Is Running Talent Nature or Nurture?

Where do you stand?

Nature vs Nurture. The debate has made its rounds in psychology circles for ages. Early on in the debate (see: Victorian Era) it was believed that our abilities and successes in life were primarily a result of nature; that with which we were born. Physical illness, mental illness, intelligence…physical fitness?

Nowadays many scholars agree that our abilities are measured by a combination of the two factors. The debate on the origins of running talent are plentiful on boards like Letsrun: Does hard work breed talent? Are Kenyans the only one with the ability to run really really fast in the marathon?

If you ever feel like you weren’t “born fast,” or wonder if you can overcome your genetics to become a better runner and cultivate your talent, I’ve got a story that might encourage you.

Back of the packer me in high school.

In high school, my track and field program was very low mileage. No one was running over 20 miles a week. As a result, talent was based on raw speed. If you were a back of the packer, you were just considered slow. Having a non-runner as a coach certainly didn’t help matters. I was an open runner. A few miles away, another student was running three times that weekly mileage over the course of four years and eventually became a three-time state champion. He happens to be my boyfriend now.

About twice a year, usually on a run that’s begging for some life, I ask him to re-tell me the story about how he started running:

I love this picture for many reasons. Little Jimmy before his first marathon.

His friend asked him to run cross country in ninth grade so, having never run before, he went for a run around his neighborhood and made it about 800 meters before stopping.  Then, in his first cross country race, he ran in the 23s for 5k. By the end of the season, he got down to low 21s. He played baseball in the spring but kept running and ran the 1997 Cleveland Marathon on 5 miles a day and a couple 18-20 milers. His finishing time? 4:21.

His sophomore year a new coach took over, and James began his sophomore year running a season opener 5k in 19:45.

I want to stop right here and ask a question: Without the new coach increasing his mileage, would he be the runner he is today?

During that second year he crushed his previous best in 18:12. By the end of the season, he was the top runner on the team and quit baseball to join track in the spring.

In his junior year, running had become something to look forward to long term. His coach had instilled in him the idea of long, slow distance to build strength. He also made his first appearance at the state meet.  After three years of solid building, he went on to win the state title in cross country his senior year, running 15:41. Later on in track, he won the 1600 meters in 4:15 and the 3200 meters in 9:27. He then went on to run for Division 1 Kent State University and the PRs continued, including a  3:49 in the 1500 and a 14:12 in the 5k.

Nature v. Nurture now becomes Nature VIA Nurture.

His development stands out to me because all too often we read about high school runners who are fast from the beginning. A male freshman ending the season in the 21s for 5k is okay, but it certainly won’t make the papers. I think James’s story makes an argument for nurture taking precedence over nature.

However, and perhaps more importantly, one cannot discount that his genetic makeup might predispose him toward that development, making it easier or quicker than in another runner. Genetic potential isn’t just about how naturally fast you are, it’s also about your body’s ability to recover after hard workouts. Or your body’s physical structure being able to tolerate a heavy workload without injury. Or having a high tolerance to pain, and so on.

If you think you aren’t naturally fast, do not discount any other genetic advantages you may have, like being able to recover quickly or a natural stride that allows you to train without injury. As I work harder and begin to break through barriers, many of which I’m finding are mental, I’ve become a believer in nurture. I’m getting pretty fast on hard work and commitment to the process, and I believe anyone can do the same. When you take all of these nature and nurture factors into account, you realize that your innate talent is there, you just have to find it!

What do you think is the single most important factor in determining running success? If hard work breeds talent, then how do you know when you have reached your potential?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.