Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: Talent vs. Training

>> Thursday, October 30, 2014

This idea comes up a fair amount when I'm talking with people about racing. How much of what we can do is TALENT, and how much is TRAINING? How much better can get get with proper training? (And on a personal level, is it worth all the hard training to drop XX seconds in any particular event?) Runner's World recently wrote about this, and they cited research from a July/August publication in the journal "Intelligence" and another journal article that looks at how much raw talent sprinters have and just how little/much they can be trained.

Dr. Michael Joyner (from the Mayo Clinic) broke down all the research, and here's what he has to say about all those articles and their stats:

The two charts show how innate “talent” and what is called “trainability” or the response to practice interact. The pairs of lines in each of the two charts show people with either a lot of talent or “no” talent. For each talent category, there are diverging lines that show extremes of the response to training. Some people are more responsive to training than others.



Chart 1 uses the 100m sprint as an example of something where elite performance is mostly talent and where training will get you only so far to world class. Importantly a hypothetical person with no talent represented by the bottom pair of lines will never have a performance that overlaps with the talented person even if they respond massively to training and improve their time from 20 seconds all the way down to 14 seconds. This chart is backed by both anecdotal evidence and scientific findings that show sprinters are mostly born and not made.

Basically, this shows that someone with little "talent" who runs a 0:20 100 meters will never be world class. It they were very "trainable," they could drop down to around 0:14, but that's nothing special. Conversely, someone with a lot of talent who can run the 100 meters in 0:11 could drop down to the world class level (0:10) if they were very "trainable." Even if they weren't very trainable, they could possibly get that 0:11 100 meters down to around 0:10.5.

This is something every track coach knows. I remember running 50 yard sprints at the start of each track season in high school to see who had the talent to start with. I (along with many of you readers) do not have that innate short-distance speed. As my high school track coach would always say, "Everyone and their Grandma thinks that they can be a sprinter." (But they can't.)

As an endurance athlete, I love to see this next graph:



Chart 2 uses the 10k where training will cause bigger relative improvements in performance in both the talented and untalented. The key point is that given enough training the performances of at least some people with “no” talent can sometimes equal or surpass the performances of some talented individuals, especially an untrained or undertrained talented person.

Let me reiterate a point made above: "The key point is that given enough training the performances of at least some people with 'no' talent can sometimes equal or surpass the performances of some talented individuals, especially an untrained or undertrained talented person." The lines CAN overlap in non-sprint races. The training DOES matter. It's not all talent. And if you've raced for a few years with different levels of training, you've seen this first hand.

The article is summed up succinctly with this:

All of this means that to be truly “elite” you have to have a combination of talent, trainability and training to get there. However, depending on the individual and event, the mix of the three factors varies considerably.

For more "Thirsty Thursday" posts (about training, science, and numbers), click the "Thirsty Thursday" tag.

2 comments:

Nikki,  7:15 AM, October 30, 2014  

This is like a billion-fold for swimming! Thanks for sharing the info

SteveQ 10:22 AM, October 30, 2014  

I knew a guy (former state record holder) who had not run a step for years, saw a race starting in front of his house, jumped in and ran a 10K under 32 minutes. Pure talent. I still beat him in a race once; you have to train hard, have everything go right and get lucky to catch them on an off day, but it's possible. I lived for those days.

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