Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I recently read (actually, I listened to the audiobook) Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. He suggests that success in any endeavor typically results from two things – luck and hard work.

He points out that luck is the result of being born at the right time and living in the right place. One of the many examples he gave for this was Bill Gates. In the late 1960s Gates was in junior high school at the time computers were just beginning to appear. He was very interested in computer technology but in order to become proficient he would have to spend a lot of time playing around with one. That wasn’t easy to do since there were very few available. But he happened to live in a place where an organization had a computer he could use any time he wanted. The time and place were perfect for him. How lucky.

He capitalized on this opportunity by spending nearly all of his spare time messing around with it. Within a matter of a few years it is estimated he logged over 10,000 hours of computer time. During his junior year at Harvard he dropped out and started Microsoft. The hard work paid off.

Luck and hard work. That’s it, Gladwell says. You have limited control over the first. It’s too late to change when you were born. If you’re a triathlete now you can thank your lucky stars to have been at an opportune time since the sport didn’t really exist until the early 1980s. Mountain biking came along in the mid-1980s. The running boom started in the early 1970s. And road cycling has only been popular in the US since the early 1970s. So, depending on your age right now, your timing may have been pretty good.

You do have some control over where you live, however. There are places that seem to produce excellent endurance athletes such as Boulder and San Diego. Why? Because they have the resources associated with endurance sport success such as decent weather, variable terrain, top coaches, adequate facilities, talented training partners, good roads, sports medicine practices, and more.

Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours at any endeavor is what is needed to master it. Again, he offers many examples such as the Beatles. He estimates that they had played together for 10,000 hours by 1964 when they became an “overnight” success in the US as a rock band.

In athletic terms, 10,000 hours is 10 years of 20 hour weeks. Elite endurance athletes in cycling and triathlon typically put in more than 20 hours a week so they get their 10-grand a little sooner. If they started training seriously in their early 20s by their late 20s they are approaching their peaks. Many can keep this peak going into their 30s because they continue to become smarter as athletes. For example, they learn more about race strategies and tactics, and what works best for their own training.

Most age-group athletes who train far less than 20 hours weekly have many years of improvement ahead of them depending on the effects of their aging curves. The older you get the fewer mistakes you can make in training if you want to keep the growth curve rising steadily. They must avoid injury, illness and other breakdowns that interrupt training. This is the biggest challenge for self-coached athletes there is. It’s a rare athlete who will limit himself. Most are intent on doing all that is possible. Hard workouts abound.

I believe that the key to success in sport is not simply hard workouts but, more importantly, training consistency — practicing your sport day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Uninterrupted. Athletes who focus on excessively hard workouts on the premise that this will quickly produce exceptional performance eventually find themselves overtrained, burned out, injured or sick. There is nothing that produces race results like years of consistent training. This is not to say there is no place for hard workouts. There is. It’s just a matter of how hard and how often.


At May 27, 2009 5:15 PM , Blogger Jay Parkhill said...

This perfectly encapsulates my recent experiences in so many ways.

I started racing bicycles 2 years ago (after 20 years of recreational cycling), self-coached and training 3 days/week, but with big gaps when work/life got busy.

I started working with a coach last fall and got into a rhythm of training more frequently and more regularly. Total volume is about the same as in prior "good" weeks, but I am more consistent.

The difference has been night & day. I have gone from mid-pack road racing to top 10, and am closing in on a category upgrade on the track.

My volume of training and racing is still low, but I have found a level I can sustain for years to come (I hope) and steadily chip away at the results. Steady wins the race.

At May 28, 2009 6:23 AM , Blogger Eric Johnson said...

great post, joe.

this post reminds me of a quote Tim DeBoom made about training for IM a few years ago. To paraphrase, he said it took many years of dedicated, consistent training before he could get to the point of actually being able to do the challenging workouts needed for success in Kona.

"outliers" was a really fascinating book. check out "blink" next. it's a great one too. (same author)

At May 28, 2009 8:45 AM , Blogger tomdog said...

So, this means there is still some hope for those of us over 40 and who got into endurance sports late. Yes!! I am going to have to check out the book and get even more inspired. Thanks for sharing!

At May 28, 2009 1:39 PM , Blogger Gordo Byrn said...


Great post -- the book reminded me of Daniels (motivation, inherent ability, opportunity and luck) -- his four factors for athletic success.

Something that I picked up related to your reader's DeBoom quote (above)... in athletics, especially for working athletes, we have limited windows where we can really go-for-it. So we'll want to spend, say, the first 7000 hours building the life/skills/biomechanics so that we can get the most benefit from lifting ourselves in the 'final' 3000 hours.

Making that jump to 'training to win' too early in the 10,000 can reduce the athlete's ability to hit their ultimate potential. I think you do a fantastic job of guiding us for considering if we are ready to step-it-up.

For those of us that have a desire to be world class at something, wrapping our heads around the 10000 benchmark helps frame time lines. Also points to the power of an experienced team.


At May 29, 2009 12:23 PM , Blogger Slater Fletcher said...

Beautiful! Sums up my entire focus this year and the next 6 or so.

This is the first year I started focusing on consistency/frequency as a priority and have taken the approach of doing less(not trying to destroy myself in a single training session) and instead making sure I can keep frequency going for weeks, months, years.

Thanks Joe! Good stuff!

At May 29, 2009 12:29 PM , Blogger Marcos Apene do Amaral-AçaíTri said...

I am also looking for this "clues" that Gordo mentioned to an world class level and I got really impressed on how do we get teached or guided on some stuff, trtiathlon either. That's why I posted 3 videos on saying about practical wisdom and creativity, that brings me to the true purpose of being an athlete that's is related to your post main point, hard work, repetition and all that is evolved by, altough, and that's my main argument, you can find some creative, inventive, smarter guys, out of the box minds like Gordo and many others you now even better that do all and more than neeeded to achieve success! Hope my terrible English makes me understood. And if you have some time, visit my blog and we can keep in touch and share lots of knowledge.
From the fan, reader and blog visitor, Marcos Apene do Amaral

At May 29, 2009 5:10 PM , Anonymous Bill G said...

Joe, great post. As we age-groupers aspire to train for 10,000 hours, consistency is absolutely required. This reinforces several principles of training, most of which I learned, or understood more clearly, from your writings. Consistency might be one of them, expressed in terms of long-term, chronic development. It has always seemed to me that the flip side (or corollary) of consistency is well planned moderation. What is less clear is how reversibility plays out with consistency over the long term.

So,what about interruptions? Is it the case that the farther along one is in their athletic development (here for triathlon) that reversibility is less of a factor? In other words, how would an extended break from training (perhaps even several months) affect a seasoned athlete versus someone newer? Are all, or most of the hard won gains lost, and you (automatically) hit the reset button? Or is there a "floor" below which the seasoned athlete won't fall? Is it predictable?

San Diego

At May 31, 2009 5:16 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Bill--Thanks for your comment. It's an interesting one. There is very little research on fitness loss by highly fit athletes. What does exist, if I recall correctly (traveling so can't check refs), typically shows that fitness is lost rather rapidly but that it doesn't take much to maintain it. For example, a test to measure losses serves as a stimulus to maintain fitness. I don't know of any that compares highly fit loss rates after a few weeks with that of those who have been training for a shorter time. But there's a classic Harvard study that compared college athletes with their non-athletic classmates decades later after the athletes had stopped training. There was no difference in their fitness at that time. Others have loked at what happens to elite runners when they became joggers later in life. Their VO2max dropped a lot. Those elites who kept on racing lost very little aerobic capacity. As you can imagine these studies of reversibility are few and far between. Anyone want to volunteer to stop training for a few months to see what happens?


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