What makes the most successful runners, is the talent, hard work ethic or mental toughness that matters the most? Sure, genetics come into play, one can’t overlook that as a factor, but running isn’t the kind of sport where you can make it to top off of pure talent alone. Eventually even the most talented ‘slackers’ hit their glass ceilings and get outpaced by the runners who refuse to let their genetic short-comings stand in their way and rely on dedication and perseverance.
Then there is grit. There are runners who make running look ugly, each step painful and torturous, mostly because it is, but they battle the pain, embrace it, run towards it even unlike their competitors can. There are also the types of runners who tend to rise to the occasion, when they toe the line they are able to step it up to a new level and perform even better than their workouts may have predicted. I like the term Shalane Flanagan has used, these are the ‘gamers.’
All runners possess each of these but to varying degrees; of course we’d like to be blessed with all of them to the utmost but we can’t, so let’s not get greedy. However, which would you say is the most important, which would you say should be factored in the most, and which is the hardest to make up for?
Talent. You can’t fake that, you can’t really change much of it either…you sort of have it or you don’t. Fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fiber ratio tends to predispose you to the event you’re best at; with certain training and exercises you can increase or build up the kind you may be lacking in, but to at a certain point you’ll max out. Your max heart rate and VO2 Max are other things you can only improve on so much before you’re tapped out. Form; some runners take to it naturally and make the act look effortless, even beautiful. Here there is a lot more ‘wiggle room’ and with diligent work and practice even the ugliest runner can improve their form.
Work ethic. Running can’t be faked…you can’t luck your way into the hole in one equivalent of a fast race. A prime example of this is when you see the young age-grouper kids tearing it up and winning off of talent, they get to high school and even there they can excel for awhile. But come senior year and college, if they are used to being able to skate by with skipped runs they get a cold slap of reality when they can’t win so easily any more. Here is where they can either learn and find the motivation to re-dedicate themselves and they gain that self-motivation if they want to continue to thrive; if they don’t then they can settle. The hard workers, these are the cases where ‘unknown’ runners hit their big coming out moment and get thrust into the spotlight. The thing is, they’ve been flying under the radar for a long time, diligently working away, taking the loses or back of pack status in stride and then all of that hard work finally pays off.
Mentality. Grit and mental toughness probably holds the most mystic as it can’t exactly be quantified or tested. There isn’t really a measuring system for it and even the ‘gamers’ can’t fully explain how they are able to step up, hone their focus, and block out the pain so well, they just do. I think that being able to block out the pain is certainly something that can continually be worked on and that our thresholds can always be pushed. I know there are times where I know for a fact I’ve hit a new level of pain. I think that comes from experience, hard workouts, races; these callous the mind. Visualization and other techniques are also at our disposal. Generally, just proving that voice in your mind telling you that you can’t is instrumental; your mind is often the biggest limiting factor but every time you ignore it and hit a new goal you reinstill that when it screams at you to stop and you can’t do something, it is only a farce. “You can’t run 10 miles without stopping,” the voice says…you do it, one point for you, a loss for the mind.
Runners fall across the spectrum on all of these; hard work and mental toughness are perhaps the two ‘easiest’ ones to manipulate and improve upon. There is always room to grow…what it often comes down to is practice, the motivation to get better, and then just getting out there and doing it day in and day out. How much do you want it?
1) Which of these do you feel is your greatest strength? Which do you feel is your weaker point?
2) Which do you think is the greatest factor in determining your running success? Which do you feel maybe matters the least?
3) Who are some runners that you feel are examples of harriers that have a strong ability in one of these traits?
For grit, Paula Radcliffe, Alberto Salazar, and Adam Goucher are just a few that instantly spring to mind.
4) Which do you wish you had the most of, admire in other runners the greatest, and what do you want to do to improve on that trait?