This has been lingering on my "to read" list for some time. Matthew Syed - a former elite table tennis player has written a great book with a very clear point - that becoming "elite" at anything is a function of practice, not genetics.

I know it's a point of contention about how much of an athletes ability is due to hard work and practice and how much is due to how they were born. It's easy to attribute a persons acheivements to them being "born" to do it.

Most of of the book concentrates on "skill" based activities such as chess, table tennis, violin playing and dance. I don't think running is so much a skill based sport but there are a lot of themes in the book that I thought were relevent to running. There are a lot of themes talked about which are really interesting and I have pulled out a couple that I though were most relevent to me.

Becoming an "expert"

Syed supposes that to become expert at something you need to have completed something like 10000 hours of purposeful practice. In the last 7 years I have run for 3236 hours. I am nearly one third of the way to being an expert at running :)

Though much of that running may not be "purposeful". Though it does resonate with something that I have always believed in that the way to get good at running is to do lots of running. Two other great sources that agree with this are John L Parker's "Once a Runner" where he sums up the sentiment in a beautiful quote.

The other is a book I recommend to all on training, "Run by Feel" by Matt Fitzgerald. One of his key recommendations as to how to get "good" at running is to

  • Run as much as you can without getting injured
  • Run fast sometimes
  • Run when tired sometimes


Now we may think that some runners really are "natural" runners. Well actually we all are natural runners, see "Born to Run" and "Survival of the Fittest". The fact that some are much better than others is largely due to being given the opportunities to get these many hours of practice in at an early age. It is well known that Kenyan runners have dominated Marathon running for a number of years. This is not genetic, there is no difference in their genes than in Europeans. The simple fact is that they may in their early life run 20k a day at altitude and by their 16th Birthday would have amassed 6000 hours for purposeful practice. Killian Jornet climbed his first mountain when he was two years old. He wasn't "born" to do it he has just had much more practice than the rest of us.

But success is not just merely a function of hours of practice, you have to be internally motivated to practice. Running should be fun, the rewards should be in the journey rather than in the result. As Syed says "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive". Running to acheive someone else's ambitions or for external trinkets of no inherent value can jeapodise the value of purposeful practice.

An interesting quirk of motivation is that of motivation by association. Apparently you are more likely to be motivated to do something if someone "like" you has done it. This accounts for the boom in certain sports in certain areas, for example when the one and only South Korean golfer won the LPGA in 1998 that led to a burst of activity amongst South Koreans to get good at golf and 10 years later there were 33 competing. There was nothing about being South Korean per se that made them better golfers, just the spark of motivation by having someone closer you them acheiving.

I am still waiting for the next overweight kebab eater from Leicester to try and run across the States.

Mixing things up

There was a story in the book that got me comparing the Piece of String fun run to a corrupted game of chess. The battles between Gary Kasparov and various incarnations of IBM's Deep Blue computer have been well publicised. How can a human capable of thinking only a few moves a second compete with a machine that can evaluate millions? Well the answer is that the human has been playing chess for thousands of hours and knows by now what moves are worth considering. He can eliminate most of the moves that the computer can not just from experience. It is by seeing the shape of the pieces that allow him to play the best moves. In fact he could turn up at a game half way thought, look at the board and quickly know what to play as he will know how the game has developed up until now. Kasparov won the first time, a great victory for "humanity".

However IBM were not going to be beaten and they took a different approach. They fed the computer with the history of thousands of games of chess. It was no longer trying to solve millions of possible moves for the most optimal one but now it was drawing on the experience of hundreds of chess grand masters, including Kasparov. The computer won. The computer wasn't just looking at each position in an abstract way, it was looking at the whole game. In fact when you put a chess player in front of a randomly arranged set of pieces they can not remember them any better than we can as that configuration would have not come up before. Interesting...

When I am running I think that I am in a better position to deal with thngs because I have those 3000 hours in my legs and my head. For example in the Sparathlon last year I survived pretty intense heat (that many others didn't) not because I was any better at running but because I had been there before and was able to draw on experience. Experience that perhaps you can not get just from reading a "how to do this" article.

1000 hours of practice running in the heat. Still forgot to lube my nipples

Now for the Piece of String fun run I was hoping to give some of the most seasoned ultra runners something that they had not seen before. Many of these runners would have had the 10000 hours at least and all could be considered "experts" at running. What we were doing was the equivalent of giving them a randomly constructed chess board and then telling them to play. Gary Kasparov would have difficulty doing this.

Putting ultra runners in a position where they don't know the shape of the game and hence struggle to get invovled properly. That's one of the things I was trying to do. Not sure whether it happened last time but will try again next time :)

Feeling misrable after winning

Well I have never won anything so really I should be the happiest man alive. Syed talks a lot about the depression of acheiving something that you've trained for a lot, such as when athletes win gold medals at the Olympics. I will never know what that is like but I can definitely relate the the post event depression. Last year was a bit of a shit year for me running wise but as soon as I gave myself some other lofty goals I felt much better.

I knew at the time it was not the achieving that will give me the pleasure but the journey towards it. Once the journey is at it's end then it's hard to derive pleasure from practice when you are not practicing for anything.

There is so much more to this book though. Chapters on choking, placebo effects, drugs, rituals and all sorts. I recommend reading it.

Sorry for the long blog post. I estimate I have only spent 5000 hours blogging and am only half way to becoming an expert blogger.