What Role Does Genetics Play In Athletic Ability?

Tip-Top Shape But Still Second Place. I Was Always Close But No Cigar

One of my closest friends recently completed the Louisville, KY Ironman competition.  Not only did she complete it, she finished fifth in her age group!  Mary and I have been working out together for years.  About ten years ago, as the boot camp wave swept the planet, we were team teaching a military-style workout on Saturday mornings at the Y.  It was a workout-‘til-you puke class and we had a large audience of participants that ranged from athletes to the soccer moms.

Mary and I would set up suicide drills – among other things – in a large multi-court gym.  She and I would race side by side.  We are the same age, about the same size, did almost identical workouts each week, and both had a fiercely competitive spirit.  Every time we raced she beat me.  Not by a few feet, or even inches.  But her hand would touch down on the wall a fraction of a second before mine every single time.  It wasn’t long before my goal for Saturday morning was to get to the wall sooner, do one more push up, or complete a jump rope drill faster than Mary.  If I ever did that I don’t remember it.

So the question lingers.  Why?  Was it the super foods she was eating, vitamins she was taking, electrolyte enhanced water she was drinking?  What was she doing different or better than I was that gave her the edge?

DNA Strand

Olympic Athletes and Genetic Advantage

More than 200 gene variants have been associated with athletic proficiency.  Did you know that the ACE gene, which is tied to endurance, and an alternative copy of the ACTN3 gene, also known as the “speed gene” is found in nearly every male Olympic sprinter ever tested?

Finnish athlete Eero Mantyranta – winner of seven Olympic cross-country skiing medals – carries a mutated EPO gene, which increases hemoglobin levels thereby increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.  This gene mutation elevates his oxygen-carrying capacity by 25 to 50 percent.

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans – two biotech leaders at the Excel Venture Management in Boston – wrote, in an article for Nature, that tuning into the Olympics allows us to watch “a showcase of athletes born with genetic advantages.”  Enriquez and Gullans believe that athletes that did not win the ‘gene lottery’ should be allowed to ‘upgrade’ through gene therapy.”

According to an article in HealthDay, “Genetics and athletics experts fear that the 2012 Olympic Games may be the last without competitors secretly hinging their gold medal hopes on gene doping.”  In gene doping athletes would modify their own genes so that they would be more competitive in sports.

Robert Kersey, director of Athletic Training Education Program at California State University in Fullerton, believes that the “pressure to win, twinned with monetary pressure from corporate sponsors, will combine to make gene-doping irresistible to some world class athletes.”

Apparently Olympic athletes and experts believe that the ‘gift’ so-called ‘gifted athletes’ possess is good genes.

Nothing Outshines Solid Training, Good Nutrition and A Positive Mental Attitude

I suspect that most of you reading this aren’t world class athletes, but rather individuals that, like me, that get frustrated when you get beat by someone that does not have any visible advantage yet they have an edge over you.  Genetics may in part be the link to their success and if they are training hard and eating well, you are, by nature, at a disadvantage.

In this case our response must be to become even more disciplined about our training, nutrition and mental focus.  We will have to get serious about the factors that we can control to make up for those that we can’t.

Eating a well balanced diet so that the body has fuel for the training as well as the competitive events, avoiding dehydration and electrolyte depletion, and applying goal setting and mental imagery techniques will go a long way towards making up for what you might be genetically lacking.

I may never be able to beat Mary at a suicide sprint drill, or come in fifth place in my age group in an Ironman, but in no way does that mean I’ve failed unless that’s the way I choose to see it.  As the coach of my daughter’s high school soft ball team would say, “It’s a mental game.”

“You have to win in your mind before you win in your life.”  John Addison

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