Talent or Training?

Every now and again I myself trawling through the Facebook and Twitter feeds of friends for inspiration as to what to write about next. Sure, there is news, races and events that fill the pages week in, week out and I’m sure there are hundreds of topics we haven’t yet broached or written upon yet, but a little post on Facebook from someone last week got me thinking about this article.

The post pointed out the so-called lack of ‘talent’ this individual had and that she needed to train more to increase her talent.

It got me thinking. From my perspective the two are not linked to each other, they are mutually exclusive and I thought it would make for a good discussion around a number of issues, namely:

  • Those who have talent, but are content to ride that wave with little training
  • Those with very little talent, but their training takes them way above what you would regard to be their ability

What is talent?

Before we dive headfirst into this, it’s worth pausing and defining what we mean by talent. If we take the official definition, it states ‘a natural aptitude or skill for something’. At a base level, we all have some form of talent, otherwise we wouldn’t be here on this planet running ultras. But we have varying degrees of talent and it’s also a rather subjective term too.

On a personal level, I don’t regard myself as having much talent when it comes to running. Generally, I finish in the top 5-10% of most fields I run in, (generally, not always), and to someone a little further down the listings, I may appear to have some form of talent for running ultras, despite what I may think about my own ‘talent’. For me, the guys and girls with talent are the real top end of the sport. I’m not even talking about people who win races, you can still win a race with very little talent on your side.

This girl has bags of talent
This girl has bags of talent

The types of people I’m talking about are those people who have that little bit of something extra about them. They’re the guys and girls who have that “je ne sais quoi”. They have some form of natural ability that they were born with, be it genetics or some other higher power that is unexplainable. If you want me to name a few, the obvious one would be a certain Kilian Jornet. Due to birthplace, genetics or whatever he’s eating up there in the mountains, this guy is one of those freaks of nature born with all the talent in the world. For the ladies, I’d probably call out Rory Bosio from the US, or Kiwi Anna Frost. Girls, whom in their prime, quite happily ‘mow’ down most of the male field in races.

On a local level, David Byrne has bags of talent as a runner. Hanny Allston is one that I would call out for the ladies being a world champion in her chosen sport. They’re the people who make running look effortless and can just naturally perform.

All the gear and no idea

Importantly however, I’m not calling out these people as those who have bags of talent, but ride that wave with very little training. The good news is that once that talent is recognised, many of them do great things with it to realise their full potential. But there can be a tendency for those with talent to do the opposite. The simple reason being that they know they can win races and/or beat most of the field with very little training. Their base level is enough to get them through and complacency sets in.

I used to play rugby with a guy at university who was just that. He was content with being a big fish in a small pond, where in reality he should have been off playing professional rugby with the big boys, training hard and making a name for himself. Likewise I know one of two in the running world who have all the talent in the world, yet they don’t utilise that talent, train hard and become their best self.

When training takes over

Ability is one thing, training hard is far more important to reach your best potential
Ability is one thing, training hard is far more important to reach your best potential

The interesting bit though I feel is the second point around lack of talent, but unrivaled dedication that sees people with what you might regard as very little talent winning big races. That’s the exciting bit and the area that is relevant for 99.9% of us. When does training, or rather ‘application’ of training take over from talent? Importantly, what mix of the two is required to start doing well in races?

I liken this equation to something I’ve learned while running a business. Eighty percent of your revenue generally comes from the top twenty percent of your clients. Likewise, that eighty percent of revenue is generally managed by the top twenty percent of people in your business. The rest is mediocrity. I’d argue a similar equation between talent and training. Talent may make up around twenty percent of your result, the rest (eighty percent) is just pure hard graft, or training. Of course I’m generalising, and it differs from person to person.

So if you feel as though you have very little talent, but you want to do well in ultra running, what do you need to do to be successful?

The simple answer is hard graft and dream big. The biggest thing that let’s most of us down is our own perception of what we think is achievable. Anyone can train hard, but doing it effectively is another thing entirely. But still the biggest barrier is changing the mindset. So how do you do it? Here are three things you can apply in your training to push beyond what you think is possible from your own performance:

1.) The role of motivation
A study(1) timed how long people could hold a wall sit for. Without fail when they were offered money they could hold the sit position for longer. The more money they were offered the longer they could hold the position for. How can muscle fatigue be the reason for the length of their wall sit when they were able to hold for longer when offered more money? Motivation must be a factor. The mind was able to override the fatigue from the legs in order to obtain something valuable, in this case money, and the more money offered the greater the motivation. The solution? Keep motivated and push beyond what you think is possible.

Is the hill really steep? Or could you run up it if you put your mind to it?
Is the hill really steep? Or could you run up it if you put your mind to it?

2.) Rate of perceived exertion (RPE)
Is rate of perceived exertion based on physical or mental feedback? Researchers tested this by manipulating the clock during a 10km cycling time trail asking cyclists to perform three 10k time trials, one with a slowed down clock, one with a sped up clock and one with a normal clock(2). When the cyclists rode against the slowed down clock the workload in the last 5k was higher and significantly higher in the last km. Remember with a slow clock the cyclists would have felt they were going faster. The cyclists RPE was statistically similar for all three conditions (fast clock, slow clock, normal clock).

The authors argue that there is a psychological and physiological component to RPE. When the psychological component was reduced (due to the cyclists thinking they were riding faster) the physiological component was increased to maintain a rate of perceived exertion that the athlete felt was the hardest they could maintain until the end. Hence the increased workload as the time trial progressed.

Apply the mind
Apply the mind

Mental fatigue 
Exercising when mentally fatigued can reduce performance. In a timed cycle to exhaustion test(3) participants spent the preceding 90 minutes either performing a demanding cognitive task or watching emotionally neutral documentaries. Those that performed the cognitive task rated perception of effort to be higher and showed significantly reduced time to exhaustion.

So if we go back to our runner’s post on Facebook. You don’t necessarily train harder to increase your talent. Talent you’re born with, a skill and there’s not a lot you can do to change that. Training harder increases your ability to reach your best self. The question is, what’s your perception of what your best self actually is? Go out and find it!

(3 tips credit – Andy DuBois)


1) Money vs pain: Experimental study of a conflict in humans
M. Cabanac
Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour
Volume 46, Issue 1, pages 37–44, July 1986
2) Deception by manipulating the clock calibration influences cycle ergometer endurance time in males
Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport
Volume 12, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages 332–337
R. Hugh Morton
3) Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans
Samuele M. Marcora , Walter Staiano , Victoria Manning
Journal of Applied Physiology 1 March 2009 Vol. 106
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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “Talent or Training?

  1. And how are some people hugely talented at 5k, 10k, half marathoners and even marathoners but only “above average” ultra marathoners?

    Why did Kouros have little talent for the marathon but was untouchable any distance over 100 miles?

    Does Krupricka have talent or does he train harder that others?

    What does Meltzer have that makes him so good? He claims a V02 Max of 54!

    You could come up with plenty of anomilies

  2. I think physiologically there is a base talent. Then the ability to respond well to training is the next level. Perhaps the ability to stay motivated and train consistently is the real ‘talent’.

    But I stick with my theory that stubborness and a poor memory (of the pain) are the key ‘talents’ for ultra runners 🙂

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