Running and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book Outliers, explores mastery in many forms and considers several examples from recent history to seek an understanding of what it takes to truly achieve excellence and success in work, in play, and in life. The most compelling chapter in the book focuses on, what Gladwell calls the 10,000 Hour Rule. In this chapter, Gladwell specifically cites a few compelling examples of nurture over nature with his assertion that 10,000 hours of practice is what is necessary for true mastery in any given arena.

As a high school student at the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle, WA, a young Bill Gates, in the mid-’70’s, was given literally unlimited access to a Parents Association computer lab with a direct link to the University of Washington mainframe which allowed him to spend countless hours writing code, exploring programming techniques, and creating the foundation for one of the world’s most successful software companies. Certainly, Gates had an innate knack for his craft. However, when given the time and the space to truly commit thousands of hours to that craft, with virtually no limits, he was able to turn his passion into his profession and ultimately to change the way many of us view the world.

In the early-1960’s in Hamburg, Germany a rebellious rock band from Liverpool, England was given a similar opportunity. In a decidedly different field, the Beatles basically had free reign of a popular nightclub where they routinely played music, day in and day out, for eight hours a day, six days a week (the club was closed on Sunday). Along the way, their legendary sound was refined, their creative genius was nurtured, and the greatest rock band of all time was incubated. It wasn’t always fun and it was occasionally quite monotonous, but it was theirs to be had and they took it. A few years later they took the world by storm and changed the world of popular music forever.

While Gladwell does not deny the fact that Gates and the Beatles had certain innate gifts that allowed them to succeed, he is confident in his assertion that the opportunity they had to practice their craft for hours, with little to no interruption, was what propelled them to go, in Jim Collins’ words, from “good to great.” Additionally, Gladwell notes that it was not the extraordinary work that these 10,000-hour practitioners put in that made them great but rather it was their commitment to the consistent, repetitive, grinding, and sometimes mind-numbing pursuit of their goals that gave them such an undeniable path to mastery.

For me, as a runner, I get this, I really do. And, the cool thing is, when I think about our community of runners I realize that we don’t need a fancy computer lab or a grungy, hip nightclub to provide us our opportunity for mastery. For us runners, the Beatles and Bill Gates represent an ideal we can all emulate. Indeed, it is not the actual opportunity that we need. Rather, what we need, and what many of us have, is the drive, the desire, and the relentless ability to simply keep going, regardless of whatever stands in our way. For I am convinced that anyone, regardless of genetics, class, physical circumstances, and locale, can achieve mastery through hard work, commitment, and the mind-numbing ability to just get out there day after day, month after month, year after year.

What gives me the right to say this, you may ask? Well, I am just one guy living one life one day at a time. But I can say, for me, this 10,000 hour rule has proven true. For the past 20 years I have run roughly 600-700 hours a year (with a few inevitable “breaks” for injuries). So, as of now, that is right around Gladwell’s magic number. And, while I don’t pretend to think that I have mastered this craft like Gates and the Beatles have mastered theirs, I can say that this is one place in my life that I have achieved a level of success and satisfaction with which I am content. And, I dare say, for a middle-aged guy putting one foot in front of the other, contentment is about as good as it gets.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from a great new brewery in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 3 Brothers Brewery just opened in January and they are already establishing a foothold in the competitive Central Virginia Beer Scene. Their Elementary – Robust Porter is a simple, balanced porter that is reminiscent of some of the original “micro-brewed” porters from Oregon and Vermont from back in the 80’s. A nice blend of hops and flavor, this porter fits just right in this spring that just doesn’t seem to want to arrive.

Call from Comments (from Bryon)

  • Do you think the 10,000 hour rule is valid in general?
  • Have you found it to apply to your or others’ running?
  • Have you seen it at work in other areas of your life?
Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (47)

  • True say,Andy. Btw,the greatest band ever are the Stones.

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    • if you said most beloved, I would probably agree with you, but musically the Stones are a "good" not great band. now Nirvana ...

      and isn't Nirvana that state AJW is talking about, after the 10,000 hrs of hard work.

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  • Oh how timely. I was just talking to my son about this very thing yesterday. Time and effort. Thanks for another insightful piece AJW.

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  • Great, great piece Andy! I'm 47 and have been running for 12 years. 13 marathons

    and 1 50k I am trying to break into the ultraworld. My wife, kids, friends sometimes look at me and ask when I'm putting in 60-65mpw "What are you trying to

    achieve?" My response is it's a lifelong journey of learning, a certain mastery.

    I want to travel the world running ultras in beautiful locales and figure I'll be ready by 50-52. This answer just blows them away but I feel this goes along with your 10,000 hour column or simply "practice makes perfect".

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    • My best advice Mike....start now, cuz' you only live once. :-)

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      • Gotta agree with the 'Goat. Why wait? You don't have to be a Master to participate. That Mastery will come along the way if you want it to (and if you're body allows it). An old friend of mine noticed my pedestrian efforts and started running. One year later he ran a marathon, then another, (neither fast) and then a 50 miler on very little training (40mpw?). He's 49, loves his new 'sport'. Mastery for him won't be in the form of running with Speedgoat at the front of a 100. But it might come in the very satsifying ability to run smoothly up mountain trails at a ripe old age!

        For me, I started ultra trail running FAR before any kind of mastery... and was humbled. The great thing about that is that you get to watch yourself improve in both times and overall 'race execution' for a long time. Go get em!

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  • Wow....I've got hours to go.....better get running! Great thoughts Andy!

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  • By the time one has reached 10,000 hours of mastery in running, one has usually also reached that point of diminishing returns and the dreaded "one only has so many great races in one pair of legs" syndrome. God's sense of humor, I guess...

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  • Well said Andy! Great Friday morning article.

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  • Awesome post Andy! I think it is interesting the way Gladwell uses the 10,000 hour rule throughout the book. I read it a while ago, but it seemed to suggest that immense experience was necessary to capitalize on opportunity. Gladwell argues that Bill Gates, Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems), The Beatles, and the other examples he uses were in the right place, at the right time, with the right amount of experience. I think this is an interesting point for runners that there is no shortcut for experience and training to be able to capitalize on opportunity.

    Thanks for the great read.

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  • Although "10,000 hours" is more of a convenient shorthand for mastery than an absolute value, did anyone else try to calculate how much further/longer they would have to run? At my neophyte seven hrs/wk average over the course of a year, I only have about 25 more years to go! [Good thing running feels more like escapism than practice!]

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  • I have actually used this exact Gladwell stat with regards to ultrarunning when people get depressed about PRs and progress. It takes "time in the market" not timing the market. One hit wonders come and go but slow steady improvement without getting really sidelined with injuries takes a compunding effect for runners over the years.

    As Mackey said in interview before a big race like Miwok, I might be 5% slower, but this year I'm 10% smarter. If youre becoming net 5% more efficient per year whether its speed, better fueling, smarter race management, etc. You're results 0 years later will have a cumulative effect.

    It also gives us all long periods of time to spend on our weaknesses. Tiger Woods spent a whole year focusing on his short game and it took away from his overall performance for one year, but he came back stronger when he dialed into this aspect of his game.

    I think this 10,000 hours mastery is a great concept and is very accurate.

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  • Good news, while Gladwell got his 10,000 hour rule from research done by Ericsson on chess players and violinists, research on sport shows that mastery can be obtained with 4000-7000 hours of deliberate practice.

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    • this brings up a really good point, the roll of complexity in the time path to mastery. ultra running is not exactly chess.

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      • In a way, it's more like go. You've got to see, feel, and act on the whole board the entire game. ;-)

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  • Great insights AJW. I've often thought about how inspiring it is that success in ultras relies more on repeated efforts than on innate talent. (It would be cool to dig up some examples of people with relatively low VO2 maxes or other markers of physical prowess who have done really well in the world of 100s--I bet that such people exist.) One should also play devil's advocate here a little and say that Gladwell is referring more to the mental habituation than physical--as Charlie says above, physical is more transitory.

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  • In most individual sports, people at the top level, say top 20 in the country, you'll rarely find people who have put in 10,000 hours, it will be more like 3000-6000. 400-700/year for 7 years is probably pretty average. By the time you've put in 10,000 hours, you'd be the exception to actually be at the top of the game.

    In team sports like soccer in south america where people might play 1-4 hours per day throughout childhood for kicks, yeah, 10,000+ for sure.

    Gladwell loves to make plausible generalizations that create a buzz for his books.......

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    • Unless 10,000 hours also includes time spent thinking about running and talking about it on i-runfar :), reading running magazines, shopping for running shoes and doing running-related laundry :) Otherwise, I think, for those of us who started running later it might be a little depressing how long it will take to get to 10,000 hours.

      I think consistency over several years, day in and day out, maybe 5,000 hours will definitely show results. All those "it's dark and cold and raining, does it really matter if I run these 10 miles today? - and inevitably, yes, yes, it does".

      Then people wonder how all of a sudden you've gotten so much faster, are you taking some miracle supplement, doing a miracle running program? No, it's really just that 10 miler in the cold rain, day in and day out :)

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  • I think the Beatles actually found a way to give "8 days a week". That's how dedicated they were.

    Thanks for another bit of insightful pontification. Gives mental food to chew on while working towards my 10,000.

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  • I note that the standard measure of academic mastery, earning a Ph.D., takes about 10000 hours to achieve (8 hrs/day * 6 days/wk * 50 wks/yr * 5 yrs = 12000).

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    • And if you are born in and come from certain countries, it's like this:

      8 hours at 365 days a year gives you 2,920 hours. Multiply that by 10 years and you get 29,200 hours.

      And that's just for a kid from age 8 to 18 yrs. old.

      When in Grad school, you'd notice a few foreigners would cheat because they knew more or, at least, as much as the Professor (not assistant professor, but Professor). They had been there and had done that. Many had publications or could easily pair up with a Professor to put 2 or 3 out - in rapid succession.

      If they didn't cheat they'd finish a 2 year program in 1 year simply to move on to their real goal - to their real desired Field of Study.

      It was amazing to witness, they graduate their high school basically with the equivalent of a B.A. or B.S. in the USA.

      Now, if I can just get another big run in - hopefully a flat 50k, super early Sat. or Sun.

      :)

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  • Love this post! I recently wrote about a similar thing, thanks to reading "Outliers": http://breakingexcellent.blogspot.com/2013/01/mat...

    The realization of where I am with my running in the grand scheme of where I have to go has helped me get my expectations straight, set realistic goals and most importantly, begin to TRULY believe that with continued hard work and dedication, the best is certainly yet to come.

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  • Lydiard emphasized base building many years ago, he wasn't talking about months, he meant years. If you want to run a long time, look at guys like Karl, he doesn't run 200 mile weeks like some of these young guys getting into the sport. Their always injured, Karl just keeps on running, funny, mabey he knows something. What is it mabey 50-70 mountain miles a week Karl? Oh Yeah, but you have to do it for some twenty years or so. Somewhere in there you pass the 10,000 hours mabey twice.

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    • I believe Karl's success is attributed more to his natural talent than any amount of training he's done over the years. He routinely wins 100mi races "off the couch" as he puts it. His body seems to handle longer distances better than most

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      • Whether your Karl or not, if you want to run for a long time, mega miles don't cut it. Train small, race big.

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    • 50-70 is a pretty good number to guess on my miles. Keep in mind too, that say a 60 mile week includes 17k of climbing (during summer). I have done it for a long time, and that makes a big difference, not even on the number of miles, but the "know-how" is really what helps me do well. I listen very carefully to my body when I run every day. I never run too much and overdo it, this "usually" puts me on the start line with fresh legs. Having been running for 34 years, the base is there to come off the couch. Or....I'm just a freak, which may be the case too. :-)

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      • 10,000 hours is not that far :-)

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  • "Please Please Me" by the beatles turns 50 today as will I in 7 short years when I will be closer to the needed hours for mastery. 100 miles is not to far, 100 miles is not to far, .... :)

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  • On a 'somewhat' related note, the '10,000 hours' principle does NOT apparently apply to sleep, as most of us have completed the required hours of 'practice,' but with the number of ads for sleep agents one sees in the media, a lot of people have not yet 'mastered' this issue.

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  • Great post AJW! I think you just might have your best Western States ahead of you, especially with the hunger you had stored up while injured. That injury may have even freshened up your legs for future races. Thanks, as usual, for another enjoyable Fri morning read

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  • In the case of Ultra Running I don't think Mastery necessary equals superior speed. Sure, you started later in life, and (regardless of whether it takes 8000 or 12000 hours) you start losing speed before you've achieved this mastery. What you look like at the end of a long race or run matters. So the young guy who finished 100 miles in 20 hours all torn up for weeks might very well be less of a master than the 60yo lady who ran it in 30 hours but kept it 'smooth' and finished much more healthy!

    Also, with regard to 'miles on legs' and that point of diminishing returns that certainly exists: But I think that mountain miles might accumulate more slowly than track miles, or really really intense stuff. That makes you faster, but costs in longevity if done too much (perhaps).

    Do the young guys and gals that are stars have 10,000 hours or close? Well, Killian has spent his life doing endurance related stuff in and around mountains. Tony K has been running for years. Geoff ran a lot (and then took a hiatus). I think you would find that most of them have been very active in outdoor sports that involve some kind of running for a long long time. Even just an active childhood charging around the yard counts, especially when we consider many of todays children that are sedentary.

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