The Big Three: Talent vs. Work Ethic vs. Mental Toughness- Which matters the most?

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.
kara goucher
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?
little runners
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.
tough runner
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?

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13 thoughts on “The Big Three: Talent vs. Work Ethic vs. Mental Toughness- Which matters the most?

  1. Hm…tough call. But I think work ethic is my favorite, because it does encompass some of the mental aspect as well.

    And by the way, your blog posts are so freakin’ professional, you need to write a runner’s manual. Or a book. Or something….because you are a genius AND you write really well!!!

  2. Yay!! Look who can (finally) access these wonderful site again!!!
    I think I am strongest in the mentality category. While I am definitely not genetically blessed with traits required for a successful runner I think I use that as motivation to prove my body wrong. I am a strong believer in the power of our mental strength and I love the way you put it – callousing the mind. There is that saying about running with your heart in the last third. I truly believe that.
    I think work ethic is a huge contributor to a runner’s success. Actually to anybody’s success. You can be the smartest kid in class but if you never bother to put pen to paper, no one will ever know. The people who make it are those willing to put in the hard yards and create their reality by pouring blood, sweat and tears into the dream to make it come alive.
    I just wish I had been genetically blessed with legs that were a little longer.
    Just a little…

    • at long last!! ugh, i’m sorry this stupid web server was blocking u out, i fought and stuck it to them for that crime…they are now sorry they messed with me and my chickpea…hehe. 🙂

      awww, i have a feeling u have more runner genes that u give urself credit for, i’ve seen those pix! that said, u make up for any lackings with heart and spirit. 🙂

  3. this is tough for me. i think my strengths are putting my whole heart into something and working hard and refusing to give up (although sometimes that can be a weakness 😉 ). I have always been athletic but never felt that I have been super awesome at any athletic event…i have always felt that I have to work hard for goals and dreams. sometimes i fall into a rut of wishing i had more talent but i see my sister who has tons of talent and no heart or work ethic for it…so she fell quickly behind in the athletic realm after high school. so i wonder if maybe its the deep rooted passion and heart that keeps you striving..despite your beginning level of talent?

    • i have come to believe that in the end work ethic and mentality win out. 🙂 u my friend, have ample amounts and continue to gain more confidence in that truth…keep it up. 🙂

  4. gahhh your blog hasn’t updated in my google reader since like march! fail! but here I am, and this post is AWESOME. I think I have some genetic talent, my “normal” pace is quite a bit faster than the average female, and speedwork tends to affect me pretty quickly (I get faster pretty fast, if that makes sense lol). Of the other qualities, I’d say my biggest strength is definitely work ethic. I’m diligent, I don’t give up, and I make sure to give my best effort. I go out and train when I’m tired, when its cold etc – I stay the course! lol! That’s just my personality I guess, it’s really how I approach everything (school, jobs etc). I definitely need to work on my mental toughness though, or at least my confidence – that’s what holds me back!

    • not again, more Google reader prob’s!! okay, i tried and tweaked some things with my RSS feedburner, so will u let me know if u start getting updates, please? i’m sorry…my site is obviously not getting along with anyone…lol! that said, i think tenacity is a huge factor…and u got that girl. 🙂 (in addition to other great traits too of course…hehe)

  5. Hmm. not sure which is my best. I’m pretty good at working hard and sticking to a plan. I do think I probably run my easy runs too easy because I never wear a garmin and have no idea what pace I’m going (ie if plan calls for 40 min, I just go run 40 min, never take Garmin, etc). I don’t think I have a lot of natural talent or I would have found running before age 23! (tennis player through college). I think I race pretty well – I just have to make sure I don’t get in my own way too much, but I tend to surprise myself a lot in races (or just tend to underestimate my abilities maybe, although lately I’ve been sort of aggressive in thinking about what I can do.)

    So I guess I’m a pretty hard worker and good competitor, most of the time. As far as talent, I guess someone else has to be the judge of that. I’ve been running 3 years and have improved, but it’s not hard to improve when you start off slow/not knowing how to race (ie that racing is painful).

    I just really wish I could change my form. I think it would help a lot/look better! I’m not sure if at 26 yo that it is too far gone!

    • u are NEVER too far gone! work on that form missy…hehe. 🙂 that said, i think that one of the best things with running is that u can find it any age and with hard work and motivation always improve. 🙂

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