Less Equals More When It Comes to Intensity

Last week I set off with the family for some camping. We had a long drive, and when I wasn’t attempting to rap along with Hamilton, I caught a few good podcasts.

My favorite was the recent Tim Ferriss interview with Hugh Jackman.

I knew the guy was a remarkable performer, but it sounds like he’s a great human too. I highly recommend the listen if you’ve got some time to kill.

It’s all good stuff, but specific to the consistent topic of this newsletter—human performance—the highlight was the 85% rule. The transcript of their conversation goes…

“And by the way, do you know the 85 percent rule? Do you know where that came from?

It came from a guy studying Carl Lewis, the sprinter.

He couldn’t understand why a guy who was routinely coming last or second-last after 40 meters, which traditionally in sprinting was meant to be where you won—you won in the first 40 from the start—how someone like that would always win by 10 yards at the end. And somebody was saying, “Well, he’s just a slow starter, but he’s got a long stride,” duh-duh-duh.

And then someone… This guy was studying it for a year, a sprint coach. And someone gave him, finally, one of those head-on shots—you know, they invented at the Olympics, that head-on shot where you watch them come down?

And he watched it over and over again. And he said, what he realized Carl Lewis did at the 50-meter mark, 60-meter mark, was that he did nothing. His breathing was exactly the same. His form is exactly the same as had been between meters 25 and 50. Whereas everyone else starts to push to the end, trying—” Gonna try a little extra harder!”—and he said their face would scrunch up, their jaw would tighten, their fists would start to clench. Whereas Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same and then he would just breeze past them. So that’s where he invented the 85 percent rule.

I haven’t landed on the source for this yet. I’ll keep digging, but if you have it, please send it my way. The best support I found was this article discussing the Physiology and Biophysics of the 100-m Sprint, but it’s not specific to the “85% rule.”

Regardless of peer-reviewed research, the concept of don’t try so hard is usually good advice. Whether it’s going for a PR clean and jerk, working on the last out of the inning, or even practicing new guitar licks, adding stress and strain hinders performance and likely increases the risk of injury.

If you look at top performers in the field, it’s consistent that it always seems relaxed and effortless, like this slow-mo compilation of Steph Curry or this face-off between Froning and Fraser.

Remember this the next time you’re trying to crush it…

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

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