Genetics is Overrated

I began with a list of 8 elements that are important to the success of an athlete, and I mean any top half- or full-distance triathlete whether pro or age-graded.

Well, folks, I have 3 virtues or tools left, my top 3, my podium, and 3rd on my list is genetics, so that means either work ethic or your choice of training partners is at the top of my list. I’m certain I’ll take a lot of heat for the training partners thing, but when we get to it I’ll explain.

One third of you felt that genetics was the most important element to success. Why is genetics only third in line for me? Because I’ve seen so many truly gifted athletes not beat those with a very different gift: the ability to outwork their competition. Nothing, including genetics, beats hard work, diligent work, self-control, good habits. You, me, we’ve all seen men and women who were rarely, or uniquely, talented, and who frittered away their talent because they had the physical gifts but not the mental gifts.

Here’s my asterisk: Genetics wins when you’re 11. If this series was simply about 11-year-olds, genetics would be at the top. But the older you get, the more hard work, diligent work, and uninterrupted good habits, catches up to, passes, and leaves genetics in the dust.

Sometimes I’ve been that guy whose “superior genetics” were humiliated. The later in life, the more it’s what’s between your ears that takes you to the podium. The older I get the more the rest of the world catches up to whatever physical talents I thought I had. Then the shoe is on the other foot.

If I was moderately gifted as a youngster, that ship long sailed. Once you become 45, 55, 65 years old now it’s about who has the capacity to maintain a proper race weight. Who knows how to balance work and sport? Who has the will to cut bad habits, whether alcohol or late night TV?

What I see among all athletes past 35 or 40 is that there’s no real telling who’s going to get atherosclerosis or something else that he doesn’t “deserve” if there really is an Endurance God in Heaven. Life becomes unfair to the “haves” when we all age.

Yes, genetics are important. That’s why genetics ranked as high as it did on my list of 8. However, genetics are only important at the highest levels, and at younger ages.

Here is what I wrote 15 years ago, here on Slowtwitch:

“I believe just about every reasonably fit male the age of 45 has the theoretical physiological capacity to run his age for a 10k, that is, a 10k in 45 minutes. Subtract 20 seconds for every year under 45, down to the age of 25, and add 20 seconds for every year over 45. Do the math, and you’ll see that according to my formula a 27-year-old ought to be able to run a 39-minute 10k, and I mean almost any 27-year-old. Likewise, the significant majority of 54-year-old men ought to be able to run a 48 minute 10k. Women add 4 minutes.”

I’m not saying that any 54-year-old man could run a 48-minute 10k. I’m saying that the large majority (4 out of 5, let us say) have the physiological capacity to run that fast one has the requisite willpower and self control, and assuming he doesn’t have a mechanical problem (i.e., he has a pair of fair-to-middlin’ knees).

I acknowledged in my article that 1 in 5 were not capable of that, but in that article I also wrote that 1 in 5 were capable of considerably better than that. I’m still getting comments about this article today, almost 15 years later. But I believe what I wrote then stands up. I believe so because I see people who just are so naturally mediocre rise up to, well, kick my arse!

Simply put, it turns out I just am not that gifted, or if I was I frittered away my advantage to those who were just harder, tougher men than I.

I’m not writing about the high jump. Or chess. I’m writing about a half-distance triathlon. In that event, genetics are overrated. Hard work wins. And, the older you get, as you move past one age group to another, and another, the more genetics falls to the point of being an inconsequential factor.