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Published on: 26-Dec-2022

What does it take to be a great athlete? The age-old phrase ‘hard work and perseverance always pays off’ may ring true for some, but the secret to athletic success also lies slightly deeper. Sports science is increasingly advancing its understanding of the power that DNA holds in relation to athletic performance.

DNA contains our entire genetic material in each human cell, consisting of around 3 billion DNA base pairs. DNA encodes the instructions for the development, function, and reproduction of an entire human being. It is known as the ‘blueprint of life’– in short, our DNA shapes the outcome of our lives and where we will find success. 

So, can DNA predict the future of an athletic career? Well, don’t throw away your running shoes just yet, because it is not as straightforward as a genetic code merely producing an exact and determined outcome. 

The Right Genes Plus the Right Training

Athletic success is the product of many combined influences. For example, there are favorable genes that can produce certain physical characteristics. And when combined with the right training and lifestyle, this can give the athlete an advantage over another. The gene ‘ACTN3’ is commonly referred to as ‘the gene for speed’. A number of scientific studies have looked into this performance phenotype and concluded that there is a clear correlation between the ACTN3 gene and the success of a long and short-distance runner. In the paper ACTN3: More than Just a Gene for Speed, Craig Pickering and John Kiely reviewed 19 studies and found that the gene had been reliably shown to impact speed-power and strength.

Genes and the Environment

Athletic success is also shaped by a combination of genetic, environmental and physiological factors. According to J. E Lindsay Carter, a professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at San Diego University, where you are born can greatly influence how likely you are to become a world champion. They conducted several studies of Olympic athletes in an attempt to understand the correlation between race and sporting success. Optimal performance in certain types of exercise partially depends on skeletal muscle characteristics. The study found that runners of East African descent could resist fatigue for longer than other nations, due to the altitude at which they train. East African runners could also squeeze around 10% more oxygen from tired, oxygen-deprived muscles compared with the same intake from Europeans. This means that East African athletes are well suited to long-distance running.

A separate study discovered that West Africans also had significantly more fast-twitch muscle fibers and anaerobic enzymes than white athletes from French Canada. These muscle fibers allow for intense bursts of power, which can be channeled into competition such as sprinting and other short-duration exercises. 

DNA and Specialized Training

Our DNA can also provide a wealth of information about what kind of training an athlete needs to be successful. For the 2014 World Cup, England’s football squad had their DNA analyzed to help develop specialized training programs. The research looked at 45 genes that determined players’ power, endurance and likelihood of injury. Dr Keith Grimaldi, who developed the test said: “The genes concerned determine muscle capacity and inflammation, blood flow and protein processes – all important in training, recovery and injury. This meant their coaches could protect players with more physio and massage to avoid common injuries such as hamstring and groin strains.

Great Britain Athlete, Jenny Meadows also examined their DNA to determine how to achieve peak athletic success. She observed her DNA in a number of areas: power, endurance, speed of recovery, susceptibility to injury and tolerance to various food types such as carbohydrates or saturated fats. Identifying these genes helped Jenny to create an optimized training program that strengthened areas of muscle weakness and designated the best diet to ensure her sporting success.

Genetic Testing Can be a Valuable Tool

So, whether you’re a budding athlete or a gym buff looking to understand how your DNA influences your sporting success, genetic testing can be an invaluable tool. The Dante Labs Whole Genome Test can reveal all you need to know about your fitness and health in order to create an optimized training plan. The results from your Whole Genome Sequencing Test will help to formulate a plan that optimizes your exercise regime and diet in a way that leverages your genetic strengths, whether that be through strength training, aerobic exercise or HIIT. Learn what your body requires in order to perform at its peak while avoiding injuries and improving recovery time. The reports – based on 100% of human DNA – provides information about: 

  • Training: Some people excel at certain sports and training program while others struggle to see results. Through an analysis of your genome, we can determine which exercises are most effective for you in order to reach your fitness goals faster.
  • Metabolism: This report assesses specific metabolic processes in order to optimize your diet for training, recovery and long-term muscle growth. Personal insights and recommendations are provided which will help to improve workout performance and overall fitness levels.
  • Diet: Based on metabolic rate, and nutrient levels, this report offers guidance on what to eat post-workout to encourage muscle growth and recovery, as well as recommendations regarding supplements for improved performance.
  • Injuries: Awareness of your susceptibility to specific injuries will enable you to factor this into your exercise plan, in order to maintain optimal health and performance. The report offers advice on stretching regimes specifically targeting areas of increased risk.
  • Allergies and intolerances: A food allergy triggers the immune system even when only traces of certain foods are detected. Food intolerances are less serious, only affecting the digestive system. People with an intolerance can often still consume small amounts of the offending food without concern.  
  • Personality & Sleep: Did you know your genome influences how much sleep you need and whether you’re a morning or night person? Or that genetic variations determine whether you’re an extrovert or introvert? This report will help you to understand what makes you the way you are.

Mattia Capulli is Dante Genomics Chief Scientific Officer. He’s also a Professor at University of L’Aquila. He received his PostDoc at Columbia University in NYC and has 15 years research experience in this field