One of the most frustrating things that can occur while training for a race is not seeing the desired level of improvement, despite being highly committed to your routine. You may be putting in the same hours as your running buddies; and yet, when it comes to finishing times, you find yourself lagging behind the rest of the group. Quite naturally, this can lead to lower confidence and motivation, and make you question if, perhaps, running isn’t your thing after all.
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have put in a lot of thought and research into what makes some athletes perform naturally better than others, and whether some of us are genetically designed to run long distances. From case studies involving East African athletes and their dietary and environmental conditions to the identification of specific genes that determine our responses to stamina training, research has effectively pointed out more than one link between our genetic makeup and performance on the track. For example, some suggest that due to their outsized lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles, East Africans have the “perfect biomechanical package” for long-distance running. This same combination, however, makes them apparently unsuited for sports that require explosive anaerobic bursts, like football, sprinting or heavy lifting.
In 2013, a team of researchers based at Loughborough University developed a DNA test that can help predict marathon-running performance. They found more than 100 genes that determine how a person adapts to endurance training, and reached the conclusion that nearly a fifth of the population lacks this combination. Essentially, those who have the genes adapt really well to endurance training and can run faster for longer, while those who don’t will not develop the same endurance capacity.
Now, before you retire those running shoes forever, remember that on the other end of the ‘nature v/s nurture’ debate are sports as well as gene scientists who claim that genetic markers alone cannot create a world-class athlete without the required training, environment and sporting culture. Essentially, there are several factors that can influence our performance: endurance potential, aerobic capacity (or VO2 max), risk of injury, and recovery efficiency. Our genes might determine our response to each of these; some of us may be genetically wired for a higher VO2 but nonetheless still stand a high risk of injury. Others might have a lower aerobic threshold but greater efficiency when it comes to post-exercise recovery, thus allowing them to bounce back faster after rigorous training.
A good way to determine where you stand is by undergoing a simple DNA test that studies for these and other aspects of running performance. Not only might this provide a sound explanation for your training stats, but also explain the ways in which you can tweak your training to achieve better results on the field. It’s not as odd as it sounds: British 800-meter runner Jenny Meadows used genetic testing in 2014 before the Commonwealth Games. Among other things, the results suggested that she has an increased risk for soft-tendon injuries, and an even split of power and endurance. Following this, she made certain changes to her training, which included more cardio hours on a bike in exchange for reduced running sessions.
“To get to the top as an athlete, it takes a combination of hard work, luck and timing. But if I’d have known what my genetic strengths and weaknesses I could have trained more effectively,” Meadows reportedly told AP.
Even in India, runners have taken up DNA testing to understand what necessary changes they can make to maximize their performance. It’s not only a scientific way to gain some clarity on your body’s natural advantages, but also a key to adjusting your training plans as per your personal thresholds. After all, our genetic makeup can only suggest how strong our marathon winning potential may be; but it’s still consistency and training that will actually get us there.
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