Talent and Training

Improvement


The photos above, which Tyler posted on his Facebook page the other day, are — in their own way — a challenge to a whole worldview about talent and training. One can gaze upon them with much the same feeling as Balboa is supposed to have had on crossing the isthmus of Panama and seeing the Pacific ocean for the first time.

Because it’s not supposed to be possible to improve that much. It’s an outrageous demonstration of the efficacy of training, but also such an outlier that it’s hard to know how much of Tyler’s improvement is replicable. Tyler probably trained as hard or harder as many of the favorites in preparation for Monday’s race, but more important: he didn’t break down; he improved. This is a much greater mystery than how a 2:09 guy beat a bunch of 2:05 guys. How did a 16:57-for-5k guy run 16:46 pace for a full marathon?

Some background and disclosure:

Tyler ran cross country for four years at Concord Academy. I came on as cross country coach in 2007, Tyler’s senior year. As he has described elsewhere (in case, you haven’t noticed, he has a knack for getting interviewed), that season he really caught the running bug and started training harder and improved his 5k time from 20-something to 18:28 in his best race of the season. I can tell you that there was no “secret” to his training or to my coaching. He increased his mileage gradually, did the usual workouts, and ran races.

After the season, he promptly ratcheted up the mileage and almost as promptly suffered a stress fracture. It took a while for him to heal, so that it wasn’t until the summer after his graduation that he began the training that would gradually transform him. The picture from ’09 represents a year of steadily increasing training. I remember being really impressed that an 18:28 guy was running sub-17:00, and had already started using him as a positive example of positive adaptation to sensible training stress.

What is one’s personal ceiling of improvement from training? Is talent a myth, and can anyone who is willing to do the work become an elite runner? No, I reject that hypothesis. Each individual has innate gifts for running, some of which are self-evident from their first swift step, while some are deeply buried in the genome and are only revealed by extended practice.

The thing that is so astonishing about Tyler is that he has talents that are applicable to being a terrific runner that remained hidden to almost everyone (including me) for years, and are still poorly appreciated by some (for example, to his college coach) to this day. I want to enumerate some of those talents, because I think doing so forces us (coaches especially) to acknowledge that we are often wrong-headed in our approach to talent development and personalized coaching.

1. Tyler has always been able to run fast without sprinting

This is a subtle point, but it is really important. Tyler and I used to have arguments all the time about the value of speedwork in his training diet. I’m simplifying this a little bit, but basically he would come out of “base” training and have no difficulty going to the track and running 28 seconds for 200m. Then he would say something like, “I need to do speedwork so I can run fast for 3k and 5k. I would try to point out that he was already capable of running mile world record pace without difficulty, and that piling on anaerobic work might not be the best investment of his time. Luckily, the Tufts coaching staff provided both of us with the context for testing this theory. In college, Tyler was encouraged to hammer out hard track workouts on a regular basis. I’m sure he’ll comment on this, but as an outsider I observed that he always raced best at the beginning of the season before the speedwork had a chance to do its damage.

Now, for most runners, heavy doses of speedwork are essential preparation for racing distance of 5K and under. But Tyler is not most runners. His speed is not fast-twitch speed, it’s slow-twitch speed. In other words, his slow-twitch fibers are capable of carrying him along at a frightfully quick tempo. It was his slow-twitch fibers that were responding to his base training. I believe that speedwork didn’t have the expected effect because he didn’t have enough fast-twitch fibers to respond positively to the kind of hyper-fast workouts he was doing at Tufts.

2. Tyler is able to train fast

This is perhaps a corollary to the above, but it bears repeating. Tyler’s comfortable aerobic runs are really quick, often South of 6:00 pace. Unlike many of his college teammates, he didn’t need to take long runs at an easy pace. Another way of expressing this is that Tyler’s aerobic comfort zone is a lot faster than that of runners who might be able to destroy him in a mile or even a 3k.

A practical consideration for him, then, is how to stimulate further aerobic adaptation. He discovered on his own, without any help from me, that long fast runs were hugely beneficial, and he has figured out how to structure his training to include them. I can’t tell you how intimidating it is to see him pencil in a 25k run at marathon pace, or many repeat 3000s or 5000s at half marathon pace. These are long, hard aerobic efforts and would destroy many “faster” runners.

3. Tyler can survive his high-mileage training

Tyler deserves a ton of credit for doing all the little things to keep himself strong and healthy, including attention to core workouts, sleep, diet, and recovery. Even so, its remarkable how — when he follows his own training plan — he avoids injury. I don’t know how to explain this, so I’ll just speculate that there’s something about his body that allows him to run lightly, without jarring his skeleton or shredding his soft tissues.

4. Tyler’s has world-class ability to focus on the task

Finally, the most important point of all is that Tyler has the mental muscle to put a huge amount of effort into a workout, and then do the same thing again and again over weeks and months. I am the first to admit that when Tyler shares his training plan with me, my first reaction is that it’s just too much — how could anyone do that without getting, you know, TIRED of it? But when I look for the tell-tale signs of mental staleness, the diminishing returns, all I see is Tyler expertly riding the wave of his training to better results. That is a testament to his capacity to enjoy what he’s doing. Maybe that’s more an aspect of personality than a talent, but it’s still pretty special.

A couple of final notes: Comparisons are odious, as the Bard says, but I can’t help comparing Tyler’s time in the marathon to the times of other former high school stars. I don’t do this to diminish the accomplishments of others, but rather to return to the theme I mentioned at the beginning. We coaches are frequently wrong about talent. We see someone who is fast, and we identify that as talent. We see someone who is (relatively) slow, and we see that as an absence of talent. Time and again we miss the signs that an athlete has “invisible” talents that are just waiting for the right conditions to emerge.

 

 

 

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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One Response to Talent and Training

  1. Tyler says:

    Jon – as always – manages to downplay his role in all this. The truth is I would still be a 22 minute 5k runner (probably just a not-runner, actually) at this point if it weren’t for his belief in the idea that improvement was possible. My idea of talent and training was even more skewed than the general consensus – people were just fast or they weren’t; it was that simple. Jon’s patience and genuine interest in the training and improvement of me as a 20+ minute runner were what got me interested in running in the first place.

    It is still amazing to see Jon sticking around after practice when he should be home having dinner with his family to talk to the line of youngsters who want to pick his brain about how to cut a few seconds off their PR, or how to throw the discus farther, or how to fix their trail leg in the 300m hurdles. Jon has – in a stark contrast to so many other coaches – always shown an innate disinterest (read: neutrality, not UNinterest) in ability when it comes to spreading his time and influence among young athletes. I’ve found first hand that this attitude makes the athlete feel like the only difference between him and the guy finishing way in front is time and training, not some innate genetic shortcoming.

    Jon has taught me – and countless others, now – that improvement is what matters. That the only difference between a 17-year-old Concord Academy student and Ryan Hall is a decade or so of hard work. It’s been a heck of a ride together and I still feel like we’re just getting going.

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