Distance running is one of the most physical but least technical sports. Invariably the question arises whether success in running depends more on raw talent than on practice. The age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. Legendary coach Jack Daniels identified 4 crucial factors for success: Talent, motivation, opportunity, and direction. In this article, you will learn to what extent you can take control.
“Most variables for faster race times are within your control.”
THE 4 INGREDIENTS OF SUCCESS IN THEORY
The bad news first: Not everybody can be the next David Rudisha or Mo Farah. We are born with a certain inherent ability and the domination of East Africans in distance running makes that all too clear. In other words, you have no control over your talent. That said, ability spans a wide spectrum of physiological characteristics and even elite athletes don’t display a “perfect” genetic profile.
Motivation, by contrast, is fully within your control. I also consider this as the most important factor for success (with the exception of elite performance). A “whatever it takes attitude” can get you very far in distance running. Front-pack runners are often thought to have great talent. But I would argue they are superior due to their commitment and consistency in the sport of running.
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Opportunity, too, plays a role in your success as a runner. That entails a climate that supports running year-round, access to a running track, a local gym, a running club—or at the very least running buddies to share knowledge and experiences with. Though, whatever your circumstances, there isn’t really an excuse for all those factors. Running is possible just about anywhere at low cost.
Direction – in the sense of structure – is perhaps the most undervalued ingredient in running. You may have talent, motivation, and opportunity but if you don’t follow a logical, systematic approach to training then you will never uncover your true potential as a runner. Just because running is a simple activity doesn’t mean your training can be simplistic. Exercise science is complex.
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THE 4 INGREDIENTS IN PRACTICE
As aforementioned, we can’t change our inherent ability. But we can choose the training for our type and pick the events we compete in. For example, a runner endowed with a large percentage of fast-twitch and intermediate fast-twitch muscle fibers excels at repetitions and intervals in training. Hence, this type of runner fares better over the 5K and 10K. Be in line with your unique talent.
When it comes to motivation, it really is a mixture of your psychological and physiological state. The former requires a champion attitude of making your runs the number 1 priority of the day. The latter is the outcome of a well-balanced endocrine system and central nervous system. This encompasses smart training, timely recovery, adequate sleep, and excellent nutrition.
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Opportunity, on the other hand, isn’t always in our favor. And yet, it is up to us to make the best out of any circumstances. If it rains or snows then dress accordingly. If you have an injury then cross train. If you don’t have a 400m track nearby then find a deserted road. If you don’t have a gym in your neighborhood then get your own weights. There’s no such thing as a lack of opportunity.
Finally, there’s direction. This includes your goal for your next race or the entire season and your training process. Setting lofty goals is the easy part. What really impacts your success is the training itself. You can’t expect to rise up to another level in running with a training plan that doesn’t feature a linear or non-linear periodization, variation of intensity, and a logical workout distribution.
In summary: Distance running is a sport with a fairly level playing field. Although some runners are undoubtedly gifted, the domains of opportunity, motivation, and direction are largely within our control. Ask any front-pack runner (like yourself hopefully) about his approach to running and you will discover a combination of intense passion, a logical training structure, and unshakeable discipline.
Sandro Sket, CSCS