Baby, Were You Born to Run Fast?

huskiesBy now we all know that running talent only goes so far and that, with hard work, smart training, and a lot of patience, most of us can become pretty darn fast. But no matter how hard we work, our genetic talent does dictate the absolute upper limit of our potential. That upper limit is the best we can possibly be if we perfectly trained and did all the ancillary stuff we should do.

Most of us reading this, even if we had access to the best coaches and training facilities, and did everything right, could never compete with the world’s best runners. Sure, many of us could become very very very good runners, but we could not be among the very best. At that highest level, that’s when talent makes the difference. But what is running talent?

In a quest to find out, I read David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, a riveting, often first-hand, investigation into this question. Epstein travels the world to seek out some of the world’s best athletes to identify what they have that the rest of us don’t. He doesn’t limit his query to runners, but nevertheless his findings are informative. 

To fully appreciate the genetics of sports talent though, Epstein looks to the migration of humans from Sub-Saharan Africa out into the rest of the world. He follow genetics experts who travel the globe collecting DNA samples and hunting for specific genes. He follows anthropologists explaining performance in models of human adaptation. In this search across the world, Epstein tries to answer the age old question: are the best athletes born that way or are they like you and me, working their entire lives to make it to the top?

The sports world once thought, laughably, that the best athletes would be found among average people. Over time, we’ve seen that, far from average sizes and shapes dominating, specialization rules. For some sports, the particular special characteristics that dominate are obvious. For example, one out of every six young men in the US that is over seven feet tall plays in the NBA right now. Other specializations are not so obvious. Major League baseball players have eyesight so keen, it approaches the theoretical maximum of human eyeball performance. Sometimes the specialization lies in gene mutations and other times in evolutionary adaptations to climate or circumstance.

Which brings us to running. East Africans, mainly from Kenya and Ethiopia, now dominate distance running, but is that merely genetics or a combination of climate, terrain, culture and genetics? If we look at world class runners from other parts of the world, they share similar traits with East African running stars: small and slight in stature with relatively long legs. Does that mean if you have short legs, are larger than tiny, or otherwise don’t “look like a runner” that you’ll never get anywhere in the sport?

The Sports Gene did not answer the very pressing question of why it is that a 5’ 8” Brit and not a 4’ 10” Kenyan holds the women’s marathon record. That Brit, Paula Radcliffe, who is relatively very tall and lanky and not at all like a tiny Kenyan, holds the world record in the marathon by a lot. She proves that “runner genes” are unnecessary, or that she has some other genetic attribute allowing her to overcome her large stature, or that she found a way to train or enhance her performance such that she was able to run her 2:15 marathon.

But Paula’s world record despite her height is not the best example for why you, who may not be tiny or East African or have long legs, have potential to run far faster than you think. For this let’s go back to the Sports Gene, where Epstein tells us about dogs. Yes, dogs. He went to Alaska to learn about the dogs who pull the winning Iditarod sleds around 350 miles through some of the harshest winter conditions on the planet. Curiously, it is not the fastest dogs that pull the winning sled. Instead, the winners are always the dogs that are bred to love running so much that they would run a hole through the Earth just because.

What do you think? Can enthusiasm overcome a lack of genetic talent?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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  1. That is a really tough question. SO tough. I (personally) tend to be optimistic about being a passionate, enthusiastic runner, who takes their chances and pushes their limits. But is it good enough to be good, like really good? That’s tough. I always imagine the world class athletes as being in a caliber of their own. Like, unattainable to people like “us.” You know, the Usain Bolts, Shalanes, etc. You hear about the runners who kind of fall into running (take Colleen Quigley for example, who didn’t even have any aspiration to run in college, but now is an Olympian), but then we see people who work relentlessly at running (like Steph Rothstein who has been aiming for the Olympics of years now, yet keeps just barely missing her chance) and never make it. I like to keep it on a positive side for myself, at least, that the sky’s the limit! Ultimately, the very top runners might have that DNA built in to make it big and be a huge stand-out.

    1. Somewhere around chapter two, Epstein tells the anecdote about a man who worked his whole life, at least twenty years, to master high jump and compete at olympic level for metals. Then on a dare, a basketball player nearly beats him and within six months with no motivation and little practice actually does beat him in a world championship.

      What we takes from this, I suppose, is that similar to what we use to say in physics class when we guss and happen to get the right answer, “it is better to be lucky than smart.” Both genetic and learned talent are path to the top. It is better to be lucky with genetic talent. Yet when unmotivated in that sport, being lucky doesn’t produce more than a glitch of success.

      1. From my research and personal experience, it’s likely a combination of hard work (of course there are the rare “got lucky” people), genetic predisposition (or epigenetics, the expression of our genes, which includes significant environmental factors like diet, health, support, practice, etc.), talent (is this genetic? epigenetics? good fortune plus love of the sport? physiological, e.g., Paula Radcliffe’s incredible VO2 max?), and body size/build. I think Jasmine’s response: some combination of genetics, learned talent, hard work, luck, and passion are the key factors.

  2. I read an article somewhere that talked about the importance of innate talent in different sports. I don’t remember everything, but I do remember that it stated that for sprinting, it was pretty much determined by talent and practice didn’t do much, but for other sports, including marathons, practice made more of a difference (and obviously you had to have some level of talent too, but you couldn’t rely on talent alone).

  3. Several years ago, I read an article that profiled a day in the life of Kara Goucher. She had daily massages, and chiro, and people who worked on her different muscles, not to mention her coaching, her diet was planned, she took daily naps, she slept in an altitude chamber… I thought, damn- what could a fast recreational runner achieve if they had a year of that type of training and body care? Not to negate Kara’s, or any other elite’s, drive or work ethic- but it would be an interesting experiment.

  4. I loved that book! It was so interesting and really pointed out some things I had never thought. I am usually of the opinion that if you work hard enough, you will reach a level that is emotionally, mentally and physically satisfying for you. Many people think being an elite runner is the end all-be-all, however if they really thought about it, they don’t want that life. The elite runners who get where they are both have the work ethic and the love for it to keep going. I think most people just don’t love it as much as they think.

    We also need to account for lucky breaks in races, having a good day, diet growing up, etc, etc, etc.

  5. I hate that the non-answer answer sounds like equivocation. “some combination of genetics, learned talent, hard work, luck, and passion” is not the single distinct answer we want…. even though it probably is the best answer.