Despite all the hype and spectacle that surrounds the elite athletic community and exercise and fitness industry. Despite all the wonderful gadgets, latest trends and fads are we really better athletes than we were 100 years ago?

If you’ve heard my story then you’ll know that I worked my way back into fitness by following a physical exercise program that was written in 1912.

1912! Just let that idea settle in for a second.

The program was called The Natural Method and it was grueling, difficult and hard work, but it gave results. My success with the program really made me wonder, “If a fitness program that’s 100 years old can be relevant and useful today then are we really any better, athletically, than we were say 50, 70 or 100 years ago?”

I mean for all the hype surrounding our seemingly endless athletic progress the human form has not undergone a radical evolutionary change. We’re not some new super-species and we still have the same anatomical structure as our ancestors had 100,000 years ago.

You know me.

When I find an interesting question, I do some digging!

So I dug. And I found this!


In 1972, a Belgian named Eddie Merckx set the world record for the farthest distance traveled on a bicycle in one hour. The distance: 30.715 miles, or 49.431kms. This record stood for 12 years!

In 1996, the one hour record was held by British born Eric Boardman. His distance: 35.030 miles, or 56.375kms.

That’s a massive difference off 6.944kms!

But there’s another important difference.

Merckx road a regular steel frame with spoke wheels. Boardman road the Louts 110: a monocoque frame, with one disc and one tri-spoke wheel, aerodynamic bars, time trial helmet and a skin suit!

In short, Boardman used everything short of a cannon strapped to his ass to help him fly over land as fast as possible!

Things must have been getting a little crazy in the ‘man v machine’ debate for the international cycling community, because in 1997 they established two one hour record options.

Option one, the ‘UCI Hour Record’ that restricted riders to using the equivalent equipment that Merckx used in 1972.

Option two, the ‘Best Human Effort’ which is an all out tech-fest. Here, if you’re allowed to strap a rocket to your ass you can!

In 2000, Boardman ditched the Lotus and suited up to give the UCI Hour Record a red hot go. His distance: 30.721 mi, or 49.441 km. 10 meters better than Merckx did in 1972!

Here, it seems that the entire difference in distance traveled between Merckx and Boardman can almost entirely be reduced to developments in technology. Two supremely heroic men, but one man has better tech!

100m Sprint

In 1936 Jesse Owens, then regarded as the fastest man alive, ran the 100m in 10.2sec. In 2013, Usain Bolt ran the 100 in 9.77sec. A difference of approximately 14 feet (4.2m)! That’s a HUGE difference in sprinting terms.

But hang on!

Jesse ran the 100m on a carpet of burnt wood: cinders. And he used a trowel to dig out his starting blocks.

Usain ran on a synthetic track specifically designed to allow a person to travel as fast as humanly possible over land on two legs and he started the race in modern starting blocks.

Of these differences one bright spark wondered, “What difference does the surface texture make to running speed?”

It turns out that this is a very good question with a very short answer: A LOT! The soft cinders that Jesse ran on sucked an enormous amount of energy from his effort. Just think about the difference between running through soft sand at the beach verse running on pavement.

Another bright spark was able to determine Jesses leg speed by conducting a biomechanical analysis of his joints while running.

And get this, when Jesse’s leg speed was modeled on a modern synthetic running surface, where do you think he was in relation to Usain in that 2013 race? One stride behind and not 14 feet!

Two incredibly talented runners. One with better tech.

100m Freestyle

The time for the 100 meter swim has been steadily trending down, but what’s fascinating about the timeline of this downward trend is that it is punctuated by steep drops. Moments in time where swimmers just get really fast at getting really fast.

So what’s going on?

Well the answer should obvious to the reader by now. The big drops in swim times happen concurrently with technological improvements and innovations.

In 1956 it was the spin turn. The underwater somersault that allowed a swimmer to turn or somersault underwater and propel themselves with greater speed and force back towards the other side.

In 1976 it was pool gutters. Those grills that line the edge of lap pools that put an end to wave splash back and reduce the turbulence that impedes the swimmer.

In 2008, it was full body low friction swim suit.

We’re not so special!

Technology, it seems, masks a very real and often unrecognised truth: our bodies are no different!

Sure we train smarter. We know more. We’ve become sporting specialists in every sporting genre and our best minds have dug deeper into what equals perfection.

Trainers, coaches and teams actively source the very best bodies to perform a very specific task and then they augmented those bodies with the best technology.  All of which gives the appearance of having evolved into some form of modern super-human athlete, but we haven’t.

What’s my point?

The point of this blog is simple, despite all the hype and spectacle that surrounds the exercise and fitness industry, all the wonderful gadgets, latest trends and fads, don’t be fooled, nothing much has changed.

Squats are squats. Walking is walking. Something heavy is a weight! And rope climbing is still rope climbing. So don’t overthink it!

For the person not wanting to appear at the next Olympic Games, being fit is a relatively straight forward process.

There are a million different methods to get fit: HIIT, CrossFit, Zoomba, Animal Flow. Hot Yoga. But there really is only one universal, timeless, one size fits all, fitness solution. Move your whole body and move it often!

Damien Norris is the founder and senior whole-body movement and lifestyle coach at The Wilding Project (LINK), Perth Western Australia.

Recently featured in TEDxPerth (LINK), Damien teaches children, young people, adults and seniors how to move and live a full life!

Olympic Fun & Fitness and The Wilding Project like Rewilding is dedicated to a movement rich life. Programs like Gymnastics, GymFIT, FootyEDGE, Parkour, Workplace Athletes, ActiveAgers and more all follow a simple philosophy, “Learn to move well and then never stop.”