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Gladwell Was Wrong…And That’s Great News For Runners

By on May 26, 2014
Gladwell was wrong – and that’s great news for runners

Occasionally a book comes along that whips up a storm. Not so long ago that book was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (Wikipedia | Amazon).

It’s an entertaining read. It’s also highly insightful. And one of the key lessons appears particularly relevant to runners.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

Gladwell argued that, ranging across numerous fields and disciplines, across a variety of jobs and careers, there was one key factor that characterised those who have excelled. From The Beatles to world-class musicians and beyond.

That factor is the amount of time that those people had dedicated to their speciality. The 10,000 hour Rule.

Applying the 10,000 Rule to running would seem straight-forward. If you want to improve at running, it seems that the key is simply to do more of it – a lot more.

To some extent, that’s true. If you really want to improve you running, then you are going to have to put some miles in.

But that isn’t the key lesson for runners to draw. Far from it.

The 10,000 Hour Rule…Revisited

Whenever research is popularised, it’s often instructive to go straight to the horse’s mouth. What are the thoughts of the man whose research lies behind the so-called 10,000 hour Rule?

That man is Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist. Ericsson argues that the secret behind top performance is not so much practice as deliberate practice.

What this really means is nicely summed up by Daniel Goleman in ‘Focus’ (Wikipedia | Amazon):

Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks.

Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.

At least at first.

But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless.

At that point you don’t need to think about it – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.

The 10,000 Hours Rule for runners

The key lesson for runners then is this.

If you’re looking to improve your running, and reduce your vulnerability to injury, then mindless repetition of a flawed running technique isn’t going to be much help.

Instead, you need to invest a little time in improving your running technique. Focus on making improvements for a little while. Then, before too long, your improved running form will become second nature.

Sometimes top runners make high-speed, long-distance running look effortless.

It turns out there’s quite a good reason for that.

Post-script 1

Was Gladwell really wrong? Well, it’s probably a bit harsh to reach that conclusion. What is wrong is the way that the original idea has been so widely interpreted.

Gladwell did recognise that 10,000 hours of any activity isn’t enough on its own. You have to focus on improving your performance during those hours. After all, imperfect practice rarely makes perfect.

More recently, Gladwell has also recognised that when it comes to some activities – like running – you don’t even need those 10,000 hours. In his own words:

It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master — like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly…

Post-script 2

The essence of the 10,000 Hour Rule is set out in this infographic from Zintro.

Malcolm Gladwell, running and the 10000 hour rule

Post-script 3

One final thing. What does deliberate practice actually mean when it comes to running?

It isn’t how much you’re running. It’s how you’re running.

That’s the focus of one of the few running programmes I’d recommend. If you’re interested in a step-by-step plan for improving your running form, and reducing your vulnerability to injury, check out the Proper Running Form course.

Featured image – Surian Soosay


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