HIF1A, Altitude and Aerobic Response

Thursday, April 21, 2016. Author Alex Auld

HIF1A and Elite Endurance Athletes

Marathon season is upon us. The London Marathon is only three days away, where 36,000 people will run past Buckingham Palace and up The Mall to cross the finish line.

Although the majority of those running will be amateurs looking to establish or beat their personal best, there will be a group of professional athletes leading the crowd, looking to secure first place.

Most elite long-distance runners undergo altitude training. At high altitude the atmospheric pressure is low and thus the partial oxygen pressure too, making it harder for the body to absorb oxygen. This triggers the body to adapt, making high altitude areas like Iten in Kenya (2,400m above sea level) a great location for endurance runners to train, and probably one of the reasons it has become a source of marathon winners and Olympic medallists.

So how do physiological responses to high altitude help endurance athletes? At levels of low oxygen, the body produces and uses several proteins to help it deal with the conditions. One of these proteins is Hypoxia Inducible Factor 1-alpha – more commonly referred to as HIF1A (hypo = low / oxia = oxygen).  

HIF1A helps improve how efficiently oxygen is delivered to cells by activating genes that affect the formation of red blood cells and blood vessels. At altitude, levels of HIF1A are increased. If the altitude training is timed efficiently, red blood cell levels will be still be higher than normal, which will boost race performance at sea level.

HIF1A and Genetics

The HIF1A protein is coded by the HIF1A gene. It’s likely that many of the elite marathon runners this Sunday will carry two copies of the C ‘increased VO2 max response and endurance’ allele.

A 2010 study comparing elite Caucasian endurance athletes to sedentary Caucasian individuals found the C allele to be more frequently found in the athlete group. Further studies have also shown the C allele to positively correlate with greater lung ventilation, and a greater change in VO2 in response to aerobic exercise. These are beneficial adaptations for endurance performance.

On the other hand, the T allele of the HIF1A gene has been associated with power athletes. In 2013, a study comparing 208 Russian strength athletes (122 weightlifters and 86 wrestlers) to 1413 non-athletes found the T allele to be significantly higher in the strength group.

In addition, the T allele has shown to have a negative impact on your VO2 max as you age. Studies have shown that whilst the CC genotype were able to preserve their ability to increase VO2 after the age of 60, this was not true for the TT variation.

Your HIF1A Result

So is your genotype capable of giving you this aerobic exercise performance advantage? Could you be leading the elite pack around London’s famous landmarks this Sunday? To discover your personal HIF1A result, along with 41 other genetic variations related to fitness, nutrition and performance, order your Genetic Workout System today.

Running this Sunday or in another marathon this year? If so drop us a tweet and let us know your time – and genotype! Did it give you that edge or make you work that bit harder? We’d love to know!

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