What Makes A Good Runner – Talent, Hard Work Or Purposeful Practice

What makes a good runner? Talent, hard work or purposeful practice? The answer will vary on who you ask but the question itself fascinates me.

Many believe natural talent takes the lead and our progress is limited by physique. Understandable when one runner can complete 10K in 40 minute on less training than another taking 50 minutes. But, for me the answer is much more complex.

What Makes A Good Runner – What I Learned From ‘Bounce’

Ever heard of a book called “Bounce”? Its a great read and really struck a cord with me. The author, Matthew Syed, believes talent is a myth and preaches the power of practice. Through his vast research you see athletes and academics who have become the best of their trade through pure hard work, thousands of hours of training and most importantly purposeful practice. The word purposeful is very important.

Circumstance (ie where you live and access to good training) also make a difference in high skilled sports. ‘Bounce’ uses research on Tigers Woods and the Williams sisters among many other Sportsman for evidence.

A worthy side note, Syed’s theory is strongest among high skilled sports so treads on murky water with running. There are many movements and skills which make up Tennis, Golf and the like, running is pretty limited in comparison. Having said that, Syed’s theory still holds its own to a point…let me elaborate.

What Makes A Good Runner – The Talent v Hard Work Crossover

We can all improve bio-mechanics, VO2 levels and other important factors that make up a good runner. Its just a question of our personal starting point and by how much each individual can improve each aspect.

Lets say you know a more ‘talented’ runner than yourself who does 70 miles a week of meaningful practice, you will struggle to pass him/her on the same or less training. If however, they do 20 miles a week, or less meaningful mileage at what point does the cross over begin? When does your effort surpass their talent? Surely a person with less talent doing much more work should at some point be able to outperform a more naturally talented runner.

I used to joke about striving for mediocrity, but in reality I just wasn’t training with purpose and often enough. Due to my self assigned tag of ‘less talented’ I put in less work and became a self fulfilling prophecy. How could we possibly know a persons talent until they have had the opportunity to develop it. Had I banished these negative thoughts and worked harder I may well see myself as a talented runner, right now. I never even gave myself the chance to develop.

Now that I am putting in the hours, it will be interesting to see how much improvement is made. How close can I get to the runners I perceive as more talented? Another interesting thought, when you reach mediocrity what stops you taking it further? For me its either circumstance or what I am willing to sacrifice.

What Makes A Good Runner? Circumstance v Talent

Expanding on that word circumstance, lets read a paragraph from ‘Bounce’ on long distance runners. Prior research has shown that one small location in Africa called the Nandi district makes up a chunk of elite African distance runners, this paragraph addresses why.

“Why are the Nandi so successful, then, if not primarily because of their genes? According to Pitsiladis, a key thing to note is that the top Kenyan athletes are predominantly from areas of high altitude, even relative to the rest of East Africa. Altitude training has long been used by endurance runners to improve performance because the thin air forces the body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which, in turn, boosts endurance.”

Living at altitude does not make you a good runner by default, but here is another quote from ‘Bounce’ elaborating.

“But when you also factor in the remarkable fact that many of Kenya’s top runners ran extraordinarily long distances to school, sometimes in excess of twenty kilometres per day, it is possible to see the beginnings of a persuasive explanation for the Nandi running phenomenon.”

What can we take from that? Living at altitude and running too and from school are circumstance, but I would also call it purposeful practice. About 90% of Kenya’s top runners are from a tiny area circling 60 miles, this suggests that circumstance plays a bigger part in development than talent.

Let me pause for a second, to emphasize. I am not suggesting talent is a myth, like Bounce may insinuate, I know it plays a role in running. I am merely toying with the logic that we can all strive much, much higher than we think possible. Sometimes our self assigned tags can hold us back, due to how we perceive our ability. Remember, runners develop much later and in different ways to other sportsman.

Injuries And Assets

Another factor which isn’t mentioned in ‘Bounce’ is injury. Some are more injury prone than others. If you train for four months just to be injured for the fifth your growth will be deeply hampered. However, if you do have ‘bad knees’ or over pronate, do something about it. So few runners do strength and conditioning for instance, it has transformed my body and reversed my injury prone self image.

Below are just some of the ingredients that form the ideal runner. Which asset is more important is up for debate (disclaimer, I know there are many more factors but this is just to demonstrate a point.)

  • Muscle strength
  • Running economy (so bio-mechanics and weight etc)
  • VO2 max
  • Purposeful practice
  • Quantity of training
  • Determination and drive
  • Injury proneness
  • Circumstance

Highlighted red are assets perceived as ‘talent’ driven, or the ‘way I’m made’. Though all three can be drastically improved by the assets highlighted blue…which are all well within our control.

Train yourself well or find a coach, train often, get focused, listen to your body and if you don’t like your circumstance, change them.

My circumstance weren’t great. I had no idea how to train, refused to train often and only ran on the flat. Now I have access to a top class coach and physio. I also drive further to train in the hills and it is already making a difference. Of course there are things I am not willing to change. Like my desk job, I’d be much better off if I worked on my feet all day.

Can you now see how important circumstance can be? For me it’s massively under rated.


Whatever your opinion, all of which I respect you cannot argue hard work and meaningful practice account for a junk of the running pie. Still not convinced? Well I’m putting this theory to test. Yes me, a useless, talent-less runner will strive and put everything out there to reach my potential. Lets see what that actually is. I never thought it possible to reach marathon distance, let alone compete in a race of any distance. Over the next year or two lets see just how far I can go.

Monthly training updates will show my progress and every race will be reviewed. I honestly can’t wait to fulfill my curiosity.

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Darren Smith

Training with purpose since October 2016 Darren has gone from trailing the pack to winning local races and the times keep on falling. A true believer in hard work over natural talent he writes to help others realise their true potential. Darren's race schedule for 2018 includes the Hardmoors Wainstones marathon (1st place), Keswick Mountain Festival (10th place), Scafell Skyrace and Salomon Ring Of Steall (World Championship race.)

7 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Runner – Talent, Hard Work Or Purposeful Practice

    • February 19, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Thanks David, appreciate the kind words…will drop by and bookmark you for future posts to keep track of your progress.

  • February 19, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    Darren, a great post. I consider myself a ‘deeply mediocre’ runner so as is often the case, haven’t really put really hard work in. Now training for London – at this point the focus is to stay injury free, get the miles in and not be embarrassed by my time as was the case with marathon no 1. Also trying to stay injury free which is the really big thing at this point. Post-marathon I want to kick things up a gear and see what I’m really capable of.

    I look forward to reading about how you get on!

    • February 19, 2017 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks Sophie, appreciate the comment. I think its a great subject and an area many take the easy way out in, that being assume your potential is what you already know. But I’ve seen great improvements since dedicating myself to training and its convinced me we are far more capable than we think. Of course we can’t all be elite and some are limited by their ‘talent’…but I am sure many are more limited by their perception of how talented they actually are, I certainly was. Fingers crossed you get through the avoiding injury phase to really kick on, good luck.

  • February 21, 2017 at 12:01 am

    I identify with your question of do I have what it takes to test the boundaries of talent vs. hardwork. With 6 HM’s including an off road HM and a 50K already completed, it’s obvious that I prefer not following a gradual progression, but embrace the freedom to run free, far and if possible, fast. But just how far, how fast? Like you, I want to know what it takes to run beyond my talents and to see if I have the level of commitment and determination to do so. Commitment to a goal at which I am determined to not fail; I’ll test my resolve this Spring with the Lake Sonoma 50M Run.
    I’d wish you good luck in your search, but we know it will take more than that to find what really makes a good runner. And by the way, no one who puts out any effort is a useless, talent-less runner.

    • February 21, 2017 at 7:29 pm

      Yes for me that is what its all about, pushing the limits and finding out what you’re really made of. Good luck with Lake Sonoma, lets hope your progression continues!

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