Comparing natural talent

The more I look this year, the more I realise what natural talent for distance running is. And I don’t have much of it! But that’s not to say I can’t develop into a decent distance runner with good training.

Let’s talk about three runners. There’s me – whose talent is for speed and building muscle. There’s Slow-twitch Sam– who I believe has talent for distance – he’s light and thin. Then there’s Intermediate Ian who sits somewhere around the average – he’s got decent speed and endurance but doesn’t excel one way or the other. (Names have been changed).

Both Sam and Ian ran a half marathon last weekend. Ian ran sub-1:29 while Sam ran 1:24. My Personal Best – dating back to 2012-13, when I was at one of my running peaks, is 1hr31.

I’ve seen Ian’s training on Garmin and he generally trains five days per week.  Mondays and Wednesday are some kind of workout, either short intervals at fast paces, or longer intervals lasting 5-10 minutes at threshold or marathon pace. On a Friday he runs a 10-mile long run. On the days in between – Tuesday and Thursday he usually does an easy 5K. That’s it.

I looked back at his run training over the past year and he’s totalled 1,219 miles. Here’s the monthly totals from November to September, notably there’s only two months where he exceeded 100 miles.

I used to be a low volume runner barely eking out more than one hundred miles per month, same as he does now. A decent, concentrated block of training in 2010 reduced my half marathon PB from 1hr50 to 1hr38. I ran a decent marathon in 3hr41. The next year I upped my mileage to 150 per month, worked on my endurance and set my half marathon PB (1hr31). I had to do more mileage to get there.

The most notable thing about Ian’s ability to run a half marathon in under 1hr29 is that he never did the distance in training. His long runs topped out at ten mile runs. By comparison, if I don’t doing my long run for a few weeks, I’m struggling in the final miles when I next do one. Some years ago Ian’s first marathon was 3hr25, the next 3hr15 then he ran close to 3hrs a few times before finally breaking it.

Sam took up running again in April and got down to nineteen minutes at parkrun in six weeks. In July he ran a 1hr32 half off a total of around 500 miles training. Since then he has trained harder with back-to-back 200+ mile months in August and September but still hasn’t totalled a thousand miles this year. Yet he’s running even faster than Ian. And much quicker than I have ever even though I run close to two hundred miles every month with a variety of sessions. Of course my training is dedicated towards the 800m so I wouldn’t necessarily expect to run great times in a half at the moment.

What all this begins to show is how natural talent helps out at the beginning of your running career.

My early half marathons were 1hr51, Ian’s is 1hr29, Sam’s is 1hr24. But, due to my lack of natural talent I’ve been forced to figure out what needs to be done to get quicker. I’ve improved from 1hr51 to 1hr31. Ian has only gone from 1hr29 to 1hr25; Sam from 1hr24 to 1hr21. I’m sure they’ve trained hard to achieve what they have but what I’m seeing is how easily it comes with natural talent. Of course, that IS the definition of natural talent.

Short sprint – Natural talent

I met Rob at Bournemouth parkrun where he was always up the front threatening to break 18-minutes. He did it a few months later and started doing longer races the following year. He broke three hours in his second marathon.

As I got to know him he explained he’d watched the London Olympics and been inspired by Mo Farah’s 5,000 and 10,000m gold medal double and decided to take up running. I’m sure he was always fit and trim just not a committed runner. His first parkrun in late 2013 came in at 18:55 which is only a couple of seconds slower than my Personal Best set on the flats of Poole parkrun.

He’s a perfect example of natural talent.

We lost touch for a few years and I imagine he was working hard through the Covid crisis in his job as a GP. Six weeks ago he began running regularly again. Most of his runs have been somewhere around 8 minute miling, five times per week usually totalling 4-5 hours of training and covering 35-40 miles, last week was a big one of 45 miles. Once a week there’s usually some kind of workout. One week it was a fast-finishing long run, another was a 5-mile tempo at 6:50 pace, another mile repeats at 6:40 pace and another 200s at 6:00-6:20/mile. It’s a good mix of training but not been especially fast.

Yesterday his latest session popped up on my Strava – 5x1km with 3-mins rest. The splits were 3:41, 3:36, 3:37, 3:39, 3:33 – all around 5:50/mile. I hadn’t seen him go near that pace in any of the previous weeks. This is natural talent for distance running in action. Those splits are quicker than I could run one 800m all-out after training daily for four months, let alone run for five back-to-back 1K efforts.

I don’t say this out of envy, more amazement at how easy running is for people with natural talent at it. It’s taken me a long time to realise, I’m much better suited to the shorter distances which is why I decided to head back to middle-distance and the 800m. Even so I also know you have to build aerobically to improve at all distances. Runners like Rob have naturally high aerobic capacities.

The 5x1km with 3-mins rest used to be my go-to workout. When I was running my best at parkrun, I was beginning to get down to the numbers Rob is achieving there. That’s what happens when you train effectively, you can begin to challenge and maybe even surpass those with natural talent.

UPDATE: A couple of weeks after this post appeared, I logged on to Strava on the Sunday afternoon to find Rob had run a local 10K in 38-mins off nine weeks of training. He’d averaged 35 miles per week and 4-5 hours training. This only goes to underlines how natural talent can help you reach quick times when you start running.