Genetics and Sports

I think the most overused and one of the most dangerous terms in athletic vernacular is “gifted”.   Of course there are certain body types that are much more appropriate to certain sports and movements than others, however the term gifted is often overused and in many cases discourages individuals from the recognition that hard work and diligent training will overcome most gifts.  Genetic athletic gifts are like a glass.  It is true that some people are born with bigger glasses (DNA/Genome).  However, the size of the glass is only a measurement of potential; training is the act of filling a glass (Epigenetics /Phenome).  Athlete A is born with a glass that is 25% larger than athlete B.  The athlete with the smaller glass fills his to the top and the “gifted “athlete only fills his half way.  The non gifted athlete will prevail on the field.  My point is that we are all born with different DNA which we have no control over.  There is a whole body of research which has identified different athletic genes.   We all know individuals who are just natural at a given sport.   However it is the expression of the gene (epigenetic expression through training) that we have the ability to influence through smart training.  This is one area that we have a great ability to influence. 

The best way to understand this is by thinking about identical twins.  Identical twins have the exact same DNA or genome.  In many cases it is almost impossible to tell them apart.  However, if one of the twins pursued long distance running and the other twin was a power lifter the differences in their physiques would be very pronounced.  Why is this difference so pronounced if their genetics are identical?  The expression of the genes is seen in the phenome of the twins.    If both twins have identical genomes what causes the differences in the body types of the marathoner vs. the power lifter?  The different forms of training have expressed the identical genes differently in the physiques of the twins.   It seems obvious from this example, but how do you influence your own genes?

The word epigenetic means over the gene.  In other words the expression of the gene over the underlying DNA that you are born with is the epigenetic expression of the gene.  The study of epigenetics is one of the leading areas of genetic research today.   What the research is finding is that different stresses on your body (training would be one stress) will mark your genes to behave in a particular way.   Much of the research has revolved around mapping the markers that result in negative expressions of the genes that subsequently express themselves through diseases of the body.  Researchers are trying to determine how to remark your genes to block particular diseases.   The same principle of gene expression is also evidenced on the training side.   In fact the scientific community is finding that a lot of the training adaptation of an athlete is more a result of the epigenetic marker than the training itself. 

Now I come back to the “non- gifted” athlete and how the concept of DNA and Epigenetics plays into training.  By the way, I do not think there are any non-gifted athletes.  These are just athletes who have not found a sport that supports their gifts.   Many youth athletes do not discover their gifts because they never “fail” at a sport. 

Genetics are important for certain types of sports.  Height can be very important in the game of basketball.    However, I believe that epigenetics are the bigger determinant of performance in sport today.  The science is finally catching up and showing that through training an athlete can change the expression of the gene to produce a result that supports performance in a particular sport.  This concept is far reaching to curing disease.  It will also have huge impact on an athlete’s ability to perform through a better understanding of what specific stresses result in a particular gene expression that improves sports performance.  In the past this gene expression has usually happened by default.

A great strength coach has a better understanding of what types of stresses result in different physiological results.  Measuring the athlete’s performance data and understanding what it means coupled with an understanding of the physiology will speed the increases in performance. 

So the moral to the story is that there is hope for individuals who do not believe they have the gifts to perform at the highest level of a particular sport.  Of course there are limitations, but it is amazing what can be done with the proper training strategy.   With proper motivation, desire, and the most effective training an individual can produce the most effective genetic expression to match a particular sport!

Is there a secret way to train to accomplish this gene expression?  What are the strategies and tactics necessary to mark your genes and develop the desired result? 

I will begin to answer in subsequent entries.  In the meantime train smart, have fun, and you will prevail. 


Jacques DeVore, CSCS