Meet Your Marker
Do our genes dictate the kind of runner we should be?
Each strand of DNA contains markers for specific strengths and weaknesses that may affect athletic performance.
MUNA LEE KNOWS her great strength lies in running short distances – after all, she’s twice competed for the United States at the Olympics, in both the 100 and 200 metres. But sprinters need more than speed to succeed.
Now Lee is putting a greater focus on building endurance and devoting more time to recovery, thanks to results from DNA testing. Two years ago, she submitted a swab of saliva to the Canadian company Athletigen. The analysis she received provided training suggestions based on several genotypes, including HIF1A (which indicates how much oxygen the body delivers to muscles). Already, she feels stronger and better rested. ‘I wish I had done it sooner,’ she says.
Lee trains with more than 100 other athletes at Altis, a track-and-field training facility in Phoenix, Colorado, US. Coaches there have collaborated with scientists at Athletigen for the past two years to profile
understand the links between genetics and performance, says Altis CEO and founder John Godina, who’s won Olympic silver and bronze medals in the shot-put.
‘As an organisation, we’re trying to push the boundaries regarding the amount of data and knowledge we can gather about the athletes,’ says Godina. ‘ We still have our experience as coaches and the athletes’ race experiences as well. The genetics is just another way to turn the sculpture to look at the other side and see what’s going on.’ CRACKING YOUR CODE You don’t have to be an Olympian to access this data. Companies such as DNAFIT and Fitnessgenes offer DNA testing to everyday athletes. The specifics vary, but most companies promise to assess genes related to muscle development, recovery time and injury risk – and offer a training plan (and sometimes a diet) tailored precisely to your DNA.
Not everyone has bought into the theory. Genetics researchers say these claims outpace the evidence. In fact, in a recent issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a consortium of experts released a statement steering consumers away from these services. DNA influences such outcomes as your 5K time and bodyfat percentages. But unlike some inheritable diseases that hinge on a single gene mutation, the DNA code underlying sports performance has proved harder to crack, says Linda Pescatello, a scientist at the University of Connecticut, US, who’s spent years trying.
In some cases, genes shown in one study to influence athletic traits haven’t held up to further scientific scrutiny, she says. And in others, the effects of the various mutations that scientists do understand pale in comparison with those that they don’t. ‘Say you have 12 puzzle pieces out of hundreds or thousands,’ says David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (Yellow Jersey). ‘You’re giving someone this measure that looks like you are telling them a balance of percentages inside 100 per cent, when really, that entire 100 per cent might be less than one per cent of what’s actually important.’ RACING THE CLOCK Pescatello predicts it will be decades before scientists truly understand genetics well enough to derive useful, specific training guidance. But athletes such as Lee – who, at 35, probably won’t get another shot at the Olympics – don’t want to wait. Godina says he understands the scepticism but sees little downside for his athletes.
Because he can monitor and understand so much of what’s happening in their lives, he can help them implement the results earlier than other runners might – he hopes to have even more useful insights from the testing within the next two years. ‘The genetics is an aspect of the whole,’ says Godina. ‘If you’re seeking to get a tenth of a per cent improvement and you’ve exhausted all the other pathways, if genetics can provide you with that tenth of a per cent of insight, the testing has done its job.’