The argument can be made that the research Malcolm Gladwell points to regarding the time required to achieve a level of mastery was performed on musicians, therefore it pertains to musicians and cannot be extrapolated to any other discipline where mastery is the goal. Indeed, the argument can be made, but is that the case?  Does the “10,000 hour rule” apply exclusively to musicians or can it apply to athletes as well? Well… let’s take a look at three of the top athletes in each of the triathlon sports — swimming, cycling and running — and a triathlete as well.

Swimming – Michael Phelps

Phelps started swimming at the age of 7 but also played other ball sports (e.g. football, baseball) before committing himself exclusively to training as a swimmer. Phelps was taken on by coach Bob Bowman at the age of 10 and it wasn’t too late thereafter that Bowman dreamed the impossible dream that young Michael Phelps could become one of the sports legends if he truly applied himself. With young Phelps and family buying into Bowman’s dream, Phelps committed to Bowman’s goal that Michael train 5 years straight… no days off. Not on his birthday, not on Thanksgiving, not even on Christmas day. To prepare Michael to become the sports most decorated athlete and to become the most decorated Olympian of all time was going to require no small commitment.

Take any club, college or university swim team and the typical training plan is something like this…. doubles (meaning two workouts a day) Monday to Friday, with a single session on Saturday and then Sunday off as a rest day.  When I swam with the UofT Blues, this was the schedule. Each session was 2hrs in length, was swam short course meters (i.e. 25m) with the exception of Saturday which was a 2.5hr session where we swam long course (i.e. the pool bulk head was moved to the opposite end creating 50m or Olympic length lanes).

Michael Phelps has posted online in Youtube videos how he preferred swimming 7 days straight instead of having a day off because he felt that (a) he lost training momentum each time he took a day off, momentum that took 2-3 days to rebuild, momentum that wasn’t lost when he trained 7 days a week, and (b) because no one else was swimming 7 days a week it was one way to immediately get ahead of all of his competition.

It can be safely assumed that Phelps was easily training doubles 5-6x a week, with 2hrs a typical time for each session not to mention dryland sessions a few times a week as well.  What does it all add up to?

13 Training Sessions (minimum)/Week x 2 Hrs/Session x 52 Weeks a Year x 5 Years
=  6,760 Hrs over a 5Yr Period

Add this to the hours Phelps accumulated between the ages of 7 and 13 or so when he started this 5 years straight, then add the next decade plus of training that Phelps put in to attend all 5 Olympics (thats a 20year time span) and his total training time is a multiple of the almost 7,000hrs he put in as a teenager.

It could be argued that Phelps is an outlier as he is the most decorated Olympian; however, as mentioned the typical club, college and university swim team training program is consistent at 11 sessions a week of just in pool training with dryland sessions on top so Phelps is definitely not alone in achieving 10,000hrs plus.

Cycling – Jens Voigt

Voigt started cycling in his early teen years (14yrs old to be exact) and didn’t stop riding until he retired in his early 40s from being a professional cyclist. Voigt makes it simple in regards to how much he trained. In his autobiography, he totals his career cycling mileage to be approximately 900,000 km. Keeping it simple… take a 30yr career and that means Voigt rode on average 30,000 km a year, every year for 30years straight. Keeping the math still simple, let’s assume that on average he rode those kilometers at 30kph, and that works out to 1,000 hrs a year of training. This total annual training time doesn’t include dryland training or any other cross training that he performed.

30yr as a Pro Cyclist x 1,000Hrs/Yr of Training Time (minimum)
=  30,000 Hrs Career Total Training Time

No, it didn’t take Jens Voigt 30,000hrs to become a pro, he became a pro in his mid 20s but again the 10,000Hr Rule seems to fit as a decade of riding at his career average puts him right on 10,000hrs by his early 20s. According to Wikipedia, Jens started his pro career at the age of 26 riding for the Giant-AIS Cycling Team in 1997, moving to Team GAN for the next 5 years, Team CSC for the following 6 and then finished off his career on Leopard Trek with whom he rode until 2014. His palmarès shows that Voigt won his first UCI event in 1999, the Criterium International (which he won a total of 5 times); he also won 3 stages in the Tour de France and another in the Giro d’Italia along with numerous other stage, one day and classic events.  Jens finished off his career by setting the World Hour record in 2014.

If Voigt was in his mid 20s before he became a pro, then that would mean he already had well over 10,000hrs of training time by that point and likely had already surpassed 250,000km of total riding mileage.

Running – Eluid Kipchoge

The current marathon world record holder and the INEOS 2Hr Challenge winner, Kipchoge started running back in his school years. As most Kenyan children, Kipchoge ran to and from school as a car is a luxury item for many if not most Kenyans. His running started simply with 2miles a day. By the time he was 18yrs old he was a Junior Champion. Today as the top marathoner in the world, Kipchoge at the age of 35 continues to put in 190km weeks of total running mileage, or approximately 18-20hrs a week of total training time (i.e. running + dryland).

20 Hrs/Week x 52 Weeks a Year =  1,000 Hrs+ per Year x 15-20yr Running Career
= 15,000+ Hrs

And Kipchoge is not yet done… he continues to train adding further still to all of his training mileage and training time totals. Imagine that! Imagine having thousands upon thousands of kilometers, miles and hours logged yet still being so excited and enthusiastic about what you see yourself still achieving in the sport that you continue to log more and more hours each and everyday in pursuit of your potential.

Meanwhile… how many ‘try’ a sport for a few hours and give up thinking they clearly aren’t made for it, or the sport is just not for them? How many children ‘try’ a sport but without ever committing anywhere close to what it takes to be good at anything, quit concluding that because the sport didn’t come easily or quickly to them, well… they clearly aren’t made or built for sport. Really?

What about academia?

If you are encouraging your child to pursue post secondary education… then aren’t you encouraging them to commit to studying? Think about it. Think about the “studying time” (aka no different than training time) that it takes to become a professional like a doctor or a lawyer or to obtain a Masters degree or a PhD.

A doctor or a lawyer put in no less than 6years of post secondary education and that’s not including articling for a lawyer or an internship for a doctor. A masters degree is no different: a full 6 years of time is required and as much as a masters degree is great, you aren’t considered an ‘expert’ in a field until you obtain a PhD… which takes a full decade of post secondary education.

If you are pursuing these higher levels of education, then its not unrealistic to estimate that your weekly class load plus your weekly homework, assignment and project load, not to mention the weekly studying time for tests and exams will add up to 20hrs a week. In fact, I think most post secondary students would suggest that they put in significantly more time than 20hrs a week.

20 Hrs/Week x 52 Weeks a Year =  1,000 Hrs+ per Year x 6yrs
= 6,000+ Hrs

What’s the difference? No one would suggest that studying 20hrs a week is crazy or ridiculous or excessive or ‘unhealthy’, meanwhile I have had athletes who trained simply 2hrs a day (i.e. 14hrs a week) and they had colleagues call them crazy, calling their training excessive. That doesn’t add up.  That doesn’t add up at all. Yet when a child quits sport after accumulating less than a 1,000hrs of training and decides that they aren’t “good enough” its deemed an acceptable assessment of their potential; yet if a child quit school after 1 yr we would say that they haven’t given education enough of a chance. Then when other children do exceed at sport or at school, excelling beyond our level of performance we immediately right them off as “naturally talented” athletes, or “naturally gifted” students. Nah… they just work their asses off putting in the hours that anyone who wants to succeed knows need to be put in, and everyone else who calls them talented or gifted simply refuses to work.

Its that plain and simple.

The genetic testing that has been performed on East African runners has come up time and again as lacking any evidence to suggest that East Africans are “born runners” or are “naturally talented” athletes. We keep looking for the easy excuse that says someone else had it easy, or easier and that’s why they are good when instead we should be looking at the reality of what it takes to win… it takes work, countless hours of work no matter where… in sport, in school, its all the same.

Want to win?  Then you need to learn how to work and then you need to learn how to fall in love with work. That’s what the best of the best have done and there are countless examples of it: both Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry sucked at basketball in high school, and both took the time to train and train and train and both became legends in the sport. Neither was born “lucky”, “good”, “talented” or whatever you want to use as your excuse as to why you cannot be good, if not great.

Want to win? Then you need to learn to work. Best part… work doesn’t discriminate. Work doesn’t care what is the colour of your skin, what’s your race or religion, work doesn’t care what brand of clothing you wear or what shoes you have on your feet, if any at all. Only question is… are you willing to work?

Triathlon – Flora Duffy

Flora Duffy tried her first triathlon at the age of 8 and was by no means an automatic champion who stood on each and every podium from the get go. Not at all. In her first triathlon she placed 60th, and then 12th and then after many many years and many many hours of training she became a champion. Today at the age of 33 she continues to represent the tiny island of Bermuda in the sport of triathlon and continues to win.

Duffy is the 2016 and 2017 ITU World Triathlon Series World Champion, the 2015 and 2016 ITU Cross Triathlon World Champion, a five time winner of the XTerra World Championships, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games Champion and the only person to win three triathlon world titles in the same year (2016).

Triathlon – Kristian Blummenfelt

Blummenfelt is a member of the Norwegian National Triathlon Team and is consistently standing on the podium of ITU WTS events. In a Youtube video posted by Blummenfelt and his coach they review his annual training: 2,400km of swimming, 16,000km of biking, and 5,000km of running. Annually he puts in just under 1,400 hrs of training; that’s just under 4 hrs a day, everyday of the year.

It takes the same dedication that someone would put in to obtaining an academic career as it does to obtain success in sport. Why we think success in sport can come with the equivalent of an elementary school education is beyond me.

Top triathletes such as Duffy, Blummenfelt, Gwen Jorgensen, Jan Frodeno, the Brownlees all share that their typical training load is at least 25-30hrs a week and more typically 30-35hrs a week with athletes such as Olympic Champion and Ironman World Champion Jan Frodeno logging 45hr weeks during peak build phases of his training. No top athletes falls out of bed and simply stands on a podium. They all work and they work consistently year after year to become what we all admire as true experts in their discipline.

You can too.