There is one major factor that sets world-class athletes apart from everyday runners: They chose their parents well.
In sports such as basketball, baseball, soccer, and gymnastics, the genetic gifts are evident early. But in endurance events, it is possible for someone who shows little or no talent during the first few years to improve significantly through hard, sustained work and eventually reach world-class status. While this is unlikely, this is my story.
During my first four years of running in high school I was not fast enough to compete in state championship competition. Only during my senior year did I qualify. I did not earn a college track scholarship.
When I graduated in 1967, with a draft number so low that I was certain to be drafted, I tried to join the track teams of the Army, Air Force and Marines—but did not have times that were fast enough. I enrolled in the Navy and served three years off the coast of Vietnam, as well as other duties.
After my Navy service, I applied myself to running and improved steadily, qualifying for the 1972 Olympic team. In every Olympics, there are distance runners who are too stubborn to give up, like me, and make themselves into world-class competitors.
Have you wondered what it would be like to be a world-class runner? Well, here are some of the factors:
Shoes: Most elite runners have a shoe sponsorship from a major brand. The tendency is to replace the shoes before they become worn out. With a weekly mileage of 100 miles a week, the average shoe will last two to four weeks—less when the shoe is used for speed training.
Training Days Per Week: Seven days a week. Unfortunately, even when injured, many elite runners go into denial and keep pushing—aggravating the problem.
Hours Per Week: Top runners commit to about 10 hours of actual running each week. When you factor in driving to the track, warm-up, warm-down, recovery, and dressing—add another 15 to 20 hours. Treating an injury (which is common) can add another four to 10 hours.
Speedwork: Athletes vary widely in how many days of speed training they do. Most elite distance runners practice some form of accelerations about every other day. The really tough speed workouts would be done only once or twice a week.
Injuries: World-class athletes tend to be injured about once a month—but some much more often. The single greatest factor in sustaining improvement is staying injury free.
Frustration: Because race performance is often due to factors beyond the control of individuals, athletes are often frustrated. They will train for three to four months for a big race, but the weather is hot or the competition they need did not show up and the race doesn't go the way they thought it would. When one is in shape for a given performance, it usually takes three to four races to realize that time.
Emotional Effects: The higher you achieve, the greater tendency you'll have to fall off that high level. Athletes live with the anxieties of infection, burnout, injury, sponsorship cancellation, and "will I be around next season."