The Sports Gene

AJWs TaproomI just finished reading David Epstein’s The Sports Gene and found it both informative and compelling. At first glance, this tidy little book written by one of Sports Illustrated’s up-and-coming writers is a thoughtful alternative to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and a post-modern, scientific examination of the age-old nature/nurture debate.

Much of the argument Epstein makes suggests that talent and hard work are both necessary in the pursuit of athletic success and that predicting success is as complex now, even with technological advances, as it’s ever been. Indeed, Epstein deliberately points out that the scientific data suggest that one cannot easily use present outcomes as an appropriate measuring stick for future success nor can one extrapolate results based on circumstances, genetic or otherwise.

With respect to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” made popular in Gladwell’s Outliers and discussed here in a previous column, Epstein is not convinced that it holds water. While he acknowledges the fact that deliberate practice, discipline, and focus are essential to success in a wide range of sports, he also cites numerous examples, most notably the infamous lackadaisical training regimen of Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt, where the “10,000 Hour Rule” falls short. It’s a compelling position he takes and one that tends to lean toward nature over nurture.

That is, until, what I consider to be the best chapter in the book, “The Talent of Trainability.” In that section, Epstein cites examples as disparate as Jim Ryun, a bunch of undertrained Europeans on stationary bikes, and his own Columbia University track team to lay the groundwork for an argument that genetics play a part not only in the product of our labors but also in our ability to actively and successfully engage in the process. Inasmuch as there are important indicators like Vo2Max and blood volume that can be measured in a lab, there are other, softer metrics, that can be equally, if not more, important. The Talent of Trainability, Epstein suggests, has as much to do with motivation, grit, persistence, response to setbacks, and willingness to take risks as it does to those genetic gifts we envy in the .1% of the population blessed with the abilities of the Bolts, Jornets, and Carpenters.

And that, my friends, is more than enough to get me and my paltry 62 Vo2Max out the door tomorrow to get after it. :)

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Twin Lakes Brewing - Greenville Pale AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Twin Lakes Brewing in Greenville, Delaware. Their Greenville Pale Ale is a classic American Pale Ale in the Sierra Nevada tradition that is made locally on their 242-acre farm in rural Delaware using sustainable methods and all organic ingredients. Available only in Pennsylvania and Delaware, this is a beer worth seeking out if you’re in the area.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What’s your take on the nature vs. nuture debate in trail running and ultrarunning?
  • On the nature side, how important is the Talent of Trainability?
  • If you’ve read Epstein’s book, what did you think?

There are 16 comments

  1. Mike H

    "Paltry 62 VO2 Max" Most of us wish our VO2 Maxes were a paltry 62. Mine has been around 53 for some time…on good days. You are absolutely correct in the assessment though, all the talent in the world will rarely succeed on its own, the will to train, the drive to excell at all costs and the ability to learn and be engaged are just as important. In football they call that the "Intangables" and it has as much to do with distance running as it does with team sports, come game day all the measurables go out the window and it comes down to who wants it more, who is willing to die for it.

  2. Harry Landers

    I look forward to reading the book. I did hear Epstein interviewed a couple of times in recent weeks and was also fascinated by his conclusions with respect to the significance of genetic predisposition towards adaptability of training. The anecdote about the relative success of the author and his seemingly-more-talented, but ultimately under-performing teammate would explain a lot.

  3. CJ

    I've heard that it's possible to improve VO2 Max by as much as 30% with hard training. Has anyone else heard this? I certainly think there's something to be said for working hard in order to squeeze out every last drop of potential

  4. Wes Neubeck

    AJW – Love Gladwell's book, but hope its wrong. I simply don't have 10,000 hours to hit the trails with, but coming from working a full day and training for Ironman, I firmly believe in quality over simple quantity with training. I'll never be 'Jornet', but hope to be a 'Jones-Wilkins'

    1. AJW

      Shut up Thornley! It used to be 65 but I got tested 2 weeks before WS and had dropped. With all these 70s and 80s guys out there I feel a little, well, small. But, this guy I was talking to today said that there was a new study out this week that suggests that certain IPAs are known to improve vo2max. The study did not say which ones so I've started an investigation. What's your's by the way?

      1. Craig Thornley

        You can increase it just by losing weight. The opposite is also true. You can guess where I am in the spectrum. I haven't been tested in a couple of decades but I used to weigh a 137 pounds which really helped boost my number.

        1. AJW

          There goes Thornley telling me I'm fat again. Bryon, sorry to drag you into this but it's been going in too long. Do we need to drag out the 10-year bet stats again?

      2. MonkeyBoy

        go down a cup size and you won't need to sleep in that tent anymore.

        seriously, 62 is a very solid number. Did you ever get tested when you lived in SV?

  5. Matt Hart (@TheMattH

    I saw the NY Times interview with the author David Epstein. I find it odd that he was allowed to go on without any mention of PEDs. I plan to read the book, but I'm curious — is there any acknowledgment of the reality that "natural talents" with less than Gladwell's standard could possibly be doped to the gills?

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