Meet Your Marker

Do our genes dic­tate the kind of run­ner we should be?

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue -

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

ath­letes and

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.’

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