Put on your propeller hats, because we are about to get geeky over the outcomes of testing one’s DNA for sports performance.
First off, why would anyone test their DNA for sports performance? want to find out their genetic profile?
You know how some people are outstanding at one sport but not another? It’s down to their genetic profile. So being aware of your genetic profile (via DNA testing) can give you an advantage when it comes to sports training. This is how some athletes reach the Olympic level of sportsmanship – their training routine is adapted to what will make them specifically a better athlete.
This is why I wanted to find out what nature had in store for me. Would I benefit more from endurance training, powerlifting or sprinting? Which muscle fibers respond to my training more: the fast or the slow? Overall I wanted to know how I should optimise my training to be a better athlete.
Finding Your Sport
Over the past decade I have enjoyed, practiced and lived a multitude of sports including (in no particular order):
- Running and long endurance training
- Ice Hockey
- Ultimate Frisbee
Currently, I train for extreme endurance and obstacle racing. This involves up to 10 workouts a week of both endurance and strength training. I also coach other OCR athletes.
Although I enjoyed all of the sports I’ve played over the years, I never figured out what makes me excel at some more than others. I used to think it was all down to training: the harder you push the better you get. Even though there is some truth to this, it’s actually your genetic predisposition that has a lot more influence over your athletic success.
Consider for a moment the famed Kenyan or Tarahumara runners, both extremely good at endurance running. Whilst there are great endurance runners in other cultures, these two stand out for having more of endurance runners per capita. It’s all down to their genotype. Whether or not someone has good power output, strength, sprinting ability, agility and other skills all depends on the genes they have or don’t have. These skills activate certain muscle fibers that are linked to a wide variability of central nervous system responses, making for a fast sprinter, or a good endurance runner or an excellent basketball player for example.
What many people don’t know is that your genes can also help predict recovery rates and your risk of specific injuries. As determined as I am to push myself in every workout, who’d want to push themselves into Snap City? I wanted to know what nature designed me for. Knowing more about my genetic makeup is for me a competitive advantage.
So – now that you know the why of DNA testing, let’s jump to the how and what…
The DNA Test
I did an at-home test, where I swabbed my cheek for a saliva sample. I then sent this sample off in the post and it was processed by an independent lab (DNAFit).
The outcomes of this particular test by DNAFit are linked to specific genotypes (click any of the below to jump to the specific outcome):
- Power and endurance response
- VO2Max potential
- Post-Exercise recovery speed and nutritional needs based on results
- Sports injury resilience
- Full genotype report and breakdown
- How I compare against a British Olympian (100m sprint/400m sprint)
- Fat, carbohydrate sensitivity. As well as lactose intolerance and antioxidant markers
- Conclusion – should you test yourself?
As expected, the data I was sent back was easy to digest and interpret. I actually received more than I expected. Every genotype was described in detail, and the results included a comparison of my profile with that of Olympic-level athletes.
I spent half a day trying to pull the data together and paint my genetic profile to make the best of it. I needed some clear threads to draw the conclusions and further steps.
1. Power and Endurance Response
This one was the most interesting result. I expected the divide to be close to 50/50 because that’s how I perceived my body reacting to my training regime. Yet based on the data, my genetic makeup is inclined towards endurance (83.3%) far more than power.
What gets me excited here is the results regarding ACE, PPARA and ACTN3 genes. These three are presumed to be the primary genes for advanced endurance performance. They’re linked to higher muscle metabolism and in combination provide for a fast and prolonged performance.
What’s even more interesting is that depending on your ancestral lineage, ACTN3 (Alpha-actinin-3) may be or may not be present in your gene pool. For example, only 20% of Australians have this gene. Yet it’s one that every athlete would crave. Based on studies on mice and rodents, those who had ACN3 gene were able to run 33% longer before ‘hitting the wall’ than those without the gene. Now, if that isn’t positive inspiration…
What I learnt from this is that I should consider prioritising endurance exercise (longer efforts of approx. 1km+) in my training programme and goals. Based on my genetic profile and tailored to the sport, this training could yield immense progress and results.
Now that we know what sort of athlete I am, let’s jump into the rest of the athlete’s toolkit that will help me optimise my training even more.
2. VO2Max Potential
VO2Max, otherwise known as ‘aerobic potential’, is an indicator of how well your body uses oxygen during exercise. In short, the higher your VO2Max, the better you will perform when put to the test.
All of us have a predetermined VO2Max rate, however to get to the true potential we have to expose ourselves to gradual resistance. Both cross-training and endurance is essential to boost it. For example it doesn’t matter if your genetic makeup makes you out to be an Olympic athlete – if you’ve never ran a mile in your life, your VO2Max will be low and you’ll gas out very soon after taking off.
Back to my results:
Well I be damned…
The genes PPARGC1A, CRP and ADRB2 (multi variations) are all linked to sustainable oxygen usage. If exposed to relevant stress, they spur on intermediate and better than average VO2MAX. What is even better is that a mixture of power and endurance training can increase this marker even more, even if my genetic profile is leaning more toward the endurance side.
Overall this was a terrific surprise and made me question the numbers. I never tested my Vo2Max before and I’ve now decided it’ll be the next test I take. But for now, let’s get back to the other findings.
3. Post-Exercise Recovery Speed And Nutritional Needs Based On Results
You probably notice how some people recover faster than the others. Why? Genetics. Without oversimplifying it, though, certain genes have been proven to be responsible for how fast one’s body can recover from hard training.
My results were average:
GSTM1, GSTT1, SOD2, IL6 are the genes linked to the nutritional support required for optimum recovery. These genes allow for natural free-radical removal, though consuming more of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants can boost their effectiveness.
These are very generic suggestions. However, what matters here are not numbers, it’s the type of nutrient/supplement required. All the nutrients listed are anti-oxidative and have been proven to increase recovery. Even if your genetic profile doesn’t match mine, these should be on your list to consume if you regularly exert heavy efforts.
One more supplement I would add to this list (which I also consume, as noted previously in top supplements everyone should have on their office desk article) is turmeric. This is nature’s magical spice powder: it’s highly anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory.
Finally, the gene TNF listed towards the end of my results above is one I wish I would have. This gene is responsible for optimising your likelihood of recovery if your body is exposed to constant physical stress. This means you will recover sooner if you exercise regularly – a dream for each and every athlete.
4. Sports injury resilience
I guess mother nature giveth, nature taketh away… The results here indicate a high risk of injuries. That’s nothing too surprising as we’re all injury-prone.
What’s interesting is that the height of certain risks is based on genotype:
- COL5A1 – TT: Associated with increased tendinopathy risk (tendon injury)
- COL1A1 – GG: prone to ligament injury
- GDF – CT: Intermediate tendinopathy risk
As you can see these are… scary. To be honest, these are actually the pain points and weak links every single human being is exposed to. What is uncanny is that every injury I had is linked to either a tendon or ligament tear.
What made me raise my eyebrows most was the Tendinopathy and the COL5A1, GDF – CT genes, which run in families. It is not entirely clear what specific effect the gene has on tendon injury risk but it has been implicated with it in a variety of studies.
Tendinopathy is characterised by an irregular healing response with no signs of inflammation. The latter point is very important. You see most of injuries, tears and stress responses can be reduced with anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, however tendon injuries are not among them.
If you would want to optimise your running career, this is sadly a few of the genes one would want to pass on. Nevertheless, focussing on building a robust all-rounded body has allowed me to excel in spite of injuring some of those areas in the past (knock on wood).
5. Full genotype report and breakdown
For the nerdy folk out there, here’s the full table of results. As you can see, it’s easy to interpret and draw conclusions from most of what’s listed:
Again, the majority of my sports-related genes are linked to endurance performance.
6. How I Compare Against A British Olympic Athlete (100m/400m Sprinters)
By now you know that my genetic constitution is endurance based (over 83% compared to just 17% for power). So how does that compare with an elite athlete competing at the Olympics?
Presumably this should be like night and day, however not everything is as straightforward as the scales tell us:
My Power/Endurance Response Results:
100m Olympian Results:
400m Olympian Restuls:
As you can see 100m sprint benchmark outweighs the 400m athlete scale in endurance genotype response. However it is obviously concentrated on power output: the short powerful burst for 100m, compared to the slightly prolonged dash of 400m.
Both of these show what makes a fast, sprinting athlete who has the genetic potential to cultivate fast twitch muscle – the type you need to produce swift yet limited amount of force.
Meanwhile my genetic profile is based on prolonged, slower, yet still powerful output – it just means I should be focusing on running longer distances (presumably 1K+).
7. Fat, Carbohydrate sensitivity. As well as lactose intolerance and antioxidant markers
Lastly, there were a few interesting findings from a nutritional standpoint:
- Low sensitivity to carbohydrates
- Medium-low sensitivity to saturated fat
- High Lactose intolerance
- Raised Salt sensitivity
None of these were entirely new to me. It confirmed previously made assumptions. However, what actually seemed outstanding were these markers with raised needs for:
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin D
All of these are common deficiencies in European ancestral pools. The good news is they can be overcome easily by increasing your consumption of fish, the already mentioned antioxidants, and by increasing your exposure to natural sunlight.
Conclusion – Should You Test Your DNA?
I hope you found this interesting, I surely did. Mainly because it’s good to know what you’re made of. This empowers you to improve your sports and mental performance, change your lifestyle and even get rid of problems that have held you back before. The best bit is that you can do the test at home, send it out and get your results digitally with minimum wait.
However, DNA tests are unfortunately not cheap. Therefore I’d only recommend to test yourself if you are feeling stuck and need to improve your training to progress. I was conflicted between different sports and types of effort, not knowing what to focus on. I had a hard time choosing between shorter and longer obstacle course races but I know exactly which ones to go for. If you’re in a similar place, then yes, you should absolutely get your DNA tested.
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