won 10 Emmy Awards.

Just as Brenkus discovered that elite athletes have not approached the limits of human performance, anybody can push their modest personal bests further. Here’s how:

1. Understand the science behind your sport.

You don’t need to be a physicist to improve your performance. “The better you can understand the underlying biomechanics or physics of your sport, the better off you’ll be,” Brenkus says. “This might apply more to sports like baseball or golf, where there’s no one way to swing a bat or a club, but even in sports like running and swimming you know that there is a margin for error that we can overcome. What I hope we do on "Sport Science" is shed some light on the paths we can take through the jungle, to enable you to see what’s going on underneath and understand your own performance better.”

2. Don’t place mental barriers on yourself.

Until 1954, many believed a sub-four-minute mile was an impossible feat for a human. Then Roger Bannister broke that mark, followed quickly by a number of other athletes. Few of us will approach that level, but Brenkus likes to tell the story of his wife, Lizzie, who ran the 13.1-mile leg of her first half Ironman triathlon in just 1 hour, 28 minutes. “That was the top run split among amateurs, and part of it was because she didn’t know any better,” he says. “She put no limits on herself. By going out and running blind, she didn’t know what her limit was and what she could or could not do.”

3. Drive and confidence go a long way.

In 2000, Brenkus signed up for Ironman New Zealand mostly as a way to one-up a friend who recently had completed a marathon. Brenkus trained for a couple of months, but never had swam in open water until arriving on site a few days before the race. He found himself flailing in the water, wondering if he might drown, and second-guessing his bravado. He signed up for an open-water swim clinic the day before the race and managed to get comfortable quickly, completing the Ironman swim in 59 minutes—a stellar time for even veteran triathletes. In 2007, as part of a "Sport Science" segment, he entered the Hawaii Ironman in Kona with only 12 weeks of training. Despite suffering a hip injury early in the bike segment, he completed the race. “The hardest thing in sports is to not quit,” Brenkus says. “Your body can do so much more than you think is possible.”

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Focus, Goals, Training, Sports Performance, Planning

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