Talent v. training in runners

Comparing sprints and distance running yields insights about the role of talent.


by Alex Hutchinson

It's been almost six years now since Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers brought the idea of a "10,000-hour rule" to widespread attention. The debate about the relative importance of talent versus training in academic circles is, if anything, fiercer now than it was then. New studies continue to appear, like those in the current special issue of the journal Intelligence (including one on child prodigies, a powerful counterexample to the 10,000-hour rule) and one that examines the training histories of Olympic and NCAA sprinters to argue that (as the title puts it) "You can't teach speed."

What does the debate tell us about running? And what light can running shed on the debate? What follows below are some thoughts (and helpful diagrams) from Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic. As well as being a prolific and influential researcher (one of his classic papers from more than two decades ago figures prominently in a feature I've just finished for a forthcoming issue of Runner's World), Michael writes a great blog called Human Limits, which you should check out if you haven't already. Here's his take on talent vs. training, using running as an illustration:

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The never ending discussion about talent vs. training has popped up again with a recent meta-analysis of a large number of studies on the role of innate talent that showed talent matters. The flip side of the argument that talent or perhaps genius is over-rated has also received renewed attention. This argument is a spin-off of the classic nature vs. nurture discussion that has been ongoing since antiquity and was popularized in large part by the Victorian scientist Francis Galton, who by the way was a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton was perhaps the first scientific advocate of nature over nurture.

Whenever this debate gets renewed attention in the media, my friends and colleagues start asking me what I think about things like the so-called 10,000 hour rule that argues for the primacy of practice over talent in developing expert performance. In an effort to simplify and explain a few key concepts about this debate I generated a couple of charts that folks have generally found useful. I used sprinting vs. distance running in the charts because it is something simple that almost everyone does as a kid and it does not take a lot of special equipment or training to try your hand at running.

The two charts show how innate “talent” and what is called “trainability” or the response to practice interact. The two charts show people with either a lot of talent or “no” talent.  For each talent category, there are diverging lines that show extremes of the response to training.  Some people are more responsive to training than others. 

Using 100m sprint as an example of something where elite performance is mostly talent and where training will get you only so far to world class. Importantly a hypothetical person with no talent will never have a performance that overlaps with the talented person even if they respond massively to training and improve their time from 20 seconds all the way down to 14 seconds. This chart is backed by both anecdotal evidence and scientific findings that show sprinters are mostly born and not made.

For a 10k where training will cause bigger relative improvements in performance in both the talented and untalented. The key point is that given enough training the performances of at least some people with “no” talent can sometimes equal or surpass the performances of some talented individuals, especially an untrained or undertrained talented person.

All of this means that to be truly “elite” you have to have a combination of talent, trainability and training to get there.  However, depending on the individual and event, the mix of the three factors varies considerably.

One of the other challenges in navigating this discussion is what “expert” performance is or is not. For the marathon is it finishing under 3 hours, under 2:30, or being truly elite with a very fast time? In an extended analysis of the talent vs. training topic, I have used the story of Albion College distance coach Hayden Smith as an example. Hayden was a good small college sprinter who ultimately ran 2:26 for the marathon after years of training. Hayden would be the first to ask just how fast 2:26 is or is not. Was Hayden an expert runner or do we reserve that category for the truly world class?

The main thing that hits me when I read the debate about talent vs. “10,000 hours” is that the people involved never talk much about these definitions and interactions. When I factor all of this in and then start considering more complex sports and things like music or intelligence, it seems to me that making definitive statements about talent vs. practice or training is an exercise in futility. 

In the final analysis we don’t have much control over our innate talent but we do have control over how we use it via smart training and practice.


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