The sport of running, particularly road racing, fascinates me. Not necessarily keeping up with all the latest and greatest, but the human performance side of things. I’ve always been interested in nutrition and physical fitness, but when I got into distance running is when I began to look deeper into how the human body actually works. I’ve observed, read, listened, and taken note of all these factors listed below over the past seven years and this is what I’ve come up with:
You have controllables and uncontrollables – things that you can and can’t change that affect your performance.
- Adaption – how long you stick with the sport
- Diet – what, how, and when you eat
- Training/recovery – depends on where you’re at, where you’re going, and general life habits, how much time and energy you allot to running
- Form – how efficient you run on the outside (efficiency is also an inside factor that goes with adaption)
- Want/attitude – how serious you take it and how much you really want it
- Injuries – though I consider these controllable, they’re also inevitable
- Breaks – taking several years off, having kids, etc.
- Genes – running specific genes. A lot of people don’t believe it, but I think it’s obvious in the running world that if you had parents and/or grandparents that were runners you have an advantage.
- Track/XC background – if you’ve had experience in middle school, high school, and/or college, and how far you got. I put this as “uncontrollable” because at this point either you did or didn’t. You can’t go back and change it.
- Body type – different than running genes. This goes down to bone structure and healthy body composition ratios for you to train optimally without injury. Rake me across the coals, but there IS a perfect body type for optimal performance. It’s impossible, but if you somehow took two runners that had identical factors except body type, one of them would out perform the other. However, because there are so many variable factors for a distance runner, I don’t believe body type can keep you from competing, even at the elite level. But you do see this start to matter at the elite level (with some exceptions). At the amateur and even sub-elite level body type seems to matter less.
- Time – how long you’ve been running and how long you’ve got before you inevitably start declining. Everyone is dying, and at some point you will personally peak. It depends on when you start. Some people start at age 40 (the master’s level) and they end up peaking at 50! Others who have been running their whole lives, see themselves declining in their late forties. There’s a reason why 40 and over is a whole new category. Again, there’s always exceptions.
I’m sorry it’s so hard to read, but you’ll get the idea.
- The left side (in red) is the age at when you started running. It goes from top to bottom because…
- The right side (in green) is what level you have the ability to reach before your performance starts to decline.
- The bottom (in blue) are the uncontrollables and how many you have. Obviously you can mix and match, but that was too complicated for me to put on the chart.
- The top (in pink) are all the controllables, which makes your progress go up and down – hence the pink squiggly line over top of the first graph line.
Note: These thought patterns are specific to distance running, if you start and then continue on until you turn 50, give or take a few years. Everything of course is individual.
Taking all those factors and figuring out what works best for you to help you reach your full potential is complicated and frustrating – but also fun! I understand that most people don’t really care to dig into it this much. But I find it helpful in my own training and it gives me a better angle in how to approach accomplishing those big goals I have, even ten years down the road.
In conclusion, and to explain the post’s title, I don’t believe there is such a thing as the “X-factor” – that thing that somehow makes an athlete greater than the greatest, one-in-a-million. I think it’s a matter of having all those uncontrollables and then being able to work out the controllables. Take a look at the top elites in distance running.