There’s a world of difference between talent and skill. Talent implies natural ability. There are plenty of talented athletes who never make it to the level of performance their inherent talent seems to indicate they are capable of. Skill implies a trained ability. In endurance sport, talent is not necessarily the most valuable prerequisite in reaching world class. The quality of PATIENCE to perform thousands of hours of steady aerobic training, is required to transform whatever talent is innately there to the highest levels. In the 1960’s, Dr David Costill of Ball State University proved in the physiology laboratory that aerobic endurance increased in direct proportion to the total volume of sub-maximal aerobic work performed. Arthur Lydiard had proved it on the athletics track about a decade earlier, in his superb conditioning of his athletes prior to world records and Olympic medals at distances between 800 metres and marathon.
So what is more important, Talent or Skill?
Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, is known as the world expert on world experts. He has studied top musicians, athletes, doctors, and chess players, among others. His research suggests that expert performance is the result of years of a particular form of practice, what he calls deliberate practice—highly structured practice that requires intense focus, often tedious repetition, and immediate feedback of your performance. One outcome of his work is popularly coined as ‘the ten thousand hour rule’, where it is held that a talented or untalented person can acquire prodigious levels of motor learning or skill approximating genius simply by applying himself or herself consistently for 10,000 hours (this is equivalent to 40 hours a week for 5 years).
In other words, even a moderately talented endurance athlete can reach elite levels by ten thousand hours of applied effort.
Interestingly, Lydiard’s elite endurance athletes trained for 15 to 20 hours a week, and he maintained that it would take about ten years at that rate to achieve one’s maximal oxygen uptake. Some of his moderately talented pupils did indeed take up to 15 years to make their major breakthroughs to national representation honours. Even more interestingly, some spectacularly talented elite athletes achieved their maximal oxygen uptake within 5 years of applied endurance training, yet continued to improve in performance ability despite the maximal oxygen uptake not measurably improving in laboratory tests over ensuing years.
Why? Gradually increased tolerance to higher intensity efforts at the brain level and subtle physiological adaptation to increasing acidic loads in the biochemistry and subtle adaptations with biomechanical efficiency are very likely to account for this, which is why some highly motivated athletes can still perform at their absolute peak when approaching middle age.