Have you ever wondered why some people naturally excel in sports, while others find it more challenging? Could this be attributed to their training, diet, determination, or something else?
A common belief is that our genetics largely influences our athletic abilities – the traits passed down to us by our parents.
But how accurate is this belief? And, if it is, what genes affect our sporting abilities?
In this article, we’ll delve into the concept of ‘athletic genes’, referring to any gene that might impact our sporting potential.
We’ll explore the history and current understanding of this idea, focusing on some of the most recognized athletic genes, such as ACTN3 and ACE.
The goal of this article is to provide a broad understanding of the athletic gene concept and its impact on sports performance. Instead, we will inform and educate you about the role of genetics in athleticism and invite you to think more deeply about this subject.
The Concept of the Athletic Gene
Before we get into the details, let’s clarify some key terms:
- Genetics: This is the study of heredity and variation in living organisms. It investigates how traits are transferred from parents to offspring and how these traits interact with environmental factors.
- Athletic performance: This refers to the ability to execute physical tasks requiring endurance, strength, speed, power, agility, or coordination. Athletic performance can be gauged using various parameters like speed, distance, time, precision, or points scored.
- Genes: These are fundamental heredity units that carry instructions for protein creation. Proteins are the life-building blocks that execute various functions in our bodies. Genes can differ among individuals, resulting in distinct traits or characteristics.
The concept of athletic genetics suggests that some individuals may inherit athletic genes, conferring a genetic advantage that can shape their potential for sports excellence.
This idea doesn’t dismiss the impact of training, nutrition, or motivation but identifies genetics as an influential aspect in sports performance.
Among the athletic genes identified, ACTN3 and ACE stand out. ACTN3 is associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are beneficial for activities demanding speed and power.
The ACE gene, on the other hand, encodes a protein that can affect blood pressure and skeletal muscle function.
These factors significantly influence an athlete’s performance in endurance-based sports.
Is athleticism genetic? Genetic factors can contribute to about 30-80% of athleticism differences.
Still, the interplay of genetic and environmental factors ultimately shapes an individual’s athletic potential.
How your genes can shape your sports ability
Being good at sports is a complicated thing that’s shaped by both your genes and your environment.
Many physical features help determine if someone’s athletic, like muscle strength, stamina, lung capacity, and how well they respond to training.
These features are partly set by the DNA (genes) we get from our parents, which tell our bodies how to make proteins that play a part in various bodily processes.
Some proteins that impact sports ability are found in skeletal muscles, which are the muscles we use to move.
These muscles are made up of two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch fibers and fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers contract slowly but can keep going for a long time without getting tired.
These fibers are good for long-term activities like long-distance running. Fast-twitch fibers contract quickly but tire out quickly. These fibers are useful for short bursts of power or strength, like sprinting.
Other proteins that shape sports ability play a part in controlling blood pressure, delivering oxygen, growing muscles, controlling inflammation, and managing energy.
These proteins can change how well our bodies handle physical stress, how efficiently we use oxygen and nutrients, how quickly we heal from injuries, and how long we can resist tiredness.
Studies have shown that genetic factors account for 30 to 80 percent of the differences between people’s athletic abilities.
However, this doesn’t mean that only genetics decide who will become a top-level athlete. Environmental factors like training, diet, coaching, motivation, and psychological factors also have a big part to play in shaping someone’s athletic potential and performance.
What are some of the genes linked to sports ability?
Many studies have looked at specific genes that might play a part in sports ability, comparing athletes to non-athletes or athletes from different sports.
Some of the best-studied athletic genes are ACTN3 and ACE.
The ACTN3 gene tells our bodies how to make a protein called alpha-actinin-3, mainly found in fast-twitch muscle fibers.
A change in this gene, called R577X, makes an abnormally short alpha-actinin-3 protein that breaks down quickly.
Some people have this change in both copies of the gene; this genetic pattern (genotype) is known as 577XX. These individuals completely lack alpha-actinin-3, which seems to lower the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers and increase the amount of slow-twitch fibers in the body.
Some studies have found that the 577XX genotype is more common in top-performing endurance athletes (like cyclists and long-distance runners) than in the general population, while other studies haven’t found this.
The 577RR genotype is linked with a high amount of fast-twitch fibers and is seen more commonly in athletes who rely on strength or speed, such as short-distance runners.
The ACE gene tells our bodies how to make a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme, which changes a hormone called angiotensin I to another form called angiotensin II.
Angiotensin II helps control blood pressure and may also influence skeletal muscle function, although this role isn’t fully understood¹.
A change in this gene, known as I/D (insertion/deletion), involves either the presence or absence of a small piece of DNA within the gene.
Some people have two copies of the insertion variant (II genotype), some have two copies of the deletion variant (DD genotype), and some have one of each (ID genotype).
The DD genotype is linked with higher levels of angiotensin-converting enzyme and angiotensin II in the blood.
Some studies have suggested that the DD genotype is more common in power-oriented athletes (like sprinters and weightlifters) than endurance-oriented athletes (like marathon runners and rowers), while other studies have found no link or even the opposite trend.
The II genotype has been linked to lower blood pressure and better endurance capacity.
Other athletic genes that have been linked to sports ability include:
- MSTN (myostatin), which controls muscle growth
- EPO (erythropoietin), which boosts red blood cell production
- VDR (vitamin D receptor), which affects bone health; NOS3 (nitric oxide synthase 3), which controls blood flow
- VEGFA (vascular endothelial growth factor A), which encourages blood vessel formation
- CRP (C-reactive protein), which plays a part in inflammation
- AGT (angiotensinogen), which is a precursor of angiotensin II; IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which encourages cell growth and differentiation
- PPAR (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor), which manages fat metabolism
- AMPD1 (adenosine monophosphate deaminase 1), which is involved in energy production.
What are the limits of genetics in determining sports ability?
While athleticism genetics play a role in sports performance, the relationship isn’t simple.
Sports prowess involves numerous genes and environmental factors like training and diet. Predicting success based solely on athletic genes is challenging as the interactions between these elements are complex and unpredictable.
Studies linking athletic genes to sports ability can often yield inconsistent results, affected by different methodologies, sample sizes, and correlations rather than causations.
Moreover, genetic variations linked to athletic performance are found in non-athletes, too, indicating that the presence of a specific variant doesn’t guarantee sports success or failure.
These genetic changes can have varied effects based on the individual and the context.
For instance, a gene boosting endurance might aid a long-distance runner but hinder a sprinter. The impact of a genetic variant can also change with factors like age, sex, diet, training regimen, and environmental conditions.
Lastly, certain genetic advantages may have undesirable trade-offs. For example, a gene increasing red blood cell production could raise the risk of blood clots.
So, genetics influences athletic performance, but it’s not the sole or the most important factor in determining sports success.
Case Studies of Elite Athletes
Elite athletes stand out not just because of their physical abilities, but also because of their genes.
Research has found that certain genetic variations are linked to improved performance in different sports, such as endurance, power, speed, and resistance to injuries.
real-world examples of athletes whose performances have been influenced by these genetic variations.
For example, Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta had a genetic mutation in the EPOR gene causing an unusually high red blood cell count. This “athletic gene” gave him an exceptional ability to transport oxygen, providing him with a significant advantage in endurance sports.
Similarly, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, often considered the fastest man alive, may carry a variant of the ACTN3 gene. This gene is commonly found in successful sprinters and is associated with the production of fast-twitch muscle fibers, contributing to Bolt’s explosive speed.
Another example is basketball player Yao Ming. His exceptional height, a crucial advantage in basketball, is thought to be due to variations in genes responsible for growth.
These genetic variations can affect various aspects of athletic performance, such as how the liver processes drugs and toxins, iron regulation and energy efficiency, heart and lung function, and muscle performance.
For instance, the gene CYP2D6 affects liver metabolism and beta-blockers’ breakdown, which are used to control blood pressure and heart rate. Athletes’ genetic makeup can influence their metabolism of such drugs, impacting their performance.
Another gene, HFE, affects iron metabolism and energy efficiency. Variations in this gene can influence iron deficiency or overload, impacting oxygen transport and energy production, crucial for athletes’ endurance.
Cardiorespiratory fitness, impacting heart and lung function, is also influenced by genetic variations. The gene ACE regulates blood pressure and fluid balance, and variations in ACE can affect athletes’ endurance or power performance.
Finally, muscle function, crucial in sports, is influenced by the ACTN3 gene, affecting muscle fiber types, strength, and fatigue resistance. Athletes with specific ACTN3 variations can have different proportions of fast-twitch muscle fibers, impacting their speed or power performance.
These genetic attributes provide athletes with genetic advantages or disadvantages, influencing their performance, training, recovery strategies, and even drug and supplement usage.
Thus, athletic genetics contributes significantly to athletes’ success in sports, adding a layer of complexity to talent identification and performance prediction.
Limitations of extrapolating these case studies to the general population
While these case studies offer insights into the genetic profiles and exceptional genetic attributes of elite athletes, their applicability to the general population is limited. Some of the limitations include:
- Small sample size: Most studies on genetic profiles of elite athletes have used small and diverse samples, which may limit their statistical power and generalizability. For instance, studies may include athletes from different sports, levels, ethnicities, or genders, introducing confounding factors.
- Single observation: Many studies on genetic profiles of elite athletes have relied on a single performance measurement or phenotype, which may not capture the dynamic and multifactorial nature of athletic performance. Performance measured at a single event may not represent an athlete’s long-term development or performance variability.
- Complex interactions: Studies on genetic profiles of elite athletes often focus on single or a few genetic variants, neglecting the complex interactions between multiple genes and environmental factors that influence athletic performance. Factors like training, nutrition, psychology, and others can play a significant role alongside genetic factors.
Therefore, it is essential to be cautious and critical when interpreting and applying the results of these case studies to the general population.
While genetics may contribute to athletic performance, it is not the sole or most crucial factor. Athletic performance is a complex phenomenon influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that interact individually and dynamically.
The Role of Environment: Practice, Surroundings, and Determination
Being good at sports isn’t just about your athletic genes. It’s also about things like training, diet, mental toughness, and your environment.
Training is vital for athletes. It’s about stressing your body in a calculated way to make it stronger.
Different sports require different training types, like endurance training for runners and high-intensity training for weightlifters.
It should be personalized based on your goals and response to exercise.
Diet is also crucial. It provides energy and nutrients. Important nutrients include carbohydrates for fuel, proteins for muscle repair, and fats for long-term energy. Athletes also need vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and plenty of water.
The diet should match the sport, training phase, and personal tastes.
Mental toughness helps athletes handle stress and perform under pressure. It involves setting goals, staying motivated, focusing, and dealing with problems.
Techniques like visualization, self-talk, and mindfulness can improve mental toughness.
Lastly, the environment affects athletic performance. Factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, and crowd support can influence your body and mind during exercise.
For example, high temperatures and humidity can affect body temperature and hydration, while high altitude can affect oxygen availability.
Looking at scientific studies that show how these things can influence athletic performance.
There’s a lot of evidence from scientific studies that show how things not about athletic genetics can influence how well you do in sports. Here are some examples:
- A big review of 64 studies found that endurance training improved VO2max (a measure of aerobic capacity) by 17% on average across different populations.
- A review of 49 studies found that protein supplementation helped build more muscle mass and strength in response to resistance training.
- A big review of 32 studies found that psychological interventions improved sport performance by 0.62 standard deviations on average across different sports and skill levels.
- A review of 21 studies found that acclimating to heat improved heat regulation, cardiovascular function, fluid balance, and performance in hot environments.
- A big review of 21 studies found that altitude training improved sea-level performance by 1.1% on average across different sports and altitudes.
How Genetic Testing is Shaping the World of Sports
Genetic testing is a process where DNA samples are examined to spot differences in genes that could influence certain qualities or characteristics.
When it comes to sports, genetic testing has a few key applications:
- Spotting potential talent: This process helps identify athletes who may have a greater potential in certain sports or activities based on their genetic makeup, hence the term “athletic genetics.”
- Helping talent growth: Based on athlete genetics, custom-made training programs, diet plans, or injury prevention strategies can be designed.
- Boosting performance: By understanding the athletic genes, it’s possible to improve an athlete’s performance by playing to their genetic advantages or compensating for their genetic weaknesses.
There’s limited documentation on the use of genetic testing in sports. Some studies suggest that it’s being used by sports clubs, governing bodies, and even commercial companies in various countries.
However, details about how often it’s done, how reliable the tests are, and how the results are interpreted remain unknown.
Pros and Cons of Genetic Testing in Sports
Genetic testing in sports offers several potential benefits:
- Better selection and growth of athletes: By identifying athletes with genetic advantages who are more likely to succeed in a specific sport and providing them with personalized guidance.
- Improving athletes’ health and well-being: Genetic testing helps in preventing or reducing injuries, illnesses, or harmful effects related to training or competition. It also promotes optimal recovery and adjustment.
- Promoting scientific knowledge and innovation: Understanding the role of genetics in sports could lead to new research and applications in the field.
Despite these benefits, there are several challenges and limitations:
- Unclear scientific evidence: There’s still much debate and uncertainty about how specific genes or gene variants affect athleticism genetics and how they interact with other genes and environmental factors. There’s no consensus on how to use and interpret this genetic information in sports.
- Ethical, legal, and social implications: Genetic testing in sports raises numerous ethical concerns such as privacy, fairness, discrimination, and consent, among others. Careful regulation is needed to protect the rights of athletes and other stakeholders.
- Psychological impact: Genetic testing can lead to psychological and behavioral changes like motivation shifts, anxiety, or self-esteem issues, depending on how the genetic information is communicated and interpreted.
How Genetic Testing Might Change the Future of Sports
The use of genetic testing in sports is set to rise, impacting athletes, coaches, and the sports industry in significant ways:
- Changing sports culture: Genetic testing could change how we view and practice sports, potentially emphasizing genetic differences over environmental ones or creating new categories based on genetic disparities.
- Creating new opportunities and challenges: Identifying and nurturing talent more effectively through genetic testing could expand the pool of potential athletes, but it could also bring up issues about equal opportunity for all athletes, regardless of their genetics.
- Demanding new skills for sports professionals: Genetic testing might require sports professionals to learn new skills such as scientific literacy, ethical awareness, and counseling skills.
Final Thoughts on the Role of Genetics in Athletic Performance: A Determining Factor, a Contributor, or Just One Piece of the Puzzle?
We learned that genetic factors can influence aspects of athletic performance, but they’re not the only deciding factor – they interact with environmental factors and other genes.
Genetic testing can offer some benefits for sports, like better athlete selection and improved health, but it also presents challenges like lack of scientific consensus, ethical issues, and psychological effects.
From what we know so far, genetics is more of a contributor to athletic performance rather than a determinant. It is a part of the puzzle that makes up a successful athlete, but not the most critical one.
Therefore, genetic testing should be used as an additional tool- not the only one – for predicting or enhancing sports performance.
What are Athletic Genes?
Athletic genes are specific genetic variations that might impact athletic abilities, such as strength, endurance, and coordination.
Key athletic genes like ACTN3 and ACE influence skeletal muscle functions.
How do you know if you have athletic genes?
Genetic testing can examine your DNA for variants in known athletic genes like ACTN3 and ACE. These insights might provide a glimpse into your potential for physical activities, but they can’t guarantee your actual performance.
Do athletic genes come from mom or dad?
Both parents contribute to the inheritance of athletic genes. Your individual genotype, determined by the combination of gene copies from each parent, might influence your physical traits. The variant for better performance can come from either parent.
Can you get athletic genes?
Acquiring athletic genes through lifestyle or training modifications isn’t possible, as your genetic make-up is determined at conception. But your gene expression can be influenced by environmental and behavioral changes. Practices like regular exercise and a balanced diet can impact your muscle structure and body composition, thus affecting your athletic abilities.
Are athletes born with special genes?
Athletes don’t necessarily possess unique genes making them superior in sports. Athletic performance is complex, involving multiple genes and environmental influences. Even if some athletes have advantageous genetic variations, success also requires hard work, proper nutrition, and self-discipline. Conversely, people lacking favorable genetic variations can still excel in sports through other compensatory factors.
Dr. Sumeet is a seasoned geneticist turned wellness educator and successful financial blogger. GenesWellness.com, leverages his rich academic background and passion for sharing knowledge online to demystify the role of genetics in wellness. His work is globally published and he is quoted on top health platforms like Medical News Today, Healthline, MDLinx, Verywell Mind, NCOA, and more. Using his unique mix of genetics expertise and digital fluency, Dr. Sumeet inspires readers toward healthier, more informed lifestyles.