Sprinters are born, not made

Image: PhotoRun

Many people who ran track in high school remember the kid who showed up at practice one day and was immediately the best sprinter on the team. A new analysis of world-class sprinters supports the belief that you're either born fast or you're not.

Two professors at Grand Valley State University in Michigan looked at the biographies of 15 Olympic sprint gold medalists, including Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Marion Jones, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt. In every case, the runners were recognised as exceptionally fast by others before the runners began any formal training. Nine of the future Olympic champions were so fast as untrained youths that coaches in other sports and teachers encouraged them to join the track team.

The researchers also found that, once the runners started training, their road to the elite ranks was short. Most made their first Olympic or world championship team less than five years after beginning formal training. Jones and fellow American Evelyn Ashford were world-class within their first year of track training, the researchers say.

The researchers found the same pattern when they examined the biographies of the 20 fastest 100-metre men in U.S. history.

"Our results won’t come as a surprise to most biologists, sports scientists, or coaches—all of the previous data pointed to this conclusion,” said Robert Deaner, associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State. “But our results are important because the deliberate practice model and its ‘10-year rule’ [for elite talent in any field to become apparent] remains enormously popular among many social scientists and intellectuals."

While the study's conclusion might seem no-duh obvious to some, it's important to note that its findings aren't necessarily true for distance runners. Nobody becomes a world-class distance runner without a lot of natural ability, and in some people, that ability is apparent from their first run. But not always.

Brian Sell, who made the 2008 U.S. Olympic marathon team, graduated from high school with bests of 4:28 for 1600 metres and 10:06 for 3200 metres, which are above-average times but hardly the sort that portend running a 2:10:47 marathon. Even Jim Ryun, who broke 4:00 for the mile as a high school junior, was initially one of the slowest members of his school's cross country team. Unlike any world-class sprinter who comes to mind, their potential became apparent only after a lot of hard training.