Breaking Barriers: How to Achieve More Than You Think is Possible

While most of America slept last night, Lelisa Desisa, Eliud Kipchoge and Zersenay Tadese attempted to run a marathon in 1:59:59 or faster. The official International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF) World Record for men is 2:02:57, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon. Sports scientists and the running community have long debated whether breaking the 2-hour barrier is physiologically possible. To do it a runner must maintain a 4:34 pace (13.13mph) for 26.2. miles. And although I know the results I won’t spoil the surprise for you, because the most important takeaway for me – and hopefully for you – is how much more we learn from the process than from the result.

The Breaking 2 project from Nike was an engineered record attempt rather than a race, so the actual recognized World Record was never in danger. This allowed the science teams working on the project to push outside the regular rules for marathon competitions. Drafting is allowed in competition, but the Breaking 2 attempt went beyond ad hoc drafting to a highly-structured and choreographed rotation of pacers. They used a moped to deliver fluids to the runners rather than the typical stationary handoff, as well.

Why do all of this if the record wasn’t going to count anyway?

The runners, sports scientists, and yes… even Nike, did it because breaking records has a proven effect on raising the bar for performance across an entire sport. There was a time when running a 4-minute mile was deemed impossible. Roger Bannister finally did it on May 6, 1954 and the record was broken 4 more times within the following 13 months

Sometimes breaking through a long-standing barrier doesn’t always mean other athletes will soon supersede that performance. More often, we see an increase in the number of athletes who beat the old – formerly thought to be unbreakable – record. Once something is known to be possible, athletes who were previously unable to do it find a way to get there. It’s a phenomenon that repeats itself outside of sport as well. Technology, fuel efficiency, business models, even political movements can be influenced by the same forces. If I told you 20 years ago you would carry around a $700 piece of glass that replaced a phone, camera, flashlight, calendar, photo album, computer and more, you would have laughed at me. If I told you 10 years ago you would use that device to hail a stranger to give you a ride to the airport in his or her personal vehicle, you would have laughed at me, too. But how many follow-on innovations and products and models come on the heels of the first-movers? Tons.

How Breaking 2 Affects You

Most of us will never attempt to break a World Record, but we all have barriers we perceive to be unbreakable. It could be setting a new personal best on a local climb, or winning a National Championship after years of trying. It could be finishing a 100-mile ultramarathon inside the time cutoff, or finishing the Leadville 100 in under 9 hours to get a big belt buckle. Outside of sport it could be getting a promotion, starting a business, getting into a relationship, or maybe getting out of one.

Whatever your barrier is, doing the same things you have already done isn’t going to work any better than before. You have to do what barrier breakers before you have done: Toss convention out the window. Forget about anyone’s expectations. Entertain the crazy ideas and take them seriously enough to examine whether they might actually work. The worst-case scenario is you’ll end up right back where you are now, but even if that’s the case you will also have learned valuable lessons.

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The other thing to remember about breaking personal barriers is that the first result isn’t the most important. What’s most important is that you’re on the other side of that barrier. You know it’s possible. To use sport as the example because it’s what I know best, maybe you broke your 40km TT record by 2 seconds when your goal was to beat it by 30 seconds. Don’t focus on being 28 seconds slower than your goal; you’re 2 seconds faster than you’ve ever gone!

Whether in elite sports or in own lives, change leads to movement and creates momentum. If your training progress is stuck or your motivation and interest are waning, it’s time to shift your perspective and look at what you’re doing from a different angle – or several! You have not achieved everything you can, but maybe you have achieved everything you can from the way you’ve been approaching it up to now.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 4

  1. change leads to movement and creates momentum.
    What a fantastic line. I will get much use out it! Thank you for the continued valuable insights.

  2. When one says “yes,” things change. When one says, “no,” the status quo remains. This is true in cycling. I believe this is true in life.

  3. This is a very timely article for me. Last Wednesday I had a personal record performance in a group ride. Now I’ll be motivated to repeat that performance in future group rides, and to achieve personal record performances in the gran fondo events in which I’ll participate this year.

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