Smash Your Records

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

CHRIS McCORMACK HAS WON more than 200 triathlons. If he starts a race, by his own reckoning he has a 75 percent chance of winning it. Only a handful of humans have taken less than 8 hours to complete an Ironman, with its 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. But McCormack has done it four times, on two different courses. So when you ask him about when he came closest to his max performance, the furthest he could push himself in a race, you'd think he'd mention one of those wins. He doesn't. Instead, he talks about the 2006 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, a race in whic...

CHRIS McCORMACK HAS WON more than 200 triathlons. If he starts a race, by his own reckoning he has a 75 percent chance of winning it. Only a handful of humans have taken less than 8 hours to complete an Ironman, with its 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. But McCormack has done it four times, on two different courses.

So when you ask him about when he came closest to his max performance, the furthest he could push himself in a race, you'd think he'd mention one of those wins. He doesn't. Instead, he talks about the 2006 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, a race in which he finished second. "It was the absolute maximum I could possibly take my body," he says. "Your body allows you to go there only once or twice in your life."

To understand how and why he arrived at that point, it helps to know some context. The first time McCormack competed in Hawaii, in 2002, he said to a reporter, "I'm here to win." That comment had everyone rooting against him. He was leading for a while, but then cramped up and quit with 20 miles of the run to go. He walked the last few miles in 2003, dropped out again in 2004, and finished sixth in 2005.

Then came 2006, when McCormack went all-out, ran a technically perfect race...and still finished 71 seconds behind the winner.

You'd think he would've been as devastated emotionally as he was physically—and after the race he was a wreck, taking 2 liters of fluid through an IV in the medical tent. Instead, here's how McCormack describes the moment: "There's nothing more satisfying."

Contrast that with the experience of powerlifter A.J. Roberts. On the best day of his career, Roberts gave what might have been less than his absolute best performance. He'll never know.

Powerlifting is a brutal pursuit. Travel and gear are expensive, nobody makes any money, and anybody who's good at it is in pain much of the time. A personal-record effort in the squat might burst so many capillaries in a guy's eyeballs that he'd look like he was coming off a 12-day bender. There's only one good reason to compete: to pull and push heavy things that no sane person would try to move without a forklift.

That's what Roberts was doing at a powerlifting meet on March 6, 2011. He did it so well that he didn't miss a single lift the entire day. In powerlifting you have three tries in each of usually three contested lifts—squat, bench press, and deadlift—and he completed all nine attempts. By the end of the day, he had set personal records in each lift, and the sum of those lifts was a world record for the 308-pound weight class. The only guy in the sport to reach a higher total outweighed Roberts by more than 50 pounds.

"I left the meet happy for one day," Roberts says. "It was a surreal feeling to go through the day hitting numbers and thinking, I wonder what I could do if I really pushed it? Maybe I limited myself."

That's the paradox of max effort, however you define it and however you pursue it: Your best possible performance isn't necessarily the one that brings home the trophy. And bringing home the trophy doesn't necessarily mean you did the best you could have done.

The Agony of Victory

Let's step away from these champions for a moment and talk about someone who matters more: you. Chances are, you aren't a champion in anything more prestigious than the office fantasy football league.

Or we can talk about someone significantly less important: me.

I started lifting weights in my early teens, mostly out of desperation. I was slow, weak, and skinny, with average coordination and terrible eyesight. The one thing I could do well was exercise. That is, I could do the same thing over and over and grudgingly accept the incremental improvements I achieved.

For most of my adult life, that was good enough. But sometime in my early 40s, I discovered that the stronger I became, the better my muscles looked. I focused on pure strength for the next few years. I had no genetic advantages in this pursuit; I just wanted to see how far I could go.

My maxes were nothing special. A real lifter like Roberts wouldn't even warm up with my max deadlift, which was twice my body weight at the time. And on the day I lifted 360 pounds off the floor, it felt as if millions of years of hominid evolution were about to shift into reverse.

I completed the lift but swore that I would never try it again, much less attempt to go beyond it. My body sent me a clear and unequivocal message: That was your max! I knew I had done the absolute best I could do that day, given my age, body type, personal circumstances, and overall desire to walk upright for a few more years.Back to you, with a question: Have you ever gone to your max? That is, have you trained for something specific, like strength or endurance, and reached what you thought was your body's limit? If you work out for purely aesthetic reasons, have you ever been in the best possible shape you could achieve? You can expand the question to team sports: Have you practiced and trained to the point where you thought you maxed out your ability in that sport, and played it at the highest level you could?

It's not really a simple question, is it? First, you have to distinguish between a personal record and a max performance. You can go out today and set a PR in anything, as long as it's something you've never done before. If it's something you have done, you can find a way to do it slightly harder, better, or faster. Finish one more rep, run one more block, pick up the pace on that final lap, and you have a PR.

A max performance is something else. It can come only from dedicated training toward a specific goal.

What Is a Max?

There's one school of thought, popularized by South African sports scientist Timothy Noakes, M.D., D.Sc., that maintains it's impossible to reach your body's absolute limit. "Your body won't allow you to push beyond a certain level," says Thomas W. Rowland, M.D., author of The Athlete's Clock, a book that explores all aspects of peak performance.

"You shut down."

Dr. Rowland uses the example of a treadmill stress test to make his point. If you've never taken one, it goes something like this: A technician hooks up electrodes to your chest and tells you to start walking on the treadmill. The slope becomes steeper and the pace faster in 3-minute increments. At some point you have to start running. And then you run until one of three things happens: He stops the test because he's detected a problem with your heart; he ends the test when you hit a target heart rate; or you give up.

In the "you give up" scenario, imagine that your doctor offers you $2 million to keep going for another minute. "You'd do it," Dr. Rowland says. "You could go beyond what your brain has told you to do."

You still wouldn't run so hard that you'd hurt yourself, but you would find a way to earn that $2 million. I see his point. In my only stress test, I quit just short of 13 minutes. Sure, if the doctor had offered me $2 million, I would have gone that extra minute. Heck, I would've done it for lunch money. Absent any kind of incentive, though, I just wanted the damned thing to end.

You can call this the Yoda theory of peak performance: "Always in motion is your maximum."

University of Texas exercise scientist Ed Coyle, Ph.D., agrees, but only if we're talking about untrained individuals. The higher the level of training and experience an athlete has, the closer he or she can push toward that limit. "A lot of times with athletes, you can see that they're doing all they can just to stay upright," Coyle says. "I don't think even a million dollars would make a difference."

Amby Burfoot's winning performance of 2:22:17 in the 1968 Boston Marathon seems to support Coyle's position. He was a 21-year-old all-American in cross-country at Wesleyan University, where he was a senior. "In the middle of the race I did a little surge, and only one guy went with me," recalls Burfoot, a longtime Runner's World editor and columnist. He knew he couldn't outsprint that guy at the end of the race.

"My only hope was to completely destroy myself on the hills. He was still with me at the top. He cramped up on the downhill, and I staggered to the end. I had put it all out there at 21 miles. I staggered in a little bit ahead of him and everyone else."

So was that Burfoot's max, his best possible performance? Actually, it wasn't. That came 8 months later, at a marathon in Japan. Burfoot ran it in 2:14:29, within a second of the American record at the time. But he finished sixth. "Winning the Boston Marathon was a huge accomplishment," Burfoot says, "but I participate in a sport ruled by the watch." And the watch says the race in Japan was his max. The one he didn't win. Read on to discover how to achieve yours.