How Fast Will Humans Ever Run?

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Oliver Lang / AFP / Getty

Jamaica's Usain Bolt wins the men's 200-m final at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Athletics

On the ESPN show Sport Science, host John Brenkus uses digital technology to statistically analyze some of today's best athletes and shows sports fans what makes star athletes great. In his new book The Perfection Point, Brenkus (who also Tweets on the subject) takes on the most fundamental questions about human athletic performance: Just how fast will we ever be able to run? How high can we jump? How long can we hold our breath? Brenkus spoke to TIME about his new book, the limits of one's physical prowess and why he accepts the motivation behind steroid use.

What's the one thing you'd like people to take away from your book?
It's not about the destination but the journey. The Perfection Point is really about what are we as a species going to do as we try to achieve perfection.

But you establish these perfection points under the assumption that humans will never reach them. So we're imperfect?
We're assuming that every single factor is ideal in reaching them. If everything happened at once, then this would be the number. But the chances of them coming together are very slim.

The limits of performance have been predicted before, but is this the first time such statistical rigor has been used?
People make predictions all the time, but they're not backed up in a way that's particularly educational. Predictions need to be based on something that has a verifiable, logical argument to it. And I think these numbers are very defensible. So when you break it down, bit by bit, you see that maybe we will be able to hit a baseball over 700 ft.

Did any of the numbers you calculated surprise you?
The marathon. We have been overperforming the marathon for years. It used to be said that a four-minute mile was impossible. We've spent millions of years as a species — literally millions — and we never ran it under four minutes. That number prevented people from achieving greatness. People thought it must be very hard to do. Then, it's finally broken, and a few days later someone does it again. It kept falling and falling quicker and quicker. In the marathon, there really hasn't been a true barrier. The next barrier is two hours, and we'll eventually go below that. But in the marathon, we overachieved because we didn't put up that artificial barrier.

Your book came close to being a meditation on human evolution. Was that your goal?
The numbers we reached are based on the human being as we know him today. What I'm doing is based on what's possible given our current bone structure, or given the fact that we have two legs. Who's to say a million years from now we're not a completely different species?

In your book you say you have some compassion for professional athletes who take steroids. Have you received any criticism for that remark?
People say, How could you ethically take steroids? I take the view, How couldn't you? We're not talking about whether you're going to make $5,000 if you take them. We're talking about a $100 million contract. You're talking about being a good player or being the best player of all time. If I was a really good athlete, I could be a whisker away from millions of dollars just by taking something with no known health hazards at the time. All those guys in baseball — it wasn't against the rules at the time. From a fan perspective, we demand the best out of all of our athletes. We push it to such a limit. We demand that the ball go farther, that players jump higher. We're not as interested in sportsmanship as we are in excellence. But it sucks. PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] suck, and they completely taint the game.

You spend a lot of time finding each sport's perfection point mathematically, but you also leave the door open for basic human drive. For instance, you moved the perfection point for the 100-m dash from 9.01 to 8.99 seconds by arguing that if we get that close to breaking nine seconds, it's impossible we won't. Why is that?
Science is only going to take you so far. There will always be something that we don't know. We don't go to space, we go to the moon. If you're so close to breaking a barrier, it's reasonable to say we'd do it.