What is the human body’s performance potential and what can we learn from our most elite athletes?
The last few decades have been unparalleled for fans of sports and those curious about what peak human condition really is. In the last 30 years we’ve seen amazing new records like Usain Bolt’s 9.58 second 100m sprint in 2009, and legendary Olympic performances like Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals at the 2008 summer games in Beijing.
We’ve also seen controversies which show the lengths elite athletes will go to push the performance of the body. Controversies like Lance Armstrong and doping in the cycling world, allegations of recent Russian state-sponsored doping of athletes, and the numerous failed drug tests in the UFC.
It all spells an interesting time for fans of elite performance, and seems to push the boundaries of what we think is peak human condition.
What exactly is peak human condition?
Peak human condition refers to a state where someone has reached the maximum or near maximum capability of the human body when it comes to health and physical fitness. This could theoretically refer to someone who is exceptional at a range of fitness modalities such as running, swimming or climbing, or someone who is the best in the world at a specific sport such as basketball.
In fictional superhero lore, peak human condition sometimes refers to maximising the capability of the human mind and body, encompassing both physical and mental attributes such as strength, speed, agility, stamina, intelligence and senses to name a few. For this article, we’ll stick with the physical definition above instead.
With that being said, it’s important to note that peak human condition is rarely obtained through brawn alone. In reality it’s built in conjunction with other traits and factors. Mental toughness is a common ingredient, as is competitiveness and access to quality trainers and mentors.
Let’s go through a brief list of some humans we could possibly consider to at one time or another be in peak human condition, and let’s see what we can learn from each.
What age is peak human condition reached?
According to Professor Chris Minson at the University of Oregon, the “sweet spot” age for most sports is mid-20s to early 30s. This is the age where one’s physical, technical and strategic abilities are most optimised.
The upper cap is around 40, with the oldest Olympic marathoner winning gold at age 38 in the Beijing games.
According to an article by Professor Roy J. Shepard, strength peaks at age 25, and plateaus until age 35 – 40 when it then starts to decrease, with a decrease of 25% seen by age 65.
Michael J. Mauboussin, the author of The Success Equation, has a table showing what age peak performance is reached in various sports.
Source: Michael J. Mauboussin, The Success Factor
Let’s now see some real-life examples of athletes in peak human condition.
Four athletes who attained peak human condition
The below athletes have demonstrated peak human condition, and illustrate the point above: while genetics can play a part in how conditioned elite athletes become, there’s always other ingredients at play.
If you haven’t read Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me, I’d highly recommend it. It’s an engrossing story about how Goggins built mental toughness during a torturous childhood and early adult life. It also shows how he built himself up from an overweight man of 300 pounds to a Navy Seal and ultra runner.
David Goggins completed the gruelling “hell week” in Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL training (BUD/S) three times! Hell week puts candidates through gruelling physical training and sleep deprivation. He also completed US Army Ranger school.
Goggins is a guiness world record holder for pull ups, and is an ultra runner with over 60 races under his belt, including the Badwater 135 – an incredibly tough race in California which is 217 km (135 miles) and takes place over two days.
What all these feats of endurance have in common is that they require intense mental toughness plus incredible human conditioning.
What’s even more incredible is that Goggins completed much of this with a large hole in his heart, which later required two operations to plug!
What can we learn from David Goggins?
Peak human condition has a strong mental aspect that can be tempered and built from the most unlikely beginnings, but it also relies on dogged determination and consistently putting in the time.
Goggins also recommends addressing weaknesses rather than building on strengths, and his book does not shy away from his failures being useful tools.
Mark Allen was one of the world’s best triathletes and is notable for his dominance of the Ironman World Championship race during the early 1990s. He’s also famous for his rivalry with fellow champion Dave Scott.
After numerous Ironman competitions where Allen couldn’t grab the top spot, he finally beat Dave Scott in 1989, and followed up with wins each year until 1993. He returned to the Ironman scene in 1995 after the birth of his son, and came from behind to beat the favourite Thomas Hellriegel by just over two minutes.
What’s interesting about Mark Allen’s story is that he credits his first success over Dave Scott to positive thinking that he learned from the Huichol Indians.
Allen’s results show us just how well conditioned was: he won the Ironman championship race at Kona a whopping six times between 1989 and 1995 against stiff competition, and had two seasons of 21 straight victories in the triathlon scene between 1988 and 1990.
The fitness required to win one Ironman race in Kona is immense. The race starts with a 3.86 km (2.4 mile) swim in Kailua bay, followed by a 180 km (112 mile) bike race from Kailua-Kona to Hawi and back. It finishes with a 42.2 km (26.2 mile) run from Kailua Bay to Natural Energy Lab Hawai’i Authority and back down to Pahoehoe Beach Park, before heading back to Kailua Bay.
The race is gruelling, with elevation gains of 1772 m (5814 ft) and the possibilities of currents during the swim and strong winds during the bike race.
What can we learn from Mark Allen?
Mark Allen’s story drives home the importance of changing up your training if you’re not happy with your results. Allen realised after his initial losses in the Ironman World Championship in Kona that he needed to address his training. He was training the same each year and not getting the results he wanted, so he needed to change something.
He realised he was slowing down in the last two hours of the race, which happened to also be when his training runs would usually finish. To address this, he started training the full eight hours to simulate the length of the championship race.
Another great learning from Allen was in his final Ironman win in 1995 against Thomas Hellriegel.
Allen was way behind Hellriegel at the midpoint of the race, and was surrounded by negative internal thoughts telling him to quit. He remembered what he learned from the Huichol Indians, specifically the idea that it’s not over until it’s over. With this thought he steadily gained on Thomas until he overtook him and won the championship.
Where do we start with the greatest basketball player of all time? Stories about Michael Jordan’s work ethic and competitiveness are legendary, but he was obviously a gifted athlete in peak condition during his golden years. Peak human condition is required to perform at such a high level in a sport which requires boatloads of agility, endurance and explosive speed.
One of the reasons why Jordan was so successful and won six-NBA championships, was that his competitiveness drove him to address his weaknesses, which meant he was constantly evolving as an athlete.
Jordan was also known to be obsessive in his practice and preparation according to his long time physical trainer Tim S. Grover.
Grover states in his book Relentless that although Michael had certain genetic advantages: large hands, long limbs and a large percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres, he wasn’t a genetic freak. Instead, Grover claims that much of Michael’s success came from his competitiveness, mental toughness and the total body workouts he did.
Jordan incorporated weight training into his training regime several times per week, focusing on core and staple exercises like deadlifts, bench pressing, clean and jerks and more.
STACK magazine claims he was able to shoulder press 225 lbs (100+ kgs) overhead six times in his prime. He also famously played a game with the flu (or food poisoning according to Tim Grover) in 1997 against the Utah Jazz and still scored a hefty 38 points.
Grover explains more about the training system he used in his book Jump Attack, and gives a sneak peak into the system in Relentless. At its core, the Jump Attack system is a 12 week program which has both endurance and explosiveness phases, as well as focusing on stretching. Parts of the program use only bodyweight, while other parts use weights.
What can we learn from Michael Jordan?
That competition can be a powerful driving force behind reaching peak human condition. In his hall of fame speech, Jordan claimed that his competitiveness came from his family, and what stuck out most was his gratitude for the obstacles that were thrown his way during his career which gave him the opportunity to be even better than he was before.
There’s a reason why UFC commentator Joe Rogan has repeatedly claimed that Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is one of the best fighters in the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA).
Johnson was the inaugural UFC Flyweight champion, and has had 27 wins and only 3 losses in his MMA career at the time of writing. He successfully defended his title in the UFC a record 11 times, and has regularly appeared in the number one spot on numerous lists of the best pound-for-pound fighter.
In addition to his MMA-specific training, Johnson has worked with the well-respected trainer Joel Jamieson for his conditioning. Jamieson is a forward-thinking trainer who uses emerging methodologies such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitoring to tailor training and recovery phases.
What can we learn from Demetrious Johnson?
In a podcast with Mark Bell (at around the 40 minute mark), Jamieson talks about how he believes part of Johnson’s success comes from simple routine and consistency of the same workouts and training program. Jamieson recommends athletes find the routine that works for them and stick to it.
Jamieson has a blog called 8 Weeks Out where he regularly posts about training and recovery and has a book specifically on MMA conditioning called Ultimate MMA Conditioning. One of the key learnings I took from the book was that even explosive sports require a conditioning base built by low/moderate intensity exercises like running.
Fictional characters who are in peak human condition
In the realms of fiction there are plenty of characters at peak human condition, including:
Bruce Wayne is commonly portrayed as being in impeccable condition. Not only does he possess large amounts of strength, he’s also agile, has enough endurance to chase criminals over long distances, is a master at various martial arts, can operate in inhospitable conditions such as the sea and in the air, has extensive knowledge in various weapons disciplines, and possesses technologically superior gear that extends his abilities.
There’s an interesting take on how realistic a man like Bruce Wayne would really be on Scientific American.
James Bond is a fictional British spy who has been represented slightly differently in the various books and films of recent time, but each time he’s presented as being in control of most physical situations.
In most of the recent Daniel Craig films, Bond is portrayed as a muscular man in peak physical fitness. In the books, he is portrayed as being very proficient in martial arts including boxing and judo, and great at swimming and skiing. He’s also supposedly one of the best shooters in the secret intelligence service.
Jason Bourne shares many similarities with James Bond, with the major exception being that he’s more utilitarian than suave. Bourne is a CIA assassin with previous special forces experience from the Vietnam War. According to the original books by Robert Ludlum, Bourne has endured plenty of mental toughness training including torture methods like waterboarding.
According to his portrayal by Matt Damon in the films he’s also extremely fit and can employ high intensity parkour movements to chase or flee enemies. He also intricately knows the limits of his body in different environments. In fact one of my favourite lines from the Bourne Identity is when he remarks “At this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking.”
Other real life groups of people who are in or close to peak human condition
The below groups of people will generally be in peak human condition due to the nature of their jobs. These include:
Special forces soldiers
Just watch some of the documentaries and videos about the training these soldiers go through to see how conditioned they are. Special forces soldiers are often tested mentally while under extreme physical stress.
They are also highly proficient in different weapons systems, hand-to-hand combat, and specialised equipment, and are able to dive and parachute prior to fighting.
While not as extreme as special forces soldiers or the athletes on this list, astronauts are expected to be physically fit and proficient in a range of skills. Once they’re in space, they’re usually required to workout for approximately two and a half hours per day just to maintain the muscle mass and fitness they had when they left Earth.
According to a great article on Furthermore, astronaut Kate Rubins talks of having to complete six-hour underwater training runs with a 300 pound suit on to simulate space walks.
On the international space station there’s also a seat-less bike and a weight-training system called the ARED which can generate resistance equivalent to 600 pounds.
How can you achieve peak human condition?
Reaching peak human condition is a little more difficult for the vast majority of us living regular lives and working full time. Even so, anyone can work towards getting into excellent shape.
In Relentless, Tim Grover mentions that “Cleaners” – those performing at the very top level in sports – often have an attitude where they are always asking themselves about the next victory they can aim for, or the next boundary they can push. When it comes to aiming for peak human conditioning, this is a crucial way of thinking.
At its core, peak human condition comes down to:
To help your body deal with the large volume of training you’ll need to do to reach peak condition, your diet will need to be dialed in. Processed, high sugar and junk foods will need to be eliminated or severely reduced, and you’ll need to follow a diet high in healthy foods.
A good diet I’ve followed to help me deal with 6 – 7 workouts per week is the primal diet from Mark Sisson. He recommends a wholefood-style diet free from grains and high in good fats from foods such as avocados, olive oil and fish.
Training will take center-stage in the journey towards peak human condition. Most of those in peak human condition have a background in sports for a reason: many sports such as basketball, sprinting, triathlon or soccer require vast amounts of cardio performance which can vary from low-to-medium intensity all the way up to high intensity.
Like many other people of my age group, I grew up thinking that weights training with a bodybuilding program would make me fit. After years of solely working out with weights 4 – 5 times per week, I realised that I couldn’t even run for 10 minutes without puffing out.
Eventually I moved towards a more holistic training program where I would train weights three days per week, sprint once per week and then go for a longer 45 minute run once per week. In the last three years I’ve been doing a high intensity sport/martial art (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) 3 – 4 sessions per week, plus a run and two weights sessions. This has gotten me in excellent shape at 12% body fat.
Training hard each week will take its toll on the body, which is why most high level athletes will regularly get remedial massages, stretch or even follow a yoga routine. In his podcasts with Joe Rogan, David Goggins mentions he stretches for about two hours per day.
Other methodologies like heart rate variability tracking can also be used to tailor your workouts and recovery methods depending on your score. I track my heart rate variability and exercise readiness using the new Oura ring.
The running theme of this article is that peak human condition isn’t built on brawn alone. The mind can both promote or limit your performance depending on your mindset, which is why I recommend David Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me.
Goggins also talks about the 40% rule, where we usually give up at 40% of our maximum capability. I try to remember this when I’m in a particular hard workout or in a difficult wrestle session to push myself harder.
I also have a performance statement which I internally recite during jiu jitsu rounds which I learned from the book 10-Minute Toughness by Jason Selk. This is a great way to refocus and push out the negative thoughts during tough workouts or sporting events.
A performance statement is basically a short statement that refocuses you on the current moment rather than the end result. It helps build confidence rather than letting your mind spiral downwards, and according to research, can actually help you get better results.
For example, my performance statement while wrestling is “Position, posture, submission”. If I focus on this rather than negative thoughts I tend to perform better.
Performance of skills
In many of the cases above, peak human condition is used to support specific skills. Special forces soldiers for example must be physically fit so they can fulfil their mission while under stressful and physically challenging circumstances. This can involve setting up or using complex equipment.
What’s the future of peak human condition?
In one of my favourite video games, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we’re introduced to a world in 2027 where biotechnology has made artificial “augmentations” possible. In this possible transhumanist future view of the world, main character Adam Jensen is almost killed in a terrorist attack but kept alive using augmentations.
These augmentations move him way past peak human condition into something quite different. He’s able to upgrade his body and brain to be able to hack computer terminals, analyse human interactions with a special social implant, upgrade his arms to a stronger version which allows him to punch through walls, and even augment his health system to administer aid to fight injuries and infections.
Could this be the future of peak human condition? One where we aren’t really even strictly human anymore?
There are also biohackers who improve their performance using optimised diets, supplements and technology. There’s always new scientific research be released to help push the boundaries even more. How far will they be able to push human potential?
I hope you enjoyed this article! Have a question or a suggestion? Let me know below.