Sports Genetics

We are all different and this is mainly due to our genes. There are the differences that we all see like eyes and hair colour, but then there are the differences inside – how we metabolise nutrients for example, the way we deal with toxins – we all interact with the environment in our own unique way.

Having the ability to know our own personal genetics is exceptional in many ways, but as with every strand of the current trend for the ‘quantifiable self’, caution must be exercised, as the value of this knowledge can be all too easily overstated. When it comes to DNA, understanding our genes is indeed an extremely important step, but in itself it is no more so than our environment – how we live, eat and exercise for example.

A champion athlete arrives at the gold medal through not just natural talent, but in most cases also a lifetime of sacrifice, hard training, mental strength, appropriate nutrition and ultimately, a little bit of luck too! This being said, even with all the elements in the right place, someone like Usain Bolt would never have become a champion long distance runner like Haile Gebreselassie, or indeed vice versa. It is within the auspicious crossover area where environment and genetics overlap that our goals are reached, and this is an oft-overlooked aspect in the new era of personal genetics. The majority of our phenotypes are not determined by solely genes or environment, but by both.

This means two things:

  1. Genes alone are not fully predictive and
  2. We can influence our phenotypes by applying the knowledge of how environment interacts with our genes, we can intervene with specific actions to improve the outcome. At least that is the hope, and the promise, of understanding personal genetics.

Some caution is required – technology, with ever improving efficiency is able to move much more rapidly than scientific studies on human beings, where the natural time course of events has to be followed. The advanced sequencing and cheap genetic testing does not mean that all of a sudden we have a lot of new knowledge that can be immediately applied – it may speed up the rate at which we acquire significant knowledge, but each study still takes several years to carry out.

But it does mean that the genetic knowledge that we do have, that which has been accumulated over many years of research, can now be applied, bringing benefits to everyone from elite athletes to occasional exercisers alike – provided of course that it is used correctly, not in isolation but together with other biological and physiological information.

Taking the sum of the data regarding physical performance genetics it is possible to assess where this information could be useful and where the evidence suggests that a training regime, for example, could be modified in a personalized way – genetic results can be interpreted to give an idea of what is more likely to be the most effective strategy.

Currently a personal trainer will consider various parameters when assessing a client, including height, weight, sex, age, fitness level, strength, body composition, etc., before advising on a suitable exercise routine, which will also be influenced by the desired goals. All of these contribute probabilistic data to help establish what is most likely, as far as we know, to be the optimal routine for an individual.

Now, we have reached a point where personal genetics can be added to this mix. It is not claimed to be any more or indeed any less useful than the already commonly used parameters, but it becomes an important part of the picture with the obvious intended outcome that including genetics increases the chance of finding the optimal training routine quicker, with less trial and error.

Both trainer and individual will monitor progress and modify training routines according to the results – this iterative process is no different when genetics is added. In fact this is one of the advantages of sports genetics over other types of personal genetics (such as disease risk prediction,) the results can be seen and acted upon immediately.

Many studies have assessed the effects of individual and groups of genes on power vs. endurance performance. They have most often looked at the frequency of particular genetic variations in elite power and endurance athletes reporting on associations found, of which a few have been confirmed and attempts have been made to use genetics to predict performance in power or endurance sports, with some success.

From the data so far we can conclude that genes do influence physiological (and probably mental) processes that contribute to power vs. endurance potential, but that in themselves their predictive power is not sufficient to determine what sport a particular individual may excel in. As such the science is certainly not at a stage where personal genetics should be advocated as a method of talent selection, or indeed as a means to choose a goal. Rather, it should be used to appropriately individualise training and nutrition strategies to better reach a desired goal, whatever that goal may be.

This genetic information can be useful to inform and guide training – by scoring the genes for which repeated evidence is available it is possible to estimate whether an individual may be biased towards endurance or power.

The same sort of process can be applied to other areas of sports performance such as VO2max capability, resting heart rate, maximal heart rate, recovery times and fatigue.

Here’s how it works

Order your DNAFit test now and receive your collection kit by post.

Collect your saliva samples with the provided collection kit and send them to our laboratory for analysis.

We provide you with a personal report in approximately 3 weeks after receipt of your samples.