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Is Running Ability down to Effort or DNA? And Can it be Proved? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Athletes run during the Men’s Marathon event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (AFP)

London – Growing up, I was always the dumpy, unsporty one. Matt, my older brother, was the skinny one who did the running, jumping and anything requiring quickness and coordination. He seemed to excel with ease while I labored away on a sluggish course towards sub-mediocrity. This pattern lasted until our late teens when Matt, being older, beat me to booze. While he was away on a year-long, round-the-world bender, I took up running — with a vengeance. It was time to turn the tables.

By the time Matt got back, I’d joined the local running club and was training every day. It turned out that becoming a competent runner didn’t require special talent, just lots of miles – driven on by the sense I was outrunning my former, slouchy self. Matt, visibly shaken by my transformation, threw himself into training to catch up – stymied by his three-kilo beer belly.

We’ll skip the gory details – the dozens of races where I beat Matt with ease – and fast-forward to 2012. I had been training consistently for six years by now. Matt was swiftly catching up, but I still had a clear edge in any race of more than10 miles, so I decided to step up to the marathon. After putting in the hardest three months’ training of my life, I came away with a shiny new PB of 2hr 28 min 46 sec.

The point is not to revel in my glory. My time was decent club standard but hardly impressive against “proper” British marathoners, let alone African elites. The point is, it was amazing for me, given my widely presumed lack of ability. If only I had realized sooner that I had the potential …

Imagine someone had tested my genes as a podgy kid and told me: don’t worry, you’re an athlete inside, it’s only your Sherbet Dip Dab habit holding you back. What wonderful reassurance and motivation that would have been. But wait. What if they had looked at my results and said: sorry, it’s not through lack of effort that you are sub-mediocre – it’s down to your DNA. What then?

I was intrigued to find companies offering to do just that – test my DNA to determine my sporting potential. Could it really work? I decided to find out.

I got in touch with DNAFit, the leading provider, and asked if they would blind-test my DNA plus a few other samples. To my surprise, they said yes. A call to some friends with connections in elite sport secured a sample from a multi-Olympian and world champion runner (on condition I wouldn’t reveal his identity) — let’s call him Mr. Swift — and another from pro cyclist James McLaughlin. If their results tallied with their achievements, I figured, DNA testing would be worth taking notice of.

A few weeks later the results were in. Swift’s read as follows: “Aerobic potential: medium”, which qualified as “an intermediate VO2max tendency”. Yet according to his physiologist, Swift’s VO2max is “above 77” – quite definitely not an intermediate score. Furthermore, the report deems his power/endurance profile as favoring power over endurance by a ratio of 70/30. Swift is one of the greatest endurance runners in the history of the sport. His injury risk, marked “medium”, is also at odds with the actual evidence. “He has had many, many injuries,” his physiologist confides. “I’d say his injury risk is untypically high.”

McLaughlin’s results are similarly at odds with his track record: his aerobic potential is rated “medium”, with a slight tendency towards power over endurance. “It doesn’t ring true at all,” McLaughlin tells me. “My VO2max is very high, nearly 82, and I’m a pure endurance rider – I fare far better in long, sustained efforts than in sprints.”

My own results also suggest a predisposition towards power rather than endurance, 56/47. This flies in the face of my running experience: I am hopeless at shorter, power-based events; the longer the race, the better I do (relative to others). The biggest shock is my aerobic potential, rated “low”. OK, I’m no Mo Farah, but surely my aerobic capacity is at least middling, or how could I have run a sub-2hr 30min marathon?

I owe it to DNAFit to give them a chance to explain – after all, they have been generous in blind-testing samples, opening themselves up to journalistic scrutiny. The company’s head of sport science is the former Olympic sprinter Craig Pickering, to whom I reveal the disparities between our results and our sporting track records.

“You almost certainly can’t use genes to tell who will be a good athlete or not a good athlete,” he responds. “There is no talent identification use in this.”

Fair enough, but our world-class marathon runner was rated as having “medium” aerobic potential.

“That’s a great example of how you can’t use genetics to tell you what sport you’ll be good at.”

OK, fine, so what can genetic testing tell us?

“What the tests and reports do is give you information on which to base your training, to have a better informed program.”

Citing one DNAFit-supported study on a small group of athletes, Pickering says that the results provide enough information to guide training, either towards power (short, sharp) or endurance (longer, slower) sessions. This insight, he says, relates to genetically determined trainability – rate of fitness gain – rather than aptitude. Yet this wasn’t the impression I had been given by the reports, covered as they are with the word “potential”.

I stress my concern to Pickering that, had I received my apparently bleak results as a newcomer to running, my athletic ambitions might have been crushed. But he thinks I am missing the subtleties. “Because you have a low aerobic potential … we have options, we can fine-tune and target other areas like movement economy and efficiency.”

Low aerobic potential? We know that marathoners rely on their aerobic capacity, so surely this implies that my prospects were limited. “No, that isn’t what it means,” he replies. “I accept that ‘potential’ does imply that. The title should be changed. I often call it your aerobic trainability.”

By by this point, I have to admit, I am erring towards unconvinced. My skepticism deepens when I read the Athlome Project’s consensus statement on direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA tests:

“The information provided by DTC is virtually meaningless for prediction and/or optimization of sport performance. There is currently no evidence that existing genetic tests provide information that is useful regarding either predisposition for a particular sport, prediction of the training response likely to occur to a particular training program, or predisposition to exercise-related injury.”

Athlome’s founder, Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, is even more damning: “These results are pointless, throw them away. There are no grounds for any of it.”

According to Pitsiladis, although there is vast, exciting scope for genetics-guided training, the science has a very long way to go: “We’re beginning to understand that performance is determined by hundreds, possibly even thousands of interacting genes. Even once they are known, we may not be able to make predictions with clinical significance; we will need to take into account the environmental factors as well.”

Countering the criticism from Pitsiladis and his Athlome colleagues, Pickering alleges sour grapes: “They’re annoyed that we’ve done it before them and that’s why they’re causing these problems. Their main goal was to sell genetic tests to people, in my opinion. They are frustrated that we’re one or two years ahead of them.”

Pitsiladis doesn’t deny having commercial interests in genetic testing but insists he is involved only in areas with demonstrable utility, such as using genetics to create improved anti-doping tests. He draws a sharp distinction between genetically testing elite athletes to assess their shared traits and testing amateurs who are almost as diverse a group as the general population.

“Parents who’ve failed as athletes go buy this stuff, desperate for their kids to succeed … Selling direct to consumers is the problem.”

That is precisely my concern, too. Can’t Pickering appreciate that for people such as myself, starting out as the unsporty sibling with every reason to doubt my genetic potential, my gloomy test results could have snuffed out my marathon dreams before I had even tried a 5k run?

“I share your concern,” he replies. “It’s something that, as a company, we try to communicate. Our reports use the word potential, and that needs to change … We have to do a better job, and we’ll continue to try.”

Make no mistake, talent matters. Athletes such as McLaughlin and Swift are prodigiously genetically blessed. My older brother, too, is a natural. He overtook me and became a far superior athlete, as I always suspected he would. But being the best you can be isn’t about biology, it is art as much as science. Talent isn’t destiny decipherable from DNA; it waits to be realized through hard work, like a sculpture inside a boulder. So don’t let anyone put you off – get hammering.

The Guardian Sport