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Grit: the key to success in endurance sports

Research says talent will get you so far, but it's the gritty athletes who rise to the top

Have you ever wondered what separates elite athletes from the rest of us, or what allows one competitor to perform at a consistently high level no matter the odds? Of course, physical ability, resources and skill all come into play here, but there’s one ingredient that seems to outweigh the rest: grit. Behavioural psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as a special blend of passion and persistence, and she, along with many other experts, agrees it is what pushes someone to show up day after day, make sacrifices and push through setbacks to become the best.

Kate Van Buskirk
Photo: Armory/Twitter

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According to a 2007 paper written by Duckworth, “grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

This definition highlights one important factor that determines success in running, and that is the time it takes to achieve that success. When a new elite runner bursts onto the scene, it’s easy to think they just magically became really good, but what we don’t see are the years of strenuous, focused effort it took for them to get there. That person has already experienced several setbacks and failures, and yet they’ve carried on.

In Duckworth’s 2016 book, titled Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance, she outlines the two equations that lead to achievement. The first is talent x effort = skill. Most research agrees that in order to make it to the top level in sport, there is an element of innate ability, but this talent only tells part of the story. Without effort, talent goes nowhere. The second equation is skill x effort = achievement. When you put these two equations together, it means you need to apply effort to turn talent into skill, and then you need to apply more effort to translate that skill into achievement.

Elite men racing 10K

What does that look like in the context of running? When someone shows early talent in running, that will only help them go so far. If they want to continue improving, they need to apply effort in order to perfect skills like pacing, form, endurance and of course, racing. These are all things that need to be practised. Practising them over weeks, months and years is what will eventually lead to achievement (winning big races, setting records, etc.).

While the scientific literature is fairly limited in this area, there have been a few studies assessing the effect of grit on athletic performance, including this 2017 study that looked at more than 250 athletes from a variety of sports, including runners. Participants ranged from age 13 to 30 and came from a variety of skill levels, from local sports teams to international competitions. The researchers measured them on a “grit scale” comprised of two categories: perseverance of effort (PE) and consistency of interests (CI). They found that athletes who scored higher in the perseverance of effort were more likely to attend all mandatory and optional practices and to practise on their own. The athletes who scored higher on consistency of interests were also far less likely to quit their sport.

Matt Hughes (centre) and Alex Genest on the podium after finishing first and second in the 3,000m steeplechase.
Matt Hughes (centre) and Alex Genest on the podium after finishing first and second in the 3,000m steeplechase

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The bottom line

Grit is a difficult thing to measure, but it has a significant role to play in performance. All you have to do is listen to or read the stories of our Canadian Olympians and other elite runners to know that success doesn’t come easily, quickly or without sacrifice. So yes, are elite athletes naturally gifted? Sure. But talent alone has not gotten them where they are. For the rest of us, having a gritty mentality in our training may not take us to the Olympic stage, but it will lead us to reach a level we never thought possible.